Building Bots with Heart

| July 27, 2020

New computer science alumna Shreya Gupta hopes to bring humanity to deep learning by developing empathetic robots that can attune to your emotions.

After earning a master’s in computer science at USC, Shreya Gupta landed a dream job as lead data scientist at an LA-based AI start-up developing conversational artificial intelligence. Photo/Louis De Barraicua.

Could your phone comfort you after receiving bad news? How would your computer react if you looked angry or upset? Would you prefer if Alexa knew when it was annoying you? It might sound like science fiction, but researchers say computers that could read your emotions, and have some sort of emotional intelligence, may not be far off.

This burgeoning field, called “affective computing,” has fascinated Shreya Gupta, a recent USC graduate, since she was an undergraduate student at Guru Nanak Dev University in her home state of Punjab in India. And now, after earning a master’s in computer science at USC, she’s landed her ideal job as lead data scientist at an LA-based AI start-up developing conversational artificial intelligence.

Interweaving humans and machines

What exactly does this mean? Well, to have meaningful conversations with humans, a bot needs more than simple keyword detection—it also must understand human context and tone. In her new role, Gupta and her team are working to create chatbots that can “understand” how people are feeling, and tailor their responses accordingly.

“I love computers and machines but I love people and emotional connection even more,” said Gupta.

“I love computers and machines but I love people and emotional connection even more.” Shreya Gupta.

“Since emotions are the main driving force for humans, I feel the best way to interweave humans and machines on a deeper level is to make machines capable of understanding and emulating humans, which is what drove me to pursue affective computing.”

Gupta’s long-term goal is to build empathetic robots and machines that attune to your mood to provide people 24-hour therapy, and make mental health care more affordable, specifically for suicide prevention.

“It is very important to me that all the work I am doing is not just limited to a fortunate few but everyone can access it,” said Gupta.

“I have seen firsthand how expensive healthcare is in India and it drove me to find a way to make it affordable. Since I was into computer science, I figured I could use these skills to make an impact in society, which would be bigger than me and touch more lives.”

Socially intelligent robots

Gupta was born and raised in Pathankot, a city in the Punjab state of India. During her junior year, she was researching emotional recognition—specifically sound design for socially intelligent robots—when she came across research by USC Viterbi’s Chan Soon-Shiong Chair and Distinguished Professor Maja Matarić, a pioneer of socially assistive robotics, and Professor Jonathan Gratch, whose research focuses on virtual humans and computational models of emotion.

“It is very important to me that all the work I am doing is not just limited to a fortunate few but everyone can access it.” Shreya Gupta.

“This cutting-edge research solidified my decision that USC was the best place to achieve my goal of making empathetic robots a reality,” said Gupta. 

At USC, in addition to completing an internship in deep learning, Gupta worked with a doctoral candidate from USC Annenberg on a project investigating how intelligent assistants can encourage positive behaviors in people, such as donating or sharing.

While she initially joined the team to design and develop the system interface, the project allowed her to dive deeper into both psychology and technology, learning more about human behavior and how humans interact with artificial intelligence and each other.

“This added a layer of understanding that will help me with building a holistic emotional intelligence in AI and ultimately begin to start making mental healthcare more accessible to people,” said Gupta. “If I can save even one life, I will consider my goal achieved.”

Crossing a milestone

Like many newcomers to the city, Gupta was hit by culture shock when she first arrived in Los Angeles to pursue her master’s in 2018. But after joining societies and getting involved in life on campus, she soon settled in and became a mentor to others.

In her two years at USC, Gupta volunteered with various organizations including VAST USC, teaching programming to young kids, and Black Girls Code, introducing girls from all age groups to computer science.

She also served as president of the USC Hindu Student Organization (HSO) and as session chair for the 2019 IDEAS SoCal Data Science conference. Last May, she spoke about her research in a talk entitled “Adding Emotional Intelligence in Artificial Intelligence to Make it Truly Intelligent,” at the virtual IBM Chicago AI and Data Tech Buffet.

It’s been a wild ride—and it’s just the beginning for Gupta, who fell in love with her adopted city of LA and plans to work and live here long-term.

“I never imagined leaving my city and then coming thousands of miles away from home—leaving my family was so hard, but the feeling of having crossed this milestone in life was magical,” said Gupta.

“Every time I talk to my friends who are struggling to be away from their family, I encourage them to just hang in there, to fight for their dream, enjoy this journey because it is so worth it.”

Get to Know Shreya Gupta

Favorite memory of your time at USC?

As president of the Hindu Student Organization, organizing our biggest annual event, Diwali, with more than 500 attendees gave me such a sense of pride and made me feel connected to my roots. When a student walked up to me and said, “I was depressed but attending the weekly aarti [a Hindu religious ritual of worship] helped me get out of my depression and feel at home,” it was a moment I will never forget.

Favorite class?

My absolute favorite is CSCI585, Database Systems, by Professor Saty [Saty Raghavachary]. He is the most humble and well-liked professor I have ever met. The course taught me the concepts that I got to use every day in my internship. I also learned a lot in artificial intelligence, deep learning, algorithms, information retrieval, natural language processing and software management.

What did you discover about yourself during your studies at USC?

The most monumental thing I discovered about myself is my ability to be a leader and that I can handle stress. Leaving my country for the first time, coming here all alone and starting from scratch and building a life for myself was definitely no small feat for me.

Did anything surprise you about LA or the USA in general?

The thing that surprised me the most was how accepting people are. I was surprised by how easily I was able to feel at home at USC. Initially I thought that it was because of all the diversity support and student organizations at USC. But when I met people outside campus, I realized that it was really this beautiful city of dreams, which is a melting pot for people of all colors, cultures, languages and nationalities. Every time I venture outside, I have been fortunate enough to come across amazing and very welcoming people who never made me feel like an outsider. Now I think of LA as my home in The States.

What advice would you have for other students who wish to follow a similar path?

Even if you think your profile lacks something and you won’t be selected, do not give up—build your resume in other aspects. If you don’t have work experience, do research; if you don’t have time for research, build passion projects. Lastly, do not follow the herd blindly. You know what you want—do everything that you need to make that a reality. When everyone says you cannot do it, instead of letting that deter you or dampen your spirits, use that as a challenge and make your dreams come true.

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