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Photo of Cassell Justine CassellHotline Home

Justine Cassell is an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab where she directs the Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group. She holds a master's degree in Literature from the UniversitÚ de Besanšon (France), a master's degree in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), and a dual Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (U.S.) in Psychology and in Linguistics.

Cassell builds systems that look like humans and that have some of the same kinds of social and communicative competencies that we do. Anthropomorphic systems such as these can lower the bar to computer use, allowing access to computers to those who can't type or read, for example. Increasingly Cassell is turning her attention to the role that technologies such as these may play in children's lives.

Interactive technologies such as a virtual storytelling peer have the potential to encourage children in creative, empowered and independent learning. They can also demonstrate ways for interactive technology to live away from the desktop, supporting children's full-bodied, collaborative, social play-based learning. Justine Cassell is co-editor of "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games" (MIT Press, 1998), and of "Embodied Conversational Agents" (MIT Press, 2000), and she has published extensively in journals as diverse as Poetics Today, Pragmatics and Cognition and Computer Graphics.


This scientist's answers are available below.Please see our resources page for the scientists home page and other related infomation.

Cassell Responds:

Pat Thomas asks:
I was interested in your part of the show. If the characters can be used to elicit a child's response, can this mechanism be used to help to change a person's behavior? I am a health educator and I am interested in VR in my field. How can I get more information? Thanks for any help you can give me.

Cassell's response:
Dear Pat, We do believe that these characters may also have their uses in behaviour change. One of my graduate students is currently writing his Ph.D. on exactly this question, in fact. We know that simple interaction with a health advisor can help adherence to behavioural change programs. And so, he has designed a health advisor character that can try to help people start on, and continue with, an exercise program. The study that he is running looks at whether it is more effective to have a character, or text only, and in each of those conditions, whether social talk helps the interaction. You can look at his work on our Web page, under the rubric: "social language".

digital jon asks:
Have you considered the possibility of using archives from various chat rooms to build a database of social interaction, to teach your systems what is acceptable and what is rejected in conversation?

Cassell's response:
We ourselves have not used archives from chat rooms, but some designers of 'bot systems (virtual characters that "live" in chat rooms) have indeed followed that strategy. In fact, in our domain, learning algorithms (that is, using databases of previous interaction to "teach" the agent) are quite difficult to implement, because there are so so many different aspects to the interaction that the character must learn: body language, prosody, content of language . . .

Tiffany Honeycutt asks:
I am hearing impaired. I read body language and lips extremely well to compensate for what I cannot clearly hear. (My dad says I can "hear" as long as I don't actually need to hear.) I hate watching cartoons because I cannot read their unrealistic lip movement or their body language. What do you plan to do with your program for people like me who do not know sign language but need the added real world stimulus of lip movement to be clear on what is being said? At this point, your program is just another cartoon character to me that I cannot hear or clearly understand.

Cassell's response:
We ourselves have not carried out work on accurate reproduction of visemes (that is, the different shapes of the lips that correspond to the phonemes of sound), but wonderful work on this topic does exist. For example, Dominic Massaro and his research group have built very accurate talking heads to convey spoken language more clearly to the hearing impaired, and to help hearing impaired children learn to read lips.

Susan Gavin-Leone asks:
Hi Justine, I was wondering if you had ever considered using Sam as a program to help children who have difficulty with social interactions? My son is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Some of his difficulty is in understanding the rules of social interactions. It appears to me that Sam might be a very useful tool to help children develop that sense. Have you ever thought of using the Sam program in that capacity? Thanks.

Cassell's response:
Your question is one that has interested me for a long time, but that has not been addressed by the research community, to my knowledge. I've heard that autistic children respond better to representations of humans that are computer-generated than to real humans, which would lead us to think that virtual children of this sort would make good playmates, and potentially peer instructors, both of social skills and other kinds of skills. I'd love to have my work used for this purpose, but I don't have the training to carry out the work myself with autistic children. I hope to see this kind of work carried out in the future.

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