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Rise of the Chatbots

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Madeline Phipps

Summer research grants are helping undergraduate students at DU conduct research

Photo Courtesy: Wayne Armstrong, University of Denver
Photo Courtesy: Wayne Armstrong, University of Denver

Courtney Owen began thinking about how robots could help humans when she was a student in high school. While working a summer job in a research lab in Fort Worth, Texas, she met Zeno, a robot that helps children with autism improve their social communication.

Owen was surprised and excited to encounter Zeno again as a first-year student at DU. Mohammad Mahoor, the associate professor of electrical engineering who works with Zeno, was featured in a video shown at a dinner during orientation week. She quickly reached out to Mahoor and began working in his lab that year.

“I’ve been interested in the intersection of robotics and human interactions — also known as socially assisted robotics — for a long time,” says Owen, now a junior. While in Mahoor’s lab, she worked on Zeno’s programming and also started to build a chatbot — a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users.

That work eventually led her to design her own research project: to develop the code for a dialogue-management system that could let a robot or a computer application talk to elderly people. She hopes eventually the system will help older people get the social interaction they need — especially those who are reluctant to talk to a mental health professional.

Aided by a DU summer research grant, she worked on the project in summer 2017. The grant provided her with living expenses so she could devote her summer to full-time, intensive research. Awarded by DU’s Undergraduate Research Center, summer research grants provide students with up to $3,500 each to support their work and to cover expenses. This year, 45 students received grants in 11 different disciplines ranging from art to physics and astronomy.

Photo Courtesy: Wayne Armstrong, University of Denver
Photo Courtesy: Wayne Armstrong, University of Denver

“With this grant, the only constraints were time and my own abilities,” Owen says.

A person interacts with the chatbot through a series of yes/no questions and questions with limited responses. “First the chatbot introduces itself, and then it takes you through a PHQ-9 test, which is a depression indicator test,” Owen says. From there, Owen integrated questions and guidance recommended by mental health counselors.

The chatbot is the first step in what Owen hopes will become a larger project accessible to a wider audience. “Once I finish this prototype, I will use a website that allows you to enhance your chatbot using artificial intelligence” she says. When the code for the prototype chatbot is complete, Owen can program a computer, or even a robot, to interact with an elderly user.

At the end of the summer, Owen met with Stanford University professor Alison Darcy to discuss a program Darcy designed called Woebot that is similar to her own. Darcy and Owen discussed the different audiences that could benefit from Woebot. “She wants to change Woebot to make it more tailored for elderly people, which is the group I have been focusing on for my project,” Owen says.

Owen says her summer research experience has left her feeling prepared for her future. “Being able to conduct research has really shown me what being an engineer can be like,” Owen says. “After having created a basic prototype that I will continue to build upon, I feel much more confident in my abilities to tackle any problem that comes my way, be it in a future class or my future career.”

To read about research work that Mahoor is conducting to help those suffering from Parkinson's disease, please click here.