Coming Together To Transform Tech

Danae Metaxa and Andrew Head
Danae Metaxa and Andrew Head

Modern life involves nearly constant interaction with devices and technology. For users, not only is an understanding of how to perform these interactions with confidence and security important, but an awareness of how those interactions affect us and our communities is critical.

This is true across the full spectrum of our experiences with technology. The recent explosion of large language models like ChatGPT is one example. With such technology increasingly used by everyone from undergraduate students for homework help, to professional programmers writing code for critical systems, to hiring managers reviewing resumes, understanding the situated, real-world use of these tools and their effects is paramount. Answering these questions is the domain of a subfield of computer science called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

In the last year, Penn Engineering was fortunate to welcome not one, but two computer scientists with expertise in HCI, launching the School’s Human-Computer Interaction Group. Since, Andrew Head, Assistant Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Danaë Metaxa, Raj and Neera Singh Term Assistant Professor in CIS, have been seizing the opportunity to advance the HCI Group’s overarching goal of understanding, designing and engineering technologies with the human-centered goal of making a positive impact on individuals and communities.

In broad terms, HCI is a field of study that focuses on improving interactions between people and computers through the design of technology that satisfies users’ wants and needs. “HCI is a discipline founded at the intersection of several fields, including computer science, psychology and media studies, among others,” says Metaxa. “It’s incredibly broad as a subfield, encompassing everything from wearable haptic interfaces to analyses of political persuasion in social media.”

Located within the CIS department, the HCI Group supports research projects that cover a variety of topics spanning the development of new patterns of interaction with computers, refining the interfaces of existing applications, and understanding the effect that computers and their applications have on people.

“In my research, I explore the future of reading,” says Head. “As our computers get better at understanding the texts humans write, we can open the doors to the complex, everyday texts people need to understand. Could our reading interfaces help us understand our medical records? How about tricky math equations, or tangled source code? I explore how modern techniques from AI and program analysis can enhance reading experiences in these settings.”

“In my research,” says Metaxa, “I develop and deploy methods for studying bias and representation in algorithmic content, focusing on high-stakes social settings like politics and employment, and especially on the experiences of marginalized people. This includes the identification of biases in existing systems, as well as the design of interventions and building of new systems that try to remedy those issues.”

In addition, the HCI Group offers a range of courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, including “Introduction to HCI” and more specialized courses. For example, a graduate seminar titled “Algorithmic Justice” examines a growing body of work at the intersection of technology and social justice. A range of areas are included under this umbrella, including tech ethics, design justice and algorithmic fairness, as well as work on equity, bias, diversity and representation in computer science and other related disciplines.

This story was written by Janelle Weaver. To read full the article, please visit Penn Engineering Magazine.