In the spotlight: Dr. Catharine Oertel

Catharine OertelDr. Catharine Oertel is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science at TU Delft and part of the Interactive Intelligence group. She is a principal investigator of the Designing Intelligence Lab, with an expertise in Conversational AI. Catharine is part of the Centre for BOLD Cities Team Science project on Urban Dialogues. 

Could you tell me more about your academic background and expertise? 

I work in conversational AI, and my primary interest lies in creating a memory for conversational agents and social robots. I have been interested in this topic since my master’s thesis, which I completed at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. I completed my PhD at KTH and my PostDoc at EPFL. Although I focus on technological developments, I have always worked in a very interdisciplinary environment, with academics from computer science, linguistics and psychology. This is an intersection which I personally find very intriguing and exciting, especially when it comes to modelling conversational phenomena as they occur in real life. Decoding human communication is vital to make technology that actually has a societal impact. This vision is also at the core of the group I have started to work building since starting as an Assistant Professor at the TU Delft since 2019.

Decoding human communication is vital to make technology that actually has a societal impact."

Why do you think working in such an interdisciplinary manner is valuable? 

Working in an interdisciplinary manner allows us to learn from one another and improve our research. In my field, I think that to develop meaningful conversational AI it is not enough to only know about the technological aspect. You also have to some extent understand the social science perspective. For example, currently my colleagues Mark Neerincx and Franziska Burger and me are working on a joint project between the Netherlands and Switzerland to help children reflect on stressful situations at school to a robot. This is the epartners4all project. While my contribution to this project is on the technical side about the memory of such a robot, we also work with psychologists and teachers to achieve a higher impact on the wellbeing of children.


How did you get involved with the Centre for BOLD Cities and what project are you currently working on? 

Prof. dr. Catholijn Jonker [Member of the Executive board of the Centre for BOLD Cities] mentioned this opportunity to me. I am now part of the Team Science project on Urban Dialogues, in which we combine citizen science with value-based conversational AI. I am really interested in research that takes place ‘in real life’, and in this project, we take a closer look at the dialogues of groups of people at citizen science meetings on air pollution. How can we understand different stakeholders? And how can we trace different perspectives of stakeholders back to values? This is very much aligned with my research interests, and I particularly enjoy working with colleagues from different disciplines and hearing their views. I strongly believe that only through working together with social scientists, who can provide the context to our research, we can make our technology meaningful. Our team consists of me, Pradeep Murukannaiah, who is also from Interactive Intelligence, Alexander Los from Erasmus University, whose expertise is in the Urban Environment, and Rodrigo Ochigame, a digital anthropologist from Leiden University. We thus work not only across disciplines but also across universities. We got the official endorsement about a month ago and are just getting started. I am very excited to see how we can design this project to have the most impact – also for the people currently engaged on citizen science platforms on air pollution.

I enjoy working with colleagues from different disciplines and hearing their views."

To find out more about Catharine's work also read her interview 'Adding social awareness to conversational agents.'



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About Catharine Oertel
Adding social awareness to conversational agents