Team member Sophy Huang, also a senior, grew up in Shanghai and came to Emory planning to go down a pre-med track. She soon realized, however, that she did not have a strong enough interest in biology and decided on a dual major of applied mathematics and statistics and psychology. Working on the Emora project also taps into her passions for computer programming and developing applications that help people.
“Psychology plays a big role in natural language processing,” Huang says. “It’s really about investigating how people think, talk and interact and how those processes can be integrated into a computer.”
Food was one of the topics Huang developed for Emora to discuss. “The strategy was first to connect with users by showing understanding,” she says.
For instance, if someone says pizza is their favorite food, Emora would acknowledge their interest and ask what it is about pizza that they like so much.
“By continuously acknowledging and connecting with the user, asking for their opinions and perspectives and sharing her own, Emora shows that she understands and cares,” Huang explains. “That encourages them to become more engaged and involved in the conversation.”
The Emora team members are still at work putting the finishing touches on their chatbot.
“We created most of the system that has the capability to do logical thinking, essentially the brain for Emora,” Choi says. “The brain just doesn’t know that much about the world right now and needs more information to make deeper inferences. You can think of it like a toddler. Now we’re going to focus on teaching the brain so it will be on the level of an adult.”
The team is confident that their system works and that they can complete full development and integration to launch beta testing sometime next spring.
Choi is most excited about the potential to use Emora to support first-year college students, answering questions about their day-to-day needs and directing them to the proper human staff or professor as appropriate. For larger issues, such as common conflicts that arise in group projects, Emora could also serve as a starting point by sharing how other students have overcome similar issues.
Choi also has a longer-term vision that the technology underlying Emora may one day be capable of assisting people dealing with loneliness, anxiety or depression. “I don’t believe that socialbots can ever replace humans as social companions,” he says. “But I do think there is potential for a socialbot to sympathize with someone who is feeling down, and to encourage them to get help from other people, so that they can get back to the cheerful life that they deserve.”
Story by Carol Clark.