In conversation with Professor Janet Wiles

27 Jun 2019

Professor Janet Wiles is the research leader of the Co-Innovation Group in the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland, Professor Wiles is also Chief Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), and leader of the New Technologies thread. 

In this interview, Professor Wiles speaks about her life’s work and current research interests with Amanda Hamilton-Hollaway, a PhD candidate with CoEDL.

Professor Wiles said for engineers, understanding language is critical for understanding how humans use it with technology, but also for how language impacts on the accessibility of technology.

“From the perspective of the computer scientist and roboticist, this is about understanding its breadth and formal structures, but also how language is used for ‘in the moment’ communication – the full embodiment of language as used by real people,” said Professor Wiles.  

“Meanwhile, we are bringing new computational techniques to accelerate linguistic transcription, but also machine learning, so ways of thinking about things we might never have done before.

“There’s sometimes an assumption that the Centre of Excellence belongs to linguists, but actually the discipline is much broader!”

Professor Wiles' current research focuses on social robotics and how technology can help groups with different needs, from children learning Indigenous languages to people with cognitive impairment, or living with dementia.

“Our experiments with a little rat-robot led us to believe that robots cannot just be treated as cognitive architectures embodied in devices, but as social devices”, she said. 

“As soon as any large moving object comes into your physical space it has a different impact on you than a stationary one.

"And if it has its own intentions, it will hook the parts of your brain that seems to be used for social engagement.”

And what inspires her about her work?

“What really excites me is how computation is embodied in the world,” she said.

“Whether it’s a network of computers, the brain, or social interactions between people scaled up to make societies.

“Change one tiny part of a system, one gene in an organism, one word in a novel, and mostly it doesn’t change much.

"But there are some places where one tiny change ripples through and changes everything.”