Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
scientists from previous shows
cool careers in science
ask the scientists

Photo of Prof. Cassell JUSTINE CASSELL

Justine Cassell is a professor in the Learning and Common Sense section, and directs the Gesture and Narrative Language Group, at the MIT Media Laboratory. In her research, she studies the interactions among linguistic competence, knowledge representation, and the social context. In particular, she is researching how artifacts (such as agents and toys) can be designed with psychosocial competencies, based on a deep understanding of human linguistic, cognitive, and social ability.

Here are brief descriptions from Cassell about her research projects:

Animated Conversation.

Because non-verbal signs are integral parts of the communicative process, we are designing a system that integrates gesture, intonation, and facial expression into multi-modal human figure animation. In this project, appropriate speech, intonation, facial expression and gesture are generated by rule from a semantic representation that originates in a goal-directed conversational planner. The output of the dialogue generation is used to drive a graphical animation of a conversation between two simulated autonomous agents. The two animated agents interact with one another, producing speech with appropriate intonational contours, hand gestures, and facial movements such as head turns and nods. This work was begun when I was visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation.

Future directions for this work include adding a vision component so that the two agents may perceive each other's movements, enlarging the kinds of discourse that can be handled to include storytelling, and adapting the system to handle human computer interaction.

Two papers that have come out of this work are:
  • "ANIMATED CONVERSATION: Rule-based Generation of Facial Expression, Gesture and Spoken Intonation for Multiple Conversational Agents," J. Cassell, C. Pelachaud, N.I. Badler, M. Steedman, B. Achorn, T. Becket, B. Douville, S. Prevost, M. Stone, Siggraph'94, Orlando, USA, 1994.
  • "Modeling the Interaction between Speech and Gesture," J. Cassell, M. Steedman, N.I. Badler, C. Pelachaud, M. Stone, B. Douville, S. Prevost, B. Achorn, Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA, 1994.
Language, Technology, and Gender Stereotypes

Knowledge of and attitudes towards the gender stereotypes of a given culture are acquired early. Children can match objects (e.g., brooms and hammers) to their more typical users (boys or girls) by age 3; by age 2 they are already making sex-typed toy choices. In middle childhood, such knowledge of and attitudes about gender stereotypes increasingly influence performance on other tasks (although awareness of exceptions to stereotypes, or flexibility in stereotyping, also increases with age): children better remember, attend to, interpret and predict information that is consistent with the gender roles of their society. I've been thinking about the interaction between gender and technology: why are fewer women interested in computers than men? Why are so many technological toys geared towards boys (video games, etc.).

I believe that we can take advantage of children's play styles to encourage them to try new kinds of toys and new kinds of technologies. In particular, we can use the affinity of girls for storytelling and exploration of social relationships to draw them into new technology, and we can use the affinity of boys for new technology to draw them into storytelling and exploration of social relationships.

In light of these issues, we have designed a web-based storytelling system called Renga, the Cyberstory. Renga's debut corresponded to 10/10 -- the celebration of the Media Lab's 10th anniversary.

This research on gender and technology has led me to think about the kinds of toys we give our children, and how those toys participate in the development of children's beliefs about gender roles. In fact, the things around us should know as much about interpersonal interactions as we do, and be capable of interacting according to social norms and as a function of the dynamic on-going construction of identity (including gender identity) by users.

Gesture Coding

Long years of looking at videotapes of storytellers, and of transcribing and coding their gestures by hand, have led to an interest in "rich-perception" of gestures and speech and coding of gestural material by computer vision systems. Women in Academia

In the context of a National Science Foundation Visiting Professorship for Women at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1994-1995, I designed and coordinated a series of workshops on survival skills for women in academia. I coordinated a similar series of workshops, in collaboration with Megan Crowhurst, at the 1995 LSA Summer Institute in Linguistics, in Albuquerque New Mexico.

I am currently a member of COSWL -- the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics -- and the co-chair of a sub-committee to collect narratives of the lives of women linguists. The goal of this project is to get a sense of what constitutes a "normal" career path in Linguistics for women; the project is allied with COSWL's effort to collect questionnaire data on men and women in Linguistics.

For more information:

See Justine Cassell's answers to Ask the Scientists questions.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.