Faculty voice:

Prabu David: New research areas

Sept. 26, 2017

Prabu David is the dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. His research emphasis is communication technology and health.

When you think of communication research, neuroscience or computation are not the first words that come to mind. But this year in ComArtSci, that may be the case.

ComArtSci will be launching two new areas - communication neuroscience and computational communication. Strands of interest in both areas are prevalent in the college. The impetus for creating these areas is to consolidate interests and create a critical mass for research and instruction. In the near future, we will be rolling out new undergraduate and graduate curricula in media analytics. I am excited about the potential of the two new areas, which is the focus of my geek-out blog.

Communication research follows research traditions in the social sciences and humanities that are based on self-reports, which involve asking individuals to report their thoughts, attitudes or behaviors. These responses are then organized and analyzed systematically.

Self-report data, such as expressions of like or dislike of an ad, a political candidate or an iPhone are the mainstay of communication research and are not likely to disappear anytime soon. Breakthroughs in science and technology, however, offer new lenses that can augment self-report data. At ComArtSci, we embrace these new opportunities - communication neuroscience and computational communication.

Communication Neuroscience

Instead of asking a research participant for thoughts about an iPhone, researchers can present an iPhone ad and glean insights from the firings of neurons. In addition, heart rates, brain waves, sweaty palms, eye blinks, eye tracking and even the twitch of facial muscles provide rich streams of psychophysiological data that can reveal a lot about our inner state. By combining our biological tics, experts can piece together our thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes, excitement and boredom, stereotypes and prejudices.

These measures are an integral part of the ComArtSci research tradition and currently they are used in research labs by small teams of faculty and students. By adding advanced brain imaging methods, such as fMRI and fNIR, to the toolkit, we can build a stronger community of researchers who can take on new challenges.

Computational Communication

Another emerging area is computational communication, which relies on our digital footprints to create profiles of individuals, groups, organizations or societies. Using data-scraping, natural language processing, artificial intelligence and statistical procedures, researchers can circumvent self-reports.

Through analysis of social media, sentiments about current issues or political candidates can be surmised. Through a technique called topic modeling, we can understand the foremost issues of the day on Twitter. And through analysis of social networks on Facebook, inferences can be made about the emotional well-being of individuals.

Fine-grained data from digital footprints allow for precision messaging. The ads we see on our smartphones, the products we find on Amazon and news we read on Facebook are no accident. They are attempts at precision messaging determined by computer algorithms designed to present persuasive information tailored specifically to our profiles. Only corporations with access to our digital footprints or the wherewithal to acquire them are in the precision messaging business. Now that's about to change with an influx of academics into computational communication.

ComArtSci’s long-standing reputation as a leader in the study of persuasion and social influence, our pedigree in quantitative research, and our new hires make us a legitimate contender in this space and we are ready to seize the moment.

As computation, precision messaging and artificial intelligence control communication, we have to contend with the inevitable ethical dilemmas. Data ownership, privacy, cybersecurity, human-robot interaction and autonomous vehicles are topics at the intersection of communication and computation that demand ingenuity. And ComArtSci is ready to take on these new challenges.

While I am excited about these new frontiers, I am also energized by the potential of these new areas to shed light on the basic processes of communication. Communication is an interaction that extends over time, with each interaction shaping subsequent interactions over days and even years, which laboratory studies cannot address. Simulations through agent-based modeling and longitudinal techniques offer new possibilities to develop models of communication that incorporate the time dimension.

Social science, humanities and research methods were sufficient training for communication research when I was a graduate student. I suspect that is no longer the case. We have made strides as a discipline, and developments in science and technology demand that we explore the frontiers of research in communication neuroscience and computational communication. Who will venture into these new frontiers? Spartans Will.

Reprinted with permission from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences