Uncommon Careers

Here, There, Everywhere - Scott Robertson

Information and Computer Sciences Department, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

My work is in the area of human–computer interaction (HCI). HCI researchers are concerned with the design and use of interactive computing systems, and more broadly with their impact on individuals and society. When I began my career, the field of HCI was just getting started. The Association for Computing Machinery was having its first conferences in an area they called “Human Factors in Computing Systems,” and those conferences initially were dominated by psychologists and a smattering of computer scientists. Although it was a promising area for the future, there were not many job titles consistent with it at the time, especially in academia. My first jobs were in psychology departments, but those were not good fits for me. I left academia for the computing and communications industry, where I was a much better fit. This allowed me to grow with the field. Then, the department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa was seeking HCI expertise at the same time that I was seeking a new job. Kismet!

Most recently, I’ve been researching how people use social media and new media to understand political issues and to participate in civic life. In prior jobs, I’ve also studied how mobile devices might work together with televisions, how programmers could learn from an intelligent-agent-based tutoring system, how a knowledge-management system might be designed to support library research, and how people do predictive answering of questions as they are reading them.

My research allows me to participate in the unbelievably fast-paced realm of computing technology. It allows me to think about future technologies that are relevant to human experience and behavior, such as wearable technology, the Quantified Self, augmented perception and cognition, social media, and civic well-being. It keeps me in contact with other academic and corporate researchers engaged in a hugely diverse realm of activities. I feel privileged to be able to bring people’s perspectives into the domain of technology design and development, and maybe make a difference in how our highly technologically mediated society develops.

I also get all of the interesting students to work with. Right now, I am advising a graduate student who is designing a system for scripting animatronic puppet shows. This is not core computer science, but it is certainly interesting, and there are many HCI-related issues. My most recent advisee just completed a dissertation that examines how people use social media while simultaneously watching political debates. Again, it’s more like psychology than computer science, but really it involves both. A computer science department without a behavioral scientist would not be able to support these interesting projects.

It’s difficult to convince others that behavioral science is important to computer science. I am lucky that my colleagues at the University of Hawai’i “get it,” but for computer science students it is often a struggle. I have the challenge and pleasure of explaining why the computational and
social-behavioral sciences should not be so separate.