Where Imaginative Cognition and Computation Meet

D. Fox Harrell works at the intersection of human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence (AI). Harrell is a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence in Comparative Media Studies and in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and is also the director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. His research is focused on pioneering innovative experiences using computing systems such as virtual reality (VR), interactive narratives, videogames, social media, and other new technologies that construct imaginative experiences atop our physical world.

“Our approach to engineering and creative practices pushes the expressive potential of technologies of virtuality, while intrinsically considering their social and cultural impacts,” Harrell says. “This research creates richer experiences for users and learners; we use computational and social scientific methods to assess our outcomes.”

One example is MazeStar, a learning platform and curriculum that enables public school students to create, document, and share games while learning computer science and uses avatars to allow the students to see themselves as computer scientists. Another example is a collaboration called The Enemy, a groundbreaking interactive VR experience that immerses participants in discussions about war and humanity. Using virtual reality headsets and custom software adapting the experience to users’ body language, participants encounter 360-degree imaging of combatants on opposite sides of international conflicts. “Technologies of virtuality are powerful systems for representing ourselves in ways that challenge and expand our concepts, worldviews, and values,” says Harrell.

As AI technologies become ingrained in more aspects of our daily lives, Harrell says we must examine and engineer them with social and cultural behavior in mind. To this end, he brings together students, faculty, and industry professionals to pioneer innovative virtual experiences that incorporate essential consideration of their social and cultural significance. “At their worst, these systems can reproduce discrimination, biases, and stereotypes with devastating impacts on users and society,” he explains. “We use computational approaches to analyze and assess these technologies, so we may optimize the best of what they have to offer.”

This story was originally published in January 2020.

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