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GirlGeek of the Week
February 2003

Cyndi Webb

Justine Cassell

In her youth, Justine would pour over novels and write down favorite words in a notebook. Quickly, this fascination for words and storytelling turned into a love of what she calls, "the science of language" which eventually led her to a Master's degree in Literature, a Master's in Linguistics, and two Ph.D's in Linguistics and Psychology.

After more than ten years of study, she first applied her knowledge and interest in language development and communication to the technological advances found at the University of Pennsylvania Center of Human Simulation, where she designed a computer-generated intelligent character that possessed speech, gestures and facial expressions. This experience marked the beginning of Justine's interest in technology and its potential as an innovative tool for child development, online communication and virtual storytelling.

Justine is now an Associate Professor at MIT's Media Laboratory and the director of their Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group. With her students, Justine studies natural forms of communication with technology, particularly Embodied Conversational Agents. These Agents are life-size computer-generated figures that are captured on a screen and respond with appropriate speech, body movements, and facial expressions to the behaviors of a human standing in front of them.

She has integrated these intelligent agents in the design of educational tools for children such as Sam, a 3-D, interactive storyteller that becomes a virtual peer for a child. Her work has been documented by PBS' Scientific American Frontiers, CNN, and Converge magazine. Currently, Justine and her students are working on Avatar, a project that seeks to revolutionize the way we communicate with other people online, enhancing text-based online forums and message boards with graphical and interactive representations of participants.

Besides working in the MIT laboratory, Justine has published many articles on the subject of Embodied Conversational Agents and Intelligence systems. She also co-edited the book, "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games".

She has also founded the Junior Summit, a program that brought 3,200 children from 139 different countries together online to discuss how technology could better benefit them. 100 of these children participated in a 5-day summit in Boston where they presented their ideas to world leaders and international press. To this day, the mission of the Junior Summit is still going strong.

With all of these projects, we were very happy that Justine had some time to talk to us and share her experiences with technology.


Tell us more about yourself and your background with technology.

I don't have a background with technology, per se. As a kid, I liked to take things apart, and to build things -- out of wood and metal and wax and paper. I loved the challenge of thinking up a design in my head, and translating it into a physical artifact. My grandfather was an engineer, and a silversmith, and because of him I began to study silversmithing and became even more engaged with making things. But, in school the subjects that I loved were Biology and English. I was rotten at Math, and Physics. Studying Engineering or Computer Science wouldn't have occurred to me. And in college and graduate school, I got more and more interested in human communication, and so I did degrees in Psychology and Linguistics.

When did you first discover your love and/or obsession with computers and technology?

I've never been obsessed with technology or computers. I'm obsessed with gadgets, of all kinds, and with making things, in all media. But computers and other digital systems have always been just ways to make stuff, or make stuff happen, or ways to study other topics that I was interested in. I was actually given a Tandy Radio Shack 100 when I went away to college in 1977 -- an early laptop -- and my interest in it was as a cool gadget. I'm still that way: I've got to own the coolest mobile phone, and the newest handheld, and the digital camera with the most features.

When new computers came out, or software, or other kinds of digital technology, like VCRs, I always wanted to own it and know how to use it and tweak it, and push its capabilities, but I just never thought about technology or computers as a job until fairly late -- until kind of by accident I spent a year as a visiting professor in a Computer Science department -- 3 years after I had finished a joint-Ph.D. in Linguistics and Psychology. In collaboration with Computer Science faculty, I spent a year building a virtual human as a way of investigating human communication, and I ended up getting interested in the technology for its own sake. It was fun. And it was similar to things I had done in the past simply because I was the geek in the Psychology or Linguistics department: programming VCRs to break down videos of human movement into tiny sub-segments, writing intricate UNIX routines to find linguistic patterns in text. So, I started to think that it would be fun to build things with technology full-time, and that's when I came to the Media Lab at MIT.

How were your first experiences at MIT?

