19 April 2016

Her goal: computers that understand people

Lynda Hardman appointed Professor of Multimedia Discourse Interaction

Prof. Lynda Hardman
Prof. Lynda Hardman

The Executive Board of Utrecht University has appointed Lynda Hardman to the post of part-time Professor of Multimedia Discourse Interaction at the Faculty of Science’s Department of Information and Computing Sciences. Hardman is also a researcher at the Centrum Wiskunde en Informatica in Amsterdam, and President of the Board of Informatics Europe. Her goal: to create a computer that answers your questions the way you want it to. “Right now, the user has to do all the hard work.”

“When I want to compare publications by my colleagues, I google their CVs. That means: type, read, type, read. But what I really want is a table with an overview of each researcher’s publications”, Hardman cites as an example. “Or an automatic spoken answer when you’re cycling. Or not having to watch a whole documentary if you’re just interested in what one person has to say. In a European project, researchers have even worked on providing answers to questions that viewers might have during a broadcast.”    

Computers that understand people

The challenge: computers that understand people. That can understand a question and turn it into information that is needed to give an answer, structures the information and then processes it into a coherent answer. When will we have a computer like that? “In N years, but I don’t know how large N is, exactly”, laughs Hardman.

The interaction between a player and a game is closely related to my work.


Her field of study is still a niche area. “What Google does is model information. But there’s also a ‘semantic web’, that’s very good at storing and describing data and the relationships between the data. In Wikipedia, for example, you have a fixed table for cities and people, which collects all of the information in a database. That’s a source that you can do a lot of fun things with, but it’s very different from presenting an answer to someone’s question in a way that the user would like to receive it. I suspect that companies think that this is too difficult to risk their good name.”

Game Technology

Hardman explains that one of the reasons for coming to Utrecht is the knowledge of Game Technology present at the university. “The interaction between a player and a game is closely related to my work. Game developers implicitly use a model of the user’s communication needs. By looking closely at the interaction between the player and the game, we can derive a communication model that is also useful for the intelligent systems that I want to build”, she explains.

Curriculum vitae

Lynda Hardman (1960) was born in Glasgow and studied Mathematics and Physics at Glasgow University. She obtained her PhD at the University of Amsterdam on research that she conducted at the Centrum Wiskunde en Informatica (CWI), where she later received a permanent post. She has also worked as a part-time Professor at the TU Eindhoven for seven years, as well as five years as a Professor by special appointment at the University of Amsterdam.

Informatics Europe

In 2014, Hardman was recognised as an ACM Distinguished Scientist. Last year, she was also elected President of the Board of Informatics Europe, where she has been a member of the Board since 2012. Informatics Europe is an association of European computer science departments and research institutes.

More information

Video about the European project LinkedTV, which Hardman collaborated on.