University of Toronto
Department of Computer Science

A Distinguished Lecture on Computer Science

Justine Cassell


Conversational Agents Embodied and Embedded in the World: Integrating Visible Humans and Invisible Computers


Mobile networks and embedded processors increasingly allow computation to suffuse all of the spaces in which we work and play. These smart environments and intelligent rooms will put at our disposal a vastly expanded inventory of information, without requiring us to learn special command languages to access data. The designers of such "invisible computers" describe them as ways for people to interact with computation "as they interact with another person".

In this talk, however, I will agree with Harry Potter that one should "never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can't see where it keeps its brain". I'll argue that in order to interact and communicate, humans need to think that the other party can represent knowledge, and that its intelligence can be located. Human bodies are the best possible example of representational creatures, and located intelligence; I will demonstrate the use of embodiment in computation with a series of interactive systems I have implemented, including embodied conversational agents, literacy systems for children, and some new work on "shared reality" -- a paradigm in which human and computer share a real physical space within which to make hand gestures, facial displays and body movements, and share real physical objects that can be passed back and forth between the real and virtual world.

But, at a more fundamental level, I will claim that neither embodied systems nor invisible computers will ever succeed unless we understand the "affordances" of the body -- that is, how the body works to represent what it knows, and to situate its intelligence in face-to-face dialogue.


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 UniversitE9 de BesanE7on (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.

After having spent ten years studying verbal and non-verbal aspects of human communication through microanalysis of videotaped data she began to bring her knowledge of human conversation to the design of computational systems. Currently she and her students are working on the third generation of Embodied Conversational Agent (Rea), and have also integrated the foundations of this work into the design of a 3D graphical online world (BodyChat). Cassell has also researched how embodied conversational agents, and other kinds of virtual listeners, can encourage and enhance narrative literacy activities among children. Cassell has published in journals as diverse as Poetics Today and Computer Graphics, and is the editor of Embodied Conversational Agents (MIT Press, 2000).

Host: contact Prof. Stevenson for information on the speaker's schedule.

Time and Location: return to the 2000 Colloquia Series main page.

R. J. Miller
Last modified: Tue Nov 14 22:17:53 EST 2000