Well, a funny experience that I had when I first arrived had to do with a big difference between MIT and Penn.State where I had taught previously. When I first arrived on the MIT campus, I had this odd feeling that something was missing -- that something I was used to seeing around me simply wasn't there. And I couldn't figure out what was missing. Finally, I realized what it was: there were just vastly fewer women around me at MIT than I was used to! And this impression was backed-up by conversations I had with women students. Some of them told me that I was the very first woman faculty member they had interacted with . . . and this was their senior year in college!

I also found that many of the people I ran into at MIT -- colleagues and students -- talked about the importance of their own work far more than I was used to. And the students in the very first class I taught at MIT told me that it was a sign of not having done very much to not put my own writing on the syllabus -- that was a very different way of teaching than I was used to!

Were there any issues or obstacles that you faced because you were a woman in the industry? If so, how did you overcome those obstacles or deal with those issues?

I've had many experiences where people have assumed that I'm somebody's secretary, or student, rather than being the professor. In fact, a number of times people have even said "you don't look like a professor" or "you don't look like a technologist" (whatever that means!). I think that because of this, I've acquired an almost haughty air - a stiff way of acting that makes it clear that I'm the expert. As my reputation grows, and people are more likely to know who I am, I'm trying to lose that air.

Were you encouraged as a child to learn and participate in science, math, or computers?

My family never had board games or cards or anything like that around. They really encouraged both my brother and I to take things apart and to build things in our spare time. So science was for doing experiments and figuring out how stuff worked, and for building gears and making neat gadgets, and when computers came along, they were fun toys too. Math was different: I had a lot of trouble with it all the way through school. In retrospect, a big part of that was being convinced that I couldn't do it, and a vicious circle building up around my math failures. And another part of it was the fact that I didn't necessarily think like other kids did. There was a period where I wanted to do arithmetic in base six . . .

You have done extensive research on virtual communication and technologies for children. Do you think we are making positive strides in using technology and new media innocations as an educational tool that benefits children, especially girls?

I think we've gone through a number of stages of building technology in ways that were not positive for girls, and that we may finally be getting to a place where technology is going to be good for all children, including girls. What I mean is that in the beginning, when personal computers first came out, the software was designed by guys for guys, and so the games and the technological "educational tools" were pretty boring for some girls (if not worse: have you seen Custer's Revenge for the Atari 2600??). Then we went through a stage where girls were seen as a population that needed "special help" with computers, and so all this software was put out on the market for girls that was incredibly dull and demeaning. Now it looks like there's starting to be enough diversity in who is making the software, and enough diversity in who owns personal computers, that there's variety in what's available, and innovation in all kinds of software and new media.

What advice can you give to girls or women who are just beginning to learn about technology and computing?

Two pieces of advice for girls and women who are really just starting: YOU CAN'T BREAK IT and MAKE IT YOURS. And for all girls and women learning about technology and computing: don't take anything for granted, and don't think you have to fit into the status quo to succeed. Just because a computer today is a square box on a desk, doesn't mean you can't turn it into a river of bits flowing across a piece of high-tech fabric. And, if you get told that in order to be a computer scientist you have to love theory, or programming languages, or one of the other topics that are taught in school. . . don't believe it. If you feel like you can make technology or computers do something totally different, then go for it! So many young women tell me that, even though they love technology, they don't "see themselves" in Computer Science. I reply: make Computer Science LOOK LIKE YOU.

What are your current projects?

Well, this study I'm doing right now on technologies for kids in developing nations. And more twists on the virtual humans: avatars, and virtual real estate agents, and virtual kids. And a whole set of what I call Story Listening Systems which are virtual peers to elicit creative language use from young children.

What do you do when you are not working and thinking about technology?

This year I'm travelling around the world -- 20 countries in 9 months -- to follow up with kids who participated in an internet program for youth that I organized in '98. It's a blast! So, my work time and play time are all mixed together. Even at other times, though, I love travelling to obscure places, eating obscure foods, learning about new cultures and meeting new people. And, when I'm in one place, I cook in my spare time -- another kind of making things! -- and go dancing.

Do you consider yourself a Geek?

Yes! And I remember the day when I adopted the label. I had been at MIT for a year or two, and I was talking with one of my grad students and all of a sudden she shrieked and said "oh my god, Justine, you just told a geek joke" . . . and I was proud.





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