Interview with Justine Cassell

Dr. Justine Cassell

Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

Interview by Computer Science undergraduate students Lucy Li and Young Jae Park

Tell us a little about your background. Where are you from?

Well, I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn, and I went to grade school and high school at the same school in Brooklyn Heights.

We noticed that you hold a Master’s in Literature from Université de Besançon (France), a Master’s in Linguistics from University of Edinburgh, and a double Ph.D. in Psychology and Linguistics from University of Chicago.  It’s a very accomplished and wide range of academic qualifications. How did you decide to go on that track?

I was trying to go for the most degrees award. I figured my goal would be to get so many letters after my name that my stationary would have to be sideways because of all the letters. That’s what I was aiming for [laughs].

So really, I never set out to get a lot of degrees. It was a combination of things. It took me a long time to find the field that I wanted to be in. Actually, that’s not right, because I still haven’t found it. I mean, I know exactly what it is that I want to work on, and I always knew what I wanted to work on. But there’s no natural field that the topic fits into, so as I went through my studies, I did the programs and the fields of studies that I thought would help me study the thing that I wanted to study. And because it didn’t really exist in a natural place, it took a lot of different kinds of study.

Did you always want to be in academia?

I didn’t ever think about it. That’s the funny thing. I’ve known I wanted to study people. I wanted to watch how they behaved and listen to how they behaved. I always was fascinated with language and always knew I wanted to study language in some way or another. When I was a kid, I assumed I could do that and be a doctor, so I actually was pre-med in college. It never occurred to me that there was a field of study where you could study language. I also wasn’t really clear on the concept of academia. I wasn’t really sure what it meant to be a professor. I didn’t know professors when I was growing up. In college, I didn’t do so well in chemistry, math and physics. That happened on the one hand. On the other hand, I got more and more passionate about studying people’s use of language. So the two of those things combined moved me away from medicine and towards some kind of linguistics and the study of human behavior.

At that point, why did you pursue Masters and not go from undergraduate directly into Ph.D.?

I did a Masters because I could get a free trip to another country [laughs]. It was really straightforward. I love traveling, and so, when I was an undergraduate, I already decided before I went to college that I wanted to spend at least a year overseas. And I was planning from the day I arrived in college the day when I would be able to go to France, and I went as soon as I could, which was my junior year. I ended up staying up there for two years before coming back to finish my undergraduate degree. And then, someone told me about these grants that you could apply for, these fellowships, which would give you money to go to the U.K. I don’t think I thought twice about it. In my head, it was: U.S. or somewhere else. Somewhere else definitely won. So I applied for the fellowships, and that’s how I ended up in Scotland.

Besides Scotland, you mentioned you wanted to be in France. Is there a particular reason why you wanted to be in France?

I heard a lot about France growing up because my parents met there and got married there. It was a very romantic story. From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to go see the place they loved so much and talked about. I love food, and I knew France was famous for food, so that seemed like another reason to go.

So what type of food do you like?

I cook constantly—every kind of food you can imagine! I am always cooking. In fact, last night, I had kind of a hard day at the office. I had left at 10pm, and I went home and I stayed up ‘til 1am making peach chutney. And the peaches actually—I found them on the river path in Lawrenceville, near NREC (National Robotics Engineering Center). But I cook French, Italian, a lot of Thai, a lot of Indian, some Chinese. It’s a hobby. It’s my way of relaxing.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got to your current position career-wise?

So I somehow ended up going from literature to linguistics to psychology. How did I get from there to computer science? That was kind of a gap. Sometimes I say when I’m joking—you know the phrase that “someone was enraptured?”—I say I was “en-scienced.” Little by little, I got closer and closer to the hard sciences and engineering and further and further away from the humanities. It started because I was using a computer to do my research in psycholinguistics. I was using the very first digital video recorders to slow down the videotapes, trying to understand how people told stories about movies and where the gaps in people’s stories fit the gaps in the movies. Anyway, the point is that I got more and more excited about programming the VCR and less and less excited about the research itself. I eventually started writing software to control the VCR, and that kind of got me interested in computer science. It was really the first time I had exposure to writing software—and I liked it.

