Psyched up for computer science

How can we align technology with the way we think about, feel, and understand the world? Robin Welsch is a psychologist-turned-computer scientist on a quest to find an answer.
Assistant Professor Robin Welsch sitting on a sofa against a green backdrop
Robin Welsch has used virtual environments for his research on personal space, among other topics. Image: Matti Ahlgren/Aalto University

What is your research about?

Influential technologies, such as the metaverse or AI, can change our lives completely. To make these technologies benefit humans and contribute to sustainable societal growth, they must be developed with people in mind. One of the main challenges of the digital transformation is aligning technology with the way we think, feel, and understand the world.

For example, AI technologies, such as delivery robots or cleaning robots, can save us from doing chores and free up our time to do more meaningful tasks. However, this will come at the expense of them populating our spaces. My cleaning robot comes into my office often during important meetings. The only way to stop the robot is to take it somewhere else or switch it off – it’s oblivious to my icy stare. Enabling the user to take control when interacting with AI is one focus area of my research.

Likewise, in the metaverse, we may be able to visit our loved ones or meet strangers from around the world at any time without travelling physical distances. With avatars – digital representations of our (desired) bodies – we can exchange gestures, smiles, and even touch, creating closeness over a distance. However, how much closeness is too much? How can I signal that my personal space is violated in a digital space?

It is essential that we develop human-centric technology, which keeps humans in control. My job is thus to highlight potential challenges and to be an advocate for considering the human mind when designing novel technologies such as the metaverse or AI. 

How would you describe the impact of your research?

My research has an impact on the very basic understanding of human social cognition and also on the design of technology.

Before the pandemic, I worked extensively on understanding how people maintain - or encroach - appropriate social distances. My research group has examined personality traits and interpersonal factors which can anticipate violations of personal spaces. The topic is best studied in virtual environments as computer-simulated humans don’t break a sweat if someone comes too close, in comparison to real-life humans.

During the pandemic, we could apply this knowledge to make recommendations on enforcing distance requirements and motivate further research into social distancing.

At the same time, this very basic research can now be applied to designing spaces in the metaverse in a way that makes everybody feel safe and respected.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

I am incredibly privileged to have my dream job so early in my academic career, which wouldn’t have been possible without the support of people I have met along the way. My career went into high gear thanks to my mentors and especially my incredibly bright students, many of which are now themselves doing a PhD. I am now in a position where I can support others to bring forth new ideas, chase scientific questions, grow their network, and study for their own dream job.

What are you most excited about in your field currently? 

Psychology has faced the replicability crisis and, in turn, seen a large-scale reform of scientific practice. Methods have been reevaluated, questionable research practices have been abandoned, and barriers to open and collaborative science have been broken down.

As psychology and human-computer interaction (HCI) are intertwined, HCI researchers have started to adopt these practices and make empirical studies in HCI more rigorous and more open. This is not happening as radical reform but more as a slow and steady movement. 

Personally, I offer my data, materials, and publications freely available when possible. I also teach my students to cherish transparency because while openness is a guiding value for science, it can also be an opportunity – just last year a team of researchers in France stumbled across my open datasets and modelled their data using my approach. Moreover, they invited me over for a visit and now we’re looking into collaborating on a research project!

Sometimes the most interesting research questions arise from everyday life.

Robin Welsch, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science

How did you get into science and your field of research?

Back in 2015, during my Bachelor's in Psychology, I sat down in front of a computer during an internship. We studied how fast people with varying personalities process social information. In the project, I was tasked to adapt a computer program that used key presses to a program that uses joystick movements as input. I had no programming experience whatsoever. After all, I studied psychology to understand humans, not machines. Nevertheless, I carefully went through each line of code to understand what the program does. After a lot of trial and error, I made it work in time, and we successfully gathered the intended data. I have been fascinated with how we can use technology for psychological research ever since.

I moved on to more elaborate methods of computerised testing in 2017. Seeing my progress in programming and experimental studies, Heiko Hecht gave me the opportunity to do a PhD using VR technology. I was extremely excited to try the new technology back then, as I was sure it would change the way we do research in psychology. So, we started using virtual reality as a testbed for social phenomena that are too feeble and volatile in physical spaces - social distancing in social interactions. I led interdisciplinary teams of clinical, forensic and experimental psychologists to understand why people sometimes have trouble maintaining an appropriate distance from others. Little did I know that my research would eventually become of utmost relevance to society.

After completing my PhD in experimental psychology in 2020, I was so into technology that I switched fields and perspectives. At LMU Munich with Albrecht Schmidt, I started using scientific psychological knowledge to inform the conceptualization, design and evaluation of a range of novel technologies (from AI to augmented reality), focusing on human capabilities to inform technology design.

In each step along the way to Aalto, I have made bold moves across disciplines. As technology and psychology are at the heart of my research, engineering psychology is the best place to break down the barriers of disciplines and foster collaboration.

What are you romantic about in science?

Although reading and contributing to scientific literature is at the core of my research, sometimes the most interesting research questions arise from everyday life. One might observe how people bully a delivery robot on campus or see someone in the metro being frustrated with their phone up to the point where they throw it on the ground. As an engineering psychologist, you start asking yourself - why? Why does the passerby bully the robot? Why does the device frustrate the user? Why does he throw it on the ground?

What do you think would be important for normal people to understand about your research topics? 

My research often examines the spaces where technology fails us. It is often easy to jump to conclusions and blame developers or engineers. I think this is fundamentally wrong. Technology is made for people by engineers, but sometimes even the most professional engineers might be unable to keep up with the fast pace of technological development and its effects on the human mind. My goal is to educate future engineering psychology graduates who can work with engineers to take into account the cognitive abilities and limitations of users.

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