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Bridging Distance to Forge Effective Human—and Machine—Collaboration

When Judy Olson received the news that she was being inducted into the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), her husband Gary chuckled. He thought he had married a psychologist, not an engineer.

In truth, she’s both. Olson received her Ph.D. degree in experimental psychology from the University of Michigan in 1969. As computers made their way into businesses and homes, computer scientists, linguists, and psychologists like Olson began to study the nascent field of human–computer interaction. Over the course of her career, Olson has taken her background in psychology and applied it to the design of systems, which, as she says, is engineering, broadly defined.

This is the work that has earned her a spot in the NAE, making her one of only a few thousand peer-elected members to be asked to provide leadership and unbiased guidance to the government of the United States. Olson donned a new outfit that included a bright yellow sequined jacket and her husband put on a tuxedo to attend the NAE reception in Washington, D.C., where she, the Donald Bren Professor Emeritus of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), was honored for her “leadership, technical innovations, and development of systems that support collaborative work at a distance.”

Creating Her Own Path Olson’s college-self might be as amused as her spouse at the direction her career has taken, but that has been the thrill of it. In fact, the advice she would give to young engineers is just that: bloom where you’re planted. “You can’t map out or predict your career,” Olson says. The best path to success, then? Leverage opportunities and give yourself the flexibility to change direction based on circumstances.

At first, Olson followed the wellworn, expected path. “I liked psychology, I liked math, but I was told I needed a Ph.D., so I did that. Then I was told I needed to be an academic, so I did that,”she recalls about her early years when she received her Ph.D. degree, completed her postdoctoral work at Stanford University, and then returned to the University of Michigan in 1970 to teach in the Psychology Department.

There, she enjoyed her work but found the mathematical psychology component frustrating. “You had to make all sorts of ridiculous assumptions,” she recalls, “like assume a normal distribution when things weren’t normal.” This frustration led Olson to what was an exciting new development in the field of psychology at the time—the use of computer simulations. In her research, she used computer simulations to help study how humans remember, or, more accurately, how they forget, that is, whether memories decay or are “bumped out.”

In 1980, she left her professorship at Michigan to become a member of the technical staff in the Human Factors departments at Bell Labs. Bell Labs, the research and development company responsible for the transistor, the laser, and Unix, among many other inventions, was the place to work for any talented engineer. She excelled there and moved up the career ladder quickly, but a few years later, she was ready to return to Michigan.

This time, her new expertise brought her to the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Shortly thereafter, she became one of the founding members of Michigan’s School of Information. Her most cited paper, “Distance Matters,” cowritten in 2000 with her husband and colleague, delves into the complications that arise when remote teams try to collaborate. Eighteen years ago, the Olsons found that these geographically dispersed teams had difficulty finding a “common ground” and that, as a result, members often lacked the incentive to share ideas and work together.

Since then, as the technology landscape has changed around us, Olson has continued to evaluate how groups such as those working on scientific research (including her own teams) can better use technology to their benefit. How, for example, can science researchers collaborate on a shared paper? In the 1990s, Olson and her team studied this by designing ShrEdit, a shared editor that allowed people to work on the same document at the same time. The research team tracked and evaluated how people worked together with this software decades before Google Docs became the mainstay of collaborative work in educational and corporate settings in the 2010s.

After retiring from the University of Michigan in 2008, Olson moved to California, where she served as the Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at UCI, until her official, second retirement last year.

A Way to Participate Throughout her career, Olson has studied the difficulties people face when they attempt to work together when separated by long distances and across time zones. She has tackled the question of how this type of collaboration can be successful: what technologies do the collaborators need, and what are the social practices that enable this work?

While Olson has often discovered that remote collaboration comes with many hurdles and may never take the place of face-to-face collaboration, the flip side is that technology has enabled many to participate when otherwise they might not have been able. Of all of her projects, perhaps the most meaningful and encouraging has been Olson’s latest work at UCI, where she works alongside postdoctoral fellow Veronica Newhart studying the use of telepresence robots in education. Although technically retired, Olson has not been able to give up this research.

“When children are homebound, whether because of illness or injury or for other reasons, tutoring can help them meet their academic needs, but they miss out on the social learning,” Olson explains. Small, seemingly inconsequential experiences, such as waiting in line, waiting your turn, or being motivated by those around you, are important to a child’s learning and development and cannot be simulated in a home-school environment. Telepresence robots, though, where the students actually remotely participate in their classrooms, have given homebound students a more social alternative to being homeschooled or tutored.

As she has done with her other research into distance collaboration, Olson set out to research the advantages and disadvantages of these robots. She and Newhart observed not just the homebound child but the schoolchildren and teachers interacting with the robot as well. They interviewed parents, educators, and students to understand how to improve future generations of telepresence robots.

They were pleased to find that there were so many advantages, some unexpected. The telepresence robot has a slim, utilitarian design, made for maneuvering through tight spaces. It’s essentially an iPad on a stick with wheels. Because of their experience with game controllers, the students adapt quickly to this new and yet somewhat familiar device. Once the initial excitement of the robot wears off, class tends to get back to normal, and normal means that the homebound student is included in activities almost as if being physically present. Classmates, Olson found, don’t talk about “the robot” but talk instead about the child, identifying the robot by the child’s name. Younger children dress the robot, sometimes hanging a Tshirt from its long body or changing it into a costume at Halloween.

The robot brings key social benefits to the homebound child, and this can impact the student in positive ways. It can even aid in a student’s recovery. Olson likes to share the story of a young boy kept at home because of a heart defect. His health was poor. He was enervated, and seemed to be growing worse. In fact, when offered a robot, the family initially turned it down because he appeared too weak for the extra activity. After some time, though, they decided to try it. The first day, the little boy spent five hours on the robot. He has done that every day since. “It turns out he wasn’t getting worse and worse medically, but he was depressed,” Olson says. The boy, who likes to sing, even used his telepresence robot to try out for and join the choir. Telepresence robots aren’t just for elementary students. In 2016, Newhart convinced the class of 2016 at UCI to purchase robots as their class gift. These robots have allowed university students, including law students and nursing students who need to attend rounds and find their way to labs, to continue their studies while being homebound to recover from a temporary condition.

Finding Ways to Bond

Olson’s work in helping technology more effectively break down the barriers that can come with distance has led to understanding what makes any team bond. In their work together, she and her husband have studied the importance of understanding diverse cultures and building trust, regardless of where team members are located.

This means that today, as universities turn increasingly to cross-collaboration and multidisciplinary research, Olson and her spouse, who together were awarded the CHI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, are finding themselves in demand. At the request of the vice chancellor of research at UCI, the Olsons are advising science teams from different disciplines on ways that they can develop successful partnerships. Their main piece of advice? Spend time together.

Finding ways to connect is important in today’s fast-paced, deadline-driven, technology-heavy work world, but it is important to build up trust among your teammates. “Social things are what bond people together and create trust,” Olson says. When she teaches her own project based classes with undergraduate students, one of her first assignments is for students to send her a photograph of all of them out doing something social together. It is out at dinner, face to face, as the students talk about their backgrounds, their families, and their goals, that, Olson says, “they start to see each other as real people, trustworthy as well as trusting.”

This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2018.

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