ICT’s Jonathan Gratch and Stacy Marsella Honored for Virtual Human Breakthroughs

Published: April 16, 2010
Category: News

Research recognizing and replicating emotion’s role in thought and behavior, earns duo top international award in their field.
From computer-generated counselors who help mothers of sick children make decisions under stress to virtual humans who can sway the course of a negotiation depending on whether the human participant is angry or amenable, Stacy Marsella and Jonathan Gratch, computer scientists with University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, are furthering the understanding of the psychology of emotion and how it can make for more believable computer-driven characters and environments.
Their pioneering work in emotion modeling and social simulation has been recognized by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence (ACM/SIGART) with the 2010 Autonomous Agents Research Award, an annual award for excellence for researchers influencing the field of autonomous agents.
Gratch is ICT’s associate director for virtual human research and Marsella is ICT’s associate director for social simulation.  The two are developing a computational model of appraisal theory – the idea that emotions come from evaluations of events and cause specific reactions in different people – and conversational virtual humans that can model the influences of emotion in the ways they think and behave.
“The fact that the selection committee chose to honor both Stacy and Jon this year is a testament to their individual contributions to the field of autonomous agents and multi-agent systems and to the collaborative nature of the research taking place at ICT,” said Randall W. Hill, Jr., executive director of ICT.
Gratch and Marsella are also both research associate professors in the Department of Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School. Together they teach a graduate level course on affective computing which covers techniques for recognizing and synthesizing emotional behavior, and illustrates how these can be applied to games, immersive environments and teaching tools.
“One of the main reasons that I decided to come to USC is that our computer science program has many top-tier research faculty who greatly enhance the environment of computing at USC,” said Shanghua Teng, chair of the computer science department at the USC Viterbi School.
Marsella and Gratch will receive their awards and present lectures at the International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (AAMAS) 2010 in Toronto, Canada in early May.
The selection committee cited the pair’s significant and sustained contributions in the area of virtual agents in announcing their award. “Their work balances theoretical and engineering achievements, allowing the understanding of the factors and processes underlying how emotion affects behaviors,” they wrote. “They have also proposed a novel way to validate computational models of human emotions.”
Milind Tambe of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Computer Science Department is a past recipient of this award. USC and Carnegie Mellon University are now the only institutions to have three of their researchers recognized with this honor.
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