I also liked the idea of using computers to study human behavior. A colleague of mine suggested that I come spend a year at the University of Pennsylvania—that I really try to move into the field of computer science and apply the field to the study of human behavior. This wasn’t until I was a third year faculty member that I was really close to the computer science department. But I really got into it. We did this really exciting project that’s become a classic project. We built the first autonomous virtual humans. For me, it was originally a way of studying theories of human behavior and human language. But the whole idea of implementing things got me excited in and of itself. So I thought about going back to my job at Penn State or continuing in this new area. I decided to continue in this new area, and that’s what I’ve done ever since for the last seventeen years.

It’s definitely an unusual path, but I think it’s a contemporary path, a fairly modern way of doing things because the field we live in is changing so rapidly—the kinds of fields that exist within the field of computer science are changing really fast. I mean, we have a computational biology department here at Carnegie Mellon. We didn’t two years ago, and that’s because it didn’t exist. HCII is  16-17 years old. It was the first HCI department in the country. When these new ideas are born out of the field of computer science, if you’re flexible, then you can be right there at the birth of these new fields—and I love that.

What are the ups and downs of being a Director of a department and not being a regular faculty member?

So the ups are helping to shape the direction of a field by helping the department come to decisions about who to hire, and helping to shape the future of the department by creating a fertile stimulating warm environment. That’s very exciting.

The downs are not being able to do those things. When I have plans or an initiative that I’d like to see happen, it’s not as easy as I think it should be. That’s one of the downs. And the other down is trying to juggle the different aspects of my career, being an administrator, being a researcher, and being a professor.

Are there any big differences between Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon University?

To tell you the truth [laughs], I’ve been here for 6 weeks, so I don’t entirely know yet.

My first impression about Carnegie Mellon though, is that there is an amazing amount of good will here, an innovativeness, and an environment where you can get things done that have never been done before, and I’m really loving it. If I can think of it, and I can describe it to somebody, then there’s somebody to say, “Yeah, let’s do that.” And that’s the fabulous thing about a university. There are also not that many rules, which I like. The reasonable person’s principle is really good for somebody like me because I’m not really good at sticking to rules. For example, when you’re in a university, often as a graduate student, you can’t take courses outside your department, or you can’t work with so-and-so, or, you’re not allowed to do this, or a professor’s told you to just publish and not talk to other people. And here, I think really, the sense is not don’t, but do everything you can.

What course have you been most passionate about teaching? Will you be teaching it here at Carnegie Mellon?

I loved the courses that I taught at Northwestern. I’m not teaching right now because it’s a lot of work to get started as a department chair. But I hope I’ll be able to teach a course that I designed about discourse and dialogue in interactive systems. That’s a course that’s pretty much in between HCII and LTI, and I love teaching that class. The class is about understanding how people use language in social interaction, such as at work or play, the different kinds of devices in language that allow us to do things with other people, and how to get computers to participate in the same behaviors. So the thing I like about it is that the course is divided into theory and practice. We read classic old papers in linguistics, conversational analysis, discourse analysis, and sociology. Then we read computer science papers that try to replicate the results using a computer instead of one of the people. Lastly, as their project, the students try to do something that’s never been done before, using the old research in the social sciences and their own skills in computer science. It’s a really fun class.

When I teach it here, it’s going to be easier to teach, too. I’ve been teaching this course for a very long time. I started teaching it at MIT, so I’ve taught it for about fifteen years now. But MIT is on the semester system like Carnegie Mellon, whereas Northwestern is on the quarter system. I used to try to cram everything into a quarter—those poor students at Northwestern! It was pretty hard for them. They did well though.

Where do you see communication heading in the next 5–10 years in regards to technology?

I think that people are always going to have a need to communicate with other people. We’re never going to lose the need or desire to have a connection with other people. But I think that increasingly, our connection to others is going to be mediated by technology. That is, computers are going to be the medium, like a telephone cable that connects us to others, and that the nature of our communication across long distances is going to become more and more natural— more and more like communication face to face. I also think that new kinds of communication that aren’t possible face to face are going to be allowed by technology, and maybe that’s the most exciting thing. Facebook has allowed us to have a conversation with hundreds of people at a time, and that’s not possible in the real world…unless if you are yelling.

As a result of studying in France and Scotland, what stands out the most to you about the countries you’ve lived in?

