Ada Lovelace Day post: Justine Cassell

For my Ada Lovelace Day post, I wanted to focus on someone who is doing interesting and interdisciplinary work in computer science, and whose work has interesting and important applications. Justine Cassell, Director of the Center for Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern University, is just such a person.

I first heard about Dr. Cassell's work in this article:

Using "virtual peers" -- animated life-sized children that simulate the behaviors and conversation of typically developing children -- Northwestern University researchers are developing interventions designed to prepare children with autism for interactions with real-life children.
Cassell and researcher Andrea Tartaro collected data from six children with high-functioning autism aged 7 to 11 as they engaged in play during an hour-long session with a real-life child, and with a virtual peer named Sam.

In an analysis of those interactions, they found that children with autism produced more and more "contingent" sentences when they spoke with the virtual peer, while their sentences did not become increasingly contingent when they were paired with the real-life children.

"Certainly we're not saying that virtual peers make the best playmates for children with autism," said Tartaro. "The overall goal is for the children with autism to generalize the skills they learn in practice sessions with virtual peers to meaningful interactions with real-world children."

Nor are Northwestern researchers saying they can teach "contingency" -- appropriate back and forth conversation -- in a single session. But their findings hold promise that virtual peers can be useful in helping children with autism develop communication and social skills.

Teaching appropriate social interactions can be difficult even for milder cases of autism/autism spectrum disorder. Here, virtual peers hold a distinct advantage over other mechanisms:

For starters, children with autism often like technology. "It interacts to us," said one child with autism upon first meeting a virtual peer.

What's more, said Cassell, virtual peers don't get tired or impatient. "We can program their conversation to elicit socially-skilled behavior, and we can vary the way that they look and behave so children with autism are exposed to different kinds of behavior."

The work with autistic children is just one facet of Dr. Cassell's work:

Our research includes the interaction between humans and virtual peers we call Embodied Conversational Agents (ECA), as well as how humans interact with each other through computer-mediated contexts on the Internet and in online communities. We are also interested in how gender and ethnicity mediate technology use, including issues of power and empowerment. Finally, we are interested in how technology can be used for positive educational and developmental initiatives, such as improving literacy skills for children who do not grow up speaking Standard American English, or social skills for children with Autism.

What I think is so awesomely cool about this work is how many areas it touches: Medicine. Psychology. New media. Computer science. Linguistics. Educational studies. Heck, even gaming, if you consider avatars to be a byproduct of the gaming world. Seriously, go look at the backgrounds of the people in the ArticuLab. It's way impressive. Geeks and social scientists and new media types, all working together to help further our understanding of how communication happens.

I think it's also pretty damn cool how Dr. Cassell got her start:

She holds a master's degree in Literature from the Université de Besançon (France), a master's degree in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), and a double Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, in Psychology and in Linguistics.

Cassell's research interests originated in the study of human-human conversation and storytelling. Progressively she became interested in allowing computational systems to participate in these activities. This new technological focus led her to deconstruct the linguistic elements of conversation and storytelling in such a way as to embody machines with conversational, social and narrative intelligence so that they could interact with humans in human-like ways. Increasingly, however, her research has come to address the impact and benefits of technologies such as these on learning and communication.

And if there's any doubt left as to just how awesome Dr. Cassell is:

Cassell's interest in the use of technology to empower and give voice led her, in 1998, to direct the Junior Summit. This international project brought together 3000 children from 139 countries in a 6 month on-line forum that allowed children to communicate with each other across languages on topics of international concern. The forum culminated in a 6-day program at MIT where 100 of the children met with world leaders. The technology and design of the program focused on bringing voices to the table that are not often heard, to help children reach beyond clichés to the areas in which they can make the most valuable contributions, and potentially increase their role on the world stage afterwards. Cassell has continued to follow these young people, and has published on the children's interaction during the Junior Summit, and the effects of the Summit on their later development. Her work is demonstrating that these young people were launching a new kind of leadership style where strength was found through engagement with the community.

This is why I chose to highlight Dr. Cassell for my Ada Lovelace Day post: she's a woman of vision, a computer scientist with a diverse background who came to CS via other fields, a true multidisciplinarian, and a woman who's committed to making the world a better place, through her work and her outreach efforts. When I think "computer scientist", my ideal picture looks a lot like her---and I think CS, as a field, would do a lot better if our collective ideal looked a lot like her as well.

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Thank you for this post! I also admire Justine Cassell, and I think her rich background is fascinating. She's truly someone who can do a lot of good in the world.