Ever tried to ask Siri the most basic of questions, only to have it complain that it doesn’t understand? SRI International, the lab that gave birth to Apple’s personal assistant, may have the answer. The team has developed a customer service system, known as SenSay Analytics, that can detect when a user is angry or confused.

“[Humans] change our behavior in reaction to how whoever we are talking to is feeling or what we think they’re thinking,” William Mark, who leads SRI International’s information and computing sciences division, told MIT Technology Review. “We want systems to be able to do the same thing.”

Take for example a voice-activated pharmaceutical assistant. If a caller slows down their speech in response to questions, it could indicate they are unsure about what’s being asked. That would mean the assistant changing its approach, maybe by explaining what they mean. It’s something that comes naturally to human customer assistants, but for A.I., it may not be so easy to understand.

The system supports a number of cues, and is able to work over the phone, in person, or via text. Even hints like the direction of gaze will be picked up by SenSay as a clue into how the customer is feeling.

It’s a big breakthrough for SRI International, which has focused on other projects after spinning off Siri into a separate entity called Siri Inc. back in 2007. After Apple bought Siri Inc. back in 2010, adding its product as a built-in feature to the iPhone 4S, its creators and SRI International moved onto other A.I. projects.

Siri in action on the iPhone 4S.
Siri in action on the iPhone 4S.

In May, Siri creators Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer took the wraps off Viv, an advanced assistant that could better understand followup questions and give more intelligent answers. SRI International, meanwhile, has spun off another A.I. company, a banking chatbot called Kasisto.

Photos via Getty Images / Oli Scarff