I love two almost diametrically opposed things. I love the fact that when you live in another country, you realize people are fundamentally the same, and that at their very deepest levels, they have the same needs, the same hopes, and the same fears. I also love the differences between people. When you live in different countries, you realize that the things you take for granted, such as getting served at dinner and how to ask for more food—things that you never think about—are totally different. When I first came to France, I lived with a family, and the woman that I lived with, the mother of the family, would say to everyone, “Would you like some more food?” I was brought up to think that, to be polite, you always said yes. And so I would say yes and she would always say, “Here you go, you little pig.” And I couldn’t figure out why she was calling me “little pig”—petit cochon, which is not very polite! Everyone else got seconds, but I was the only one who was called a little pig. So I did a little anthropology, and I noticed finally, that everyone else said no two times, and then, the third time, they’d say “Oh, okay.”

She would say, “Do you want some more?”
They would say, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m so full.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a bit more?”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly.”
“Just a tiny bit?”
“Oh… Okay.”

Whereas for me, she would say, “Do you want some more?” and I would say yes. “You little pig!” [laughs]

Those are the kinds of things that we don’t think about that reveal differences. I love that aspect of traveling—when you suddenly realize the things you thought were natural and normal about your own country are just constructed and cultural. And you only realize that when you’re somewhere that doesn’t take them for granted.

Speaking of cultural differences, this brings to mind how in the U.S., it’s generally more polite to eat quietly and not slurp or make a mess. But in Japan, if you make a mess, are eating it loudly and eating it really fast, it means you really like the food and can’t get enough.

Right, exactly, things like that. The first time I went to Japan, I went to a little place where you have breakfast off the street where you can order noodles and soup. I was surrounded by these guys slurping like, “sssssssss.” [laughs]

So what brought you to Japan?

The first time I went, I gave a talk. I really enjoyed it, so I tried to go back several times for work. I used to work with colleagues in Japan, mostly when I was at MIT. At that time, I was working a lot on software for young children to learn culture, storytelling, and language. I was working with a very old educational company in Kyoto. This is something we don’t have in the U.S., but maybe you know that in Japan, children often spend a lot of time after school studying, not just during school, but also after school. It’s really hard for the kids, and there’s a real business around selling them books to study from. So this is a company that has been making these books for thousands of years—literally, thousands of years. They were changing books into software and bring it into educational technology, and I worked with them on that project.

Regarding projects, what are you currently working on in your research?

All of my research involves language in some way: human behavior, how technology can play a role in mediating the interactions between people, or how technology can interact with people in the way that people interact with one another. Currently, I have three projects. One is a project on children with autism, who can have a lot of trouble with social interactions and can sometimes feel lonely, have a hard time making friends, feel isolated, or have a hard time learning in the classroom because they don’t have the skills that are necessary to act like how other children act in a social situation. So I’ve been doing research to see whether these children can interact with virtual children as playmates, because virtual children are infinitely patient. They are programmable, so we can make them do what we want them to do. I’ve been asking myself if children with autism could program virtual children as a way of trying to think through how social interactions work, i.e., see if they can hypothesis-test by using the virtual children as a learning tool. This is work I’m doing with a wonderful former student – now a professor at Union College – named Andrea Tartaro. This is really great research because it shows we can use technology as an object of reflection, to allow people to think through what human behavior is like and what they would like their behavior to be like. So that’s one project that I love.

Another project is also for children. I’ve been looking at children who come to school speaking a language or a dialect that’s different than the language or dialect spoken in the classroom. If either of you speak Chinese or have family members who speak Chinese, you know there are different languages, like Cantonese and Mandarin. But there are also hundreds of dialects. So people who speak these dialects can mostly understand each other, but some dialects are thought to be poor, ignorant dialects while some are thought to be educated. It’s the same here in the United States. One dialect that people look down on in particular is African-American English. It’s the dialect that’s spoken by some African-Americans in the United States, and it’s a real dialect. It’s just like a language—it has morphology, syntax, and phonology. It’s really just as good and just as whole as a language, just like any Chinese dialect. But it’s looked down on. So the question for those children is not how to lose the dialect—because it’s a link to their culture—but can they switch back and forth between that dialect and the dialect of school? So I have been once again, building virtual children who can model what’s called “code switching,” switching back and forth between one dialect and another, in ways that are dependent on the social context. That’s my second project.

