Undergraduate Ecosystems: In Cyberspace with Social Bots

Written by: Tracey Regan,
Juan Rios ’18 and Victor Chue ’18 tested the effects of temperature on interactions with conversational agents, or chatbots.

Social Interaction Laboratory

The Social Interaction Lab is an interdisciplinary research hub that combines psychology, communication, computing and design to understand how people interact with technology. The lab focuses in particular on studying technologies that are social, such as mobile-health apps, multiplayer games and social media. Many of the recent projects revolve around technology and mental health, including the development of a mobile app to support women in STEM, the use of bots to provide social support in virtual environments, and an examination of how algorithms and human moderation practices help combat online harassment.

Informatics professor Yvette Wohn

“The primary question my students and I explore is how technology facilitates positive or negative interactions between people and society," says Donghee Yvette Wohn, assistant professor of informatics and the lab's director. One of the goals of our research is to see if we can replicate and provide human warmth and a sense of personal connection through the devices and programs we create or adapt. We look for ways to make computer programs and apps more personable, including adding physical stimuli and incorporating social bots.”

The social support app, Virtual Sisters

VIRTUAL SISTERS

A team of eight students from five disciplines joined forces to develop a mobile application called “Virtual Sisters” to provide a virtual community for women in S T EM majors. “ Women are still underrepresented in S T EM, and, for that reason, can have difficulty identifying mentors and peers,” posited Indraneel Kulkarni ’17, the team’s Android developer. The app gave students a private space to discuss their experiences, ask questions and form connections with people across departments they may never have met in class. Women said replacing the “like” button with “hug” amplified feelings of connection and support. 

Seniors Juan Rios and Victor Chue

CHATBOT

Juan Rios ’18 and Victor Chue ’18 were curious about the effect of temperature on interactions with conversational agents, or chatbots, similar to Siri or Google Assistant. “If you were warmer, would you feel more open toward it?” Rios explains. Participants held human-like conversations with a chatbot, first with no stimulus and then while gripping either a cold or hot object. They compared feelings of closeness. “ Some people were weirded out. Others noticed no difference,” notes Chue. Fellow researchers were intrigued, however. The pair was invited to present their published work at GROUP, the Association for Computing Machinery conference. 

Basma Abukwaik surveyed attitudes about telehealth for her URI project.

TALKING HEALTH CARE ON THE STREETS OF NEWARK

Biology student Basma Abukwaik ’17 wanted to know whether women in Newark would be willing to use telehealth applications, specifically videoconferencing on their smartphones, to connect with providers such as doctors, nutritionists and life coaches. Binder in hand, she hit the streets to ask city women 10 questions – and got some surprising answers. “The bigger question is how technology can fill health care gaps for people who lack access,” she recounts. “A nursing student I interviewed on the street said it might be better to improve transit systems so people could get to their doctors.”