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Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics

With Elaine Huang at "Café Sprüngli"

Elaine Huang knew early on that she had a clear calling for teaching. Later, she also uncovered an affinity for research. She now combines these two passions to explore how technology transforms human practices, and how human needs shape technological advancements.

Motivated by her passion for teaching, Elaine Huang decided to pursue an academic career. While she initially viewed research as a necessity, her perspective changed during her doctoral studies due to the rewarding interactions with students and the potential to make a significant scientific impact. Thus encouraged, she embraced the opportunity to become a professor. Her area of expertise is human-computer interaction, which describes the intricate relationship between humans and technology and how they affect each other. When she came to Switzerland in 2010, she was intrigued by the open-minded and practical approach to computer science at the Department of Informatics. „It is not merely viewed as an academic subject, but recognized for its massive impact on people‘s lives“, she explains. The culture of the department also leaves plenty of room for individuals to pursue their interests. „I truly feel like no one is telling me that part of my research isn‘t worthwhile or that I should be working on something else instead.”

Technology and gender equality

One research question she is passionate about is how technology can contribute to achieving gender equality and inclusion. Women are still underrepresented in computer science. Addressing this issue systematically is of utmost importance, according to Huang. She emphasizes the need to go beyond recruiting more females, and to ensure unbiased evaluation of student performance. “There is a common belief that women struggle more in mathematics or technical exercises. The question I always ask: What are the assessments? Who made them? Could it be that the system itself is to blame, rather than any actual gender differences in abilities? And how might the tools and platforms we use unintentionally disadvantage one gender over another?”

These discussions are gaining importance, especially when we consider the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). The lack of transparency in the training and functioning of AI presents a notable threat to gender equality, potentially undoing the progress made thus far. “If biases are already present in the training data, they may be maintained or even amplified by the automatic results generated by the AI," Huang points out. Therefore, achieving equality through technology requires a nuanced understanding of these dynamics and a committed effort to create an environment that promotes inclusion.

Beyond intuition

An important learning Elaine Huang encounters repeatedly: Researchers' intuition regarding people's use of technology and its impact on their behavior is consistently poor. “This realization is important, considering that the majority of people in the technology industry tend to overlook this fact”, she states. This misconception presents intriguing challenges when dealing with disruptive technologies like ChatGPT and artificial intelligence. “The real difficulty with highly disruptive technologies lies in accurately predicting their potential disruptions and mechanisms. Therefore, it becomes essential to actively collect data in order to understand the real-world utilization and influence of these technologies. It is important to acknowledge that despite our many assumptions about their impact, we are likely to be wrong in about 90% of these predictions.”

Elaine Huang's advice to current students is to embrace a proactive approach rather than passively allowing their studies to unfold. "Take charge of your educational journey, identify the resources at your disposal, and learn how to maximize them to achieve your desired career outcomes."

Author: Jamie Brama
Photos: Caroline Krajcir

Weiterführende Informationen

Elaine Huang

Elaine Huang

Elaine M. Huang is associate professor of Human-Computer Interaction and Head of the People and Computing Lab at the Department of Informatics UZH. Before joining the University of Zurich in 2010, she was an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, Canada and received her PhD in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, USA. The interview took place at Café Sprüngli at Paradeplatz in Zurich.

Excerpted from Oec. Magazine, Issue 19, June 2023.