The final project is looking at the notion of rapport. How do people build rapport with each other? How do they build relationships? How do people show that they like somebody else? How do we behave differently when we know somebody? And how can computers do the same things? How can computers change over the period of time that we interact with them? The crazy thing about the cell phone is that it’s probably closer than your best friend. It’s closer than the person you love. You spend more time with it than anything in the world. Yet, every time you turn it on, it behaves identically. Friends don’t behave identically every day since the day they met you. So how do we get technology to change, to become closer and to have more rapport with you over time? That’s the question I’m asking in my third project.

How do you go about doing that?

For the moment—and this is mostly how my work works—I’m looking at videotapes of people and trying to gather what people do to show that they’re better friends with somebody. As it turns out, many people in the U.S. will interrupt each other to show that they’re friends. They interrupt each other more frequently when they’re friends than when they’re strangers. People are rude more often when they’re friends than strangers. Instead of saying “Oh, that’s a lovely idea,” they say, “Yo! Idiot! Dumb! Really dumb!” So we might not want computers to do that. But we might want computers to not leave such a lag between utterances.  For example, when United first introduced a phone dialogue system, you had to wait for the voice to finish before you could say what you wanted. And you really just wanted to say, “I’m in a hurry. Can you get this over with?” So how can computers show those kinds of things? I’m also interested in these virtual humans who have faces, hands, and bodies. How can they show by their non-verbal behavior, their body language, that their friends are familiar? Can they open themselves up? Can they look at you more? So I’m looking at those kinds of things as well, and I do have some experiments that show people trust computers more when computers engage in this behavior.

With your history of improving the status of women and other under-represented groups in science and technology, what did you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding?

As an example, I’m going to tell you about something a department chair said to me once. This is the most challenging thing. He said, “I don’t understand why I should give you money for the graduate women in computer science group. I mean… there are only seven women, whereas if I give money to the graduate students in computer science, there are over a hundred of them. The money is going to go so much further if I give it to them than if I give it to the women in computer science.” Total lack of understanding! Where do I start? How do I explain that the fact that there are only seven women is a problem. There are a hundred and fifty graduate students and seven women. That’s why we need money! So the most frustrating thing is when someone doesn’t even know why it’s a problem—when it doesn’t even make sense to him or her that this is an issue.

I think actually the most rewarding thing is making environments for women to hear each other out and help each other. That’s just great. When I’ve supported groups, lunches, or activities where women graduate students and faculty members come together, I overhear them saying “Oh my God! That happened to you? That happened to me, too! I thought it was just me!” And that’s the most rewarding thing in the whole world because sometimes I find that women in science think they’re at fault for something that happened to them, whereas maybe it’s just a function of negative stereotypes that some people still have about women. And that’s impacting their careers negatively. If you help make them realize it’s not about them, there’s a chance that they can be much happier with their own performance, and ultimately more successful.

If you could point to one or two people who have inspired you the most to reach your goals, who would they be?

I had a teacher in France, named Lionel Follet. He was my professor for my first discourse analysis class. And this was a class taught in a foreign language—I don’t think I was really very good. At the end of the semester, there was a four-hour oral exam. And at the end of the exam, he said, “You know, Mademoiselle Cassell, it doesn’t matter what you do in life. You were made to work on discourse.” And that’s such a gift to say to somebody because you feel like there’s a place for you in the world. And I’ve never forgotten him. Actually, I invited him to dinner, and I made him a roast chicken that slid onto his lap. So I’m not really sure I repaid him. But every once in a while, I still hear about him. He is a friend of the parents of a friend of mine. So I send news to him, and he asks how I’m doing. He really gave me a sense that I had a gift for something. Being told that you have a gift for something is so wonderful.

There’s someone else who comes to mind, Maria Klawe. She was one of the first women chairs of computer science in North America. She was also the first woman Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Princeton. Now she’s the President of Harvey Mudd college. The thing that’s inspiring about her is that she’s very open about making mistakes. She’s very willing to share those mistakes with me, and they’re always very inspirational because they’re always mistakes I make, too. I love the idea that you can make mistakes, share them with other people, allow them to help other people, and yet still keep moving forward. That’s been very inspirational.

What are your hobbies?

