Assistant professor Ö.Nilay Yalçın awarded grant to support research on computational empathy

July 08, 2024
Yalçın interacting with a virtual agent. This image features an example setup of the interaction with the M-Path system, where the 3D embodied conversational agent interacts with the participant using a webcam and microphone.

School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT) assistant professor Ö. Nilay Yalçın was recently awarded a $120,000 NSERC Discovery Grant and a $12,500 Discovery Launch Supplement to support her research project "Modelling empathic behaviour in interactive systems for personalized interaction."

NSERC Discovery Grants recognize creativity and innovation in ongoing research with long-term goals. The $120,000 grant will be awarded to Yalçın over a five-year period.

In addition to the Discovery Grant, Yalçın was also awarded a $12,500 Discovery Launch Supplement which provides additional resources to support early career researchers.

The goal of Yalçın’s research is to develop new models, algorithms, and technologies that have a better understanding of the human condition to enhance the interaction between humans and artificial agents. This work will also advance the researchers' understanding of human behaviour and complex emotion mechanisms.

Learn more about the research project:

Modelling empathic behaviour in interactive systems for personalized interaction

Computational empathy is a recently emerging research area that builds on the premise of equipping intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) with the ability to act empathically—being able to recognize, resonate to and respond to the affective state of the users.

Being a sub-field of Affective and Social Computing, it shares the premise of pursuing the modeling of complex human behaviours as an attempt to both 1) enhance the interaction between humans and artificial agents, and 2) understand the complex emotion mechanisms in humans by testing theories and models in controlled environments that are difficult if not impossible using psychology or neuroscience experiments.

The long-term goal of Yalçın and her collaborators' research program is to advance the theory and practice of computational empathy research and build technologies that can adapt to the affective conditions of humans, by focusing on modeling capabilities that have not been formerly addressed.

Yalçın's research program will follow theory-driven modeling of the variety of empathic capacities (i.e., affect recognition, and theory of mind) as identified in my prior work, using AI models and techniques to implement these capacities in IVAs.

The proposed research will develop new theories, models, algorithms, and technologies that have a better understanding of the human condition during interaction, which will lead to effortless, natural, and more personalized interactions. This work will also advance the researchers' understanding of human behaviour through rigorous testing of models of empathic behaviour in a controlled and quantitative manner. Highly qualified personnel (HQP) will be trained in AI and HCI methods, particularly in natural interaction models.

A student interacting with a 3D conversational agent.

Dr. Ö. Nilay Yalçın is an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher with an interdisciplinary background in cognitive science and engineering. Her research focuses on modeling socio-emotional behaviours in computational systems in order to develop interactive systems that can understand human behaviour and advance our understanding of human cognition by providing us means to evaluate our assumptions in a systematic and controlled environment.

Yalçın has been focusing on complex concepts such as empathy, affect, personality, and theory of mind in a variety of contexts such as healthcare, education and creativity. She plans to continue pursuing research to understand factors shaping people’s behaviors with their growing personal interactions with virtual agents and develop innovations that would have a positive effect on our society.

Yalçın is a proud member of Women in CS and Women in ML groups, and an advocate of Open Science and Open-Source Software.