Healthy conversations with agents

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Computer Science


This PhD will explore the challenges and opportunities of employing conversational agents to deliver mental healthcare. The combination of behaviour analysis (computer vision/speech recognition), dialogue management, and behaviour generation (speech generation and interactive graphics) - underpinned by personal data - enables conversational agents. Such interfaces could try to engage users in natural conversations, which could be used to monitor one's mental health or to deliver simple computer-based treatments. These conversational agents may range from text-chat bots, to speech interfaces and even fully-fledged humanoid-like avatars. One aspect that should be studied is to what extend the brain reacts in a similar way when conversing with a virtual agent compared to a real person. To do that, you will have the ability to run an fMRI brain scanning study in collaboration with our BRC partners.

Planned Impact

We intend the Horizon CDT to be the place where partners come to find their future employees and to engage with the opportunities and challenges of digital identity and personal data. The key beneficiaries of our research will be:

- Commercial private sector companies that will engage with our CDT students during their research and/or employ them after graduation. Our partners include companies developing digital identity technologies as well as user companies across a range of sectors (consumer goods, entertainment, transportation, energy and others).

- Public sector and third sector organisations that are concerned with the use of digital identities to support civil society including broadcasters, healthcare providers and campaign groups.

- The public whose personal data forms the focus of their research and who will ultimately use and come to depend upon digital identities.

- Research communities spanning computer science, engineering, psychology, sociology, business and humanities.

These will benefit in various ways.

- Commercial, public and third sector companies will benefit from being able to recruit from a pool of talented PhD graduates who bring an in-depth understanding of digital identity and a proven ability to work in interdisciplinary teams. They will also benefit from being able to participate in co-creation of PhD research to ensure focus on relevant challenges and be able to exploit results of this PhD research.

- The public will benefit through a greater understanding of the opportunities and challenges of digital identity.

- Research communities will benefit by opening up promising new interdisciplinary fields.

Our Impact activities will be driven by Professor Derek McAuley, the Director of Horizon, who has a track record of establishing industry labs, spinning our companies and who is currently acting CIO of the TSB funded Connected Digital Economy Hub. Key activities will be:

- All Horizon PhDs will be carried out in collaboration with an external partner who will be involved in drawing up the initial topic, recruiting students, shaping the PhD proposal, supervision, and hosting at least one internship

- We will continue to organise knowledge exchange events within Horizon that are open to our network of over 100 external partners, including our annual Horizon Research Conference.

- We will encourage the release of applications, open source software, and open datasets wherever collaboration agreements allow.

- We will actively encourage our students to spin-out new ventures, including providing seedcorn funding through Horizon.

- We will engage our students with our two partner catapults, the Connected Digital Economy Catapult and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

- We will actively encourage industry visits through guest lectures on our "Broadening Horizons" core taught programme.

- We will also encourage companies to define, steer and sponsor the first year interdisciplinary team projects.

- Our students will complete a module on Public and External Engagement and are encouraged to engage in public events and exhibitions.

- Horizon's journalist-in-residence will help expose students research to the wider world through regular blogposts, while the University's marketing and communications team will help them develop press releases.

- We will provide training in research publication as part of the Professional Skills module and mentor publications through the Practice Led Project and the annual writing retreat (where students present and critique draft papers).

These impact activities will be supported by a professional online presence with posters, demos and podcasts made available through our website and associated YouTube channel and twitter feed, and with individual PhD profiles being posted on our own site and on external networking portals such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate.


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Description Bio-Medical Reseacrch Center 
Organisation National Institute for Health Research
Department NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Mental health issues are one of the most prevalent problems worldwide. Behavioral disorders such as depression, anxiety etc. reported to be the main drivers of disability leading to severe consequences including suicide and heart disease. The UK Mental Health institute reports that 1 in 6 people experienced a mental heath issue during the past week. Many of these mental health issues can heavily benefit from a prompt diagnosis or personalized and timely intervention for treatment. Unfortunately, due to the rising numbers of affected people there are long waiting times for mental health screening and delivering further treatment that causes undesirable effects. Hence governments and health facilities are exploring methods to aid this process using technology, such as automatic diagnosis or monitoring.\\ This PhD will focus on the problem of mood assessment and analysis for detecting mood disorders such as depression from video and audio data in natural environments. The outcomes of the proposed research can be successfully applied in delivering mental health care in automated patient monitoring or therapy administering platforms.\\ This PhD will focus on the problem of mood assessment and analysis for detecting mood disorders such as depression from video and audio data in natural environments. The outcomes of the proposed research can be successfully applied in delivering mental health care in automated patient monitoring or therapy administering platforms.\\
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration with the BRC provides with access to clinical expertise required for the research. The data collection is designed ethically and with safeguarding to ensure the safety and privacy of participants. The evaluation of the outcomes of the project will be carried out by the partner organisation validating the efficacy of the algorithms in measuring mood states.
Impact Shashank Jaiswal, Michel Valstar, Keerthy Kusumam, and Chris Greenhalgh. 2019. Virtual Human Questionnaire for Analysis of Depression, Anxiety and Personality. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents (IVA '19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 81-87. DOI:
Start Year 2017