of the Week
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
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
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.
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!
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.
you encouraged as a child to learn and participate in science, math,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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