Cooking and traveling are big hobbies of mine. For me, I often accept talks depending on where they are [laughs]. I also love to swing dance – actually, I love dancing period.

What countries have you traveled to?

Well, I’ve probably traveled to forty countries… In 2002-2003, I was on sabbatical, and I had a grant to study young people and the Internet. In one year, I went to twenty-one countries. That was the best year of my life. I spent two weeks in each country. It was so great. As you can tell, I don’t mind being uprooted. I love foreign countries and places I haven’t been before.

I was in really exotic places. I was in a country that was the smallest self-governing country in the world, called Niue. It’s a tiny little island near New Zealand. They only have 562 families in the country. They actually have a lot of people outside the country who are Niuean. But it was so tiny. There was one store in the capital of the country. Well, there was one grocery store.  I love that place. I kept extending my stay. First I was supposed to stay only four days, then I stayed seven days, then I stayed ten days. I would’ve stayed longer if I could. It was just so different.

I also love going to Bangladesh. I’ve been there three or four times now. I’ve really enjoyed it each time. Once again, it’s really different from anywhere I’ve lived. I’ve been very warmly welcomed, with a tremendous amount of generosity, by people who don’t have a lot of material possessions.  I was privileged to hang out with a group of young people who had grown up in the slums of Dhaka and through the innovative thinking of a Bangladeshi photographer had become photographers themselves. Those young people had so much to say about being the subject vs. the object of their own experience – being behind or in front of the camera. It’s a country that floods severely every year, and yet a significant segment of the population is too poor to move from the flooding areas – and so they take their stuff and move to the top of the hill.  The young photographers I spent time with – who call themselves “Out of Focus” – took me around the country to see the effects of the floods, and talked to me about the ways in which Bangladesh gets used in the world press as what they called “poverty porn”. And I’m upset when the 7-Eleven doesn’t have whatever I want. It just really gives you a perspective on things.

Have you had a chance to explore Pittsburgh? Any pleasant surprises?

A little bit—not so much yet. I’m trying to do it little by little. I live in Highland Park, which I like a lot. Every Saturday morning, I go down to the Strip, so I can buy vegetables from the farmer’s market. This past weekend, I explored Lawrenceville. People tell me Polish Hill is getting very interesting. I’m trying to go to neighborhoods that are not the usual academic neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill or Shadyside. I went up the Duquesne Incline a couple of weeks ago. That was fun.

I also love the houses in Pittsburgh. That was a beautiful surprise. I love the fact that there are all these Victorians everywhere. There are all these amazing huge houses. They’ve been in every neighborhood I’ve gone to, so that’s been very nice. I also love the different feeling of the different neighborhoods—another very pleasant surprise. I love the landscape. Chicago’s very flat. It’s very nice to see hills again. The good thing is that they’re beautiful. The bad thing is that I’m not doing as much biking as I’d like to.

When I first flew into Pittsburgh, I thought, “Wow, there are mountains, and it’s green and really beautiful.” Pittsburgh is a really pretty city.

You have yet to see Pittsburgh in snow. Last year, we had a huge snowstorm, which forced Carnegie Mellon to close for several days.

Well, actually, I think I was here. I bought my house in January. And the funny thing is, when I moved into it, I had no idea what it looked like because it was covered in snow when I bought it. Similarly, the backyard and neighborhood were totally different than what I had imagined because everything was just covered in snow. I’ll have to cross-country ski if it snows that heavily again [laughs].

We heard you think your house might be haunted. What’s the story behind that?

This really strange thing happened. Do you remember the violent thunderstorm last week? So I went home that day, and I went up the staircase. It’s a Victorian, and there’s a staircase that spirals upward. There’s a landing with a big stained glass window,. At the base of the wall, under the stained glass window – this is at the second floor level – there’s oak molding. And there was water flying in from the molding – not leaking but flying in. And this is impossible because the other side is not a wall to the outside—it’s inside the house. I called a roofer to look at it. He climbed up to examine it, and he said, “That’s impossible. It’s inside the wall.” So I decided it’s haunted [laughs]. At least it was water and not blood or anything. If that’s the worst part of the haunting, then that’s okay. There’s enough room in the house for some ghosts.

Do you have a favorite quote?

I'm often heard quoting Christopher Robin who says "It's hard for one, but two can do it".