Humanoids, i.e. human-like robots, will become more and more a part of our everyday lives in the future – not least at IT trade fairs they are real crowd pullers. What does this have to do with Dr Maria Staudte? Besides technical aspects, artificial intelligence and the question “What will robots be able to do in the future?”, we learn a lot about our own human behaviour when we interact with machines. And it was precisely this human-machine interaction that was Maria Staudte’s research subject for many years.
Research and teaching in Saarland
She studied computational linguistics at Saarland University – in Germany’s second-smallest state – among other places, then did her doctorate in cognitive science and later researched and taught there as a junior research group leader. Researchers in cognitive sciences deal with the processing of information in the context of perception, thinking and decision-making processes, both in humans and animals as well as in interaction with machines. The focus is on areas such as memory, learning, language, emotion or motivation. Maria Staudte specialises in language.
What fascinates me about cognitive science is the diversity of disciplines involved – from psychology to linguistics and neuroscience to computer science and AI – and the strongly experimental approach.Dr. Maria Staudte To the profile
“How do people process language and this also in interaction with machines? Communication between individuals is not only based on pure language, but facial expressions, gestures or eye behaviour in combination with the right timing play a big role. For this purpose, for example, I worked a lot with eye tracking in the experiments,” Staudte continues.
An example of an experiment: a robot that explains a subject matter on the soundtrack but looks away at a moment that is inappropriate for its counterpart has been shown to irritate humans. Its behaviour is not congruent for the human: expectations are thwarted and the irritation leads to the counterpart not processing linguistic information as quickly – ultimately it even leads to a loss of confidence in the machine’s abilities. “Sometimes it takes mistakes in otherwise smooth communication to understand how it actually works.”
Move to Bavaria and new tasks at bidt
The move from Saarland to Munich and bidt came in 2020. At Bavaria’s digital institute, she has moved from research to science management and is strengthening the bidt team as research coordinator for junior researcher programmes with a focus on promoting doctoral students. She had already taken on tasks in science management during her time at Saarland University: For a long time, she was a junior research group leader in the university’s Cluster of Excellence, supervised doctoral theses and worked as a principal investigator and board member in a collaborative research centre. Nevertheless, such a change of role after many years in research with an extensive network to coordination and management takes courage – but the curiosity for a new activity and new challenges prevailed.
What really attracted me to the new challenge at the time was that the promotion of young researchers at bidt was to be restructured in cooperation with the Bavarian Ministry of Science. That offered really great development and creative opportunities. With the help of my own experience in research and supervision, I can contribute to further improving training and support formats in Bavaria, especially for doctoral students.Dr. Maria Staudte To the profile
Time to take stock: More than 15 years in research now contrast with a good two years as a research coordinator. And as in her own research period, Staudte has achieved a lot here in a very short time, together with her cooperation partners and colleagues.
Junior researcher programme relaunched
in 2022, the junior researcher programme was relaunched: The bidt coordinates and supervises the Graduate Centre, among other things. “Our tasks include organising the selection processes of the funded students as well as designing the programmes for training and coaching. With the Graduate Center, we create opportunities for interdisciplinary networking and offer diverse support for doctoral students researching digital transformation,” says Maria Staudte. The area of responsibility is diverse and requires a lot of commitment. It is not unusual for Staudte – who is an avid volleyball and badminton player in her spare time – to keep many organisational balls in the air.
Maria Staudte’s professional biography is also characterised by two things: Internationality and interdisciplinarity. So Staudte can also bring her experiences as a visiting scholar, for example in New York a few years ago, into her professional practice at bidt in so many places. “At that time, my husband, who also works in academia, and I moved to New York with our young daughter as visiting researchers when we were new parents – I did research there at Stony Brook University. It was an inspiring time, also because as a scientist you experience how research works elsewhere – for example, at that time ethical standards in psycholinguistics, a sub-field of linguistics, were already much more established at US universities than in Germany,” Maria Staudte continues.
With regard to the PhD students, interdisciplinarity is once again the trump card: the topics they research are as diverse as the fields of study involved and range from hate speech in social networks to – precisely – human-machine interaction. Maria Staudte therefore continues to encounter the topic of human-machine interaction, as it is also the research subject of many projects funded by bidt. And even though she herself is no longer actively involved in research, the doctoral students have a very experienced sparring partner at their side in Maria Staudte, who practically knows the scientific business inside out.
A milestone then was certainly the first meeting of all young researchers in autumn 2022. “I organised the kick-off of the Graduate Center together with my colleague Dr. Christina Dieckhoff, who supervises the postdocs at bidt. It was a great experience to see how the young scientists exchange scientific ideas and network with each other. After two years of intensive work, you had the feeling: now something new is starting. And that was just the beginning.