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Emotionally intelligent artificial conversational agents for higher education or healthcare

Artificial conversational agents, can be embodied (physical robots or digital avatars on a screen) or not embodied (chat-bots or digital assistants). Agents may be able to converse but they can also appear ‘empathetic/emotionally intelligent’ when they talk, and in the case of embodied agents they can also deliver non-verbal communication (body language/facial expressions). In the higher education domain, viva assessments (oral examinations) are used frequently to assess candidates on their work and have many benefits for both the student and the assessor. For example, providing: the opportunity to carry out highly personalised/tailored assessment, unique insight into student ability and understanding, probe depth of knowledge, ensure authenticity of submitted written work, and provide real-time feedback on performance, to name a few. Viva assessments, however, are known to cause anxiety, particularly as a result of the social interaction and in particular face-to-face interaction with an assessor/lecturer, that a traditional viva setting demands. Although there is some evidence in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and agent-based interaction research that suggests that interaction with artificial agents can elicit lower levels of anxiety compared with a human equivalent, there is a need to explore the pedagogical value of using intelligent (emotionally intelligent or similar) artificial agents to carry out viva assessments within the higher education domain. Whilst this advertisement sets the backdrop to the area in which the successful PhD candidate could position their research, there is much scope for tailoring this topic to the successful candidate’s specific knowledge, interests, and skills. Similarly, there is significant scope to explore the use of intelligent conversational agents within the area of healthcare research, for example, exploring the value of using artificial agents in the context of talking therapies (e.g. psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive analytic therapy), if this is an area that is more in line with the successful candidate’s interests.

Hence, we invite applications from candidates that have an interest exploring the value of using intelligent conversational agents within the context of higher education or healthcare. It is envisaged that the successful candidate would design, develop, and evaluate a prototype conversational agent (embodied/not embodied, possibly using wizard of oz techniques) and trial it within the chosen higher education/healthcare context.

Candidates should have good software development and prototype design and development skills. Experience of carrying out user-centred research and collecting and analysing both qualitative and quantitative data is also desirable.

How to apply

If you are interested in applying for the above PhD topic please follow the steps below:

  1. Contact the supervisor by email or phone to discuss your interest and find out if you woold be suitable. Supervisor details can be found on this topic page. The supervisor will guide you in developing the topic-specific research proposal, which will form part of your application.
  2. Click on the 'Apply here' button on this page and you will be taken to the relevant PhD course page, where you can apply using an online application.
  3. Complete the online application indicating your selected supervisor and include the research proposal for the topic you have selected.

Good luck!

This is a self funded topic

Brunel offers a number of funding options to research students that help cover the cost of their tuition fees, contribute to living expenses or both. See more information here: https://www.brunel.ac.uk/research/Research-degrees/Research-degree-funding. The UK Government is also offering Doctoral Student Loans for eligible students, and there is some funding available through the Research Councils. Many of our international students benefit from funding provided by their governments or employers. Brunel alumni enjoy tuition fee discounts of 15%.


Dr Arthur Money - Dr Arthur G. Money is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Brunel University London, where he also received his MSc in Distributed Information Systems with distinction in 2001 and PhD in Multimedia Computing in 2007. Prior to embarking on a fully funded EPSRC PhD scholarship in 2004, he worked for Oracle UK Ltd as an e-Business Technology Consultant. Dr Money’s research focuses on the user-centred design, development and evaluation of multimedia computing systems and the effective deployment of these systems with users who have complex needs spanning a range of domains including older adults, healthcare, education, and defence.