This opportunity is now closed.

Funded PhD Opportunity

Should smart speakers and chatbots be polite, caring and emotionally intelligent?

Subject: Computer Science and Informatics


Conversational user interfaces or ‘chatbots’, accessible via ‘smart’ speakers’ or social media ‘direct messaging’ are software applications that engage in interactions with humans, either to automate task-related interactions, such as booking a table at a restaurant, or to engage in chat for purposes such as entertainment or companionship. The demands on chatbots to have a capability to understand the conversation with humans is opening up new research avenues as the topics of conversation turn to mental health and as digital natives seek answers in anonymity from chatbots on their phones and in their homes.

This PhD research will explore the different perspectives on how computers as chatbots interact with humans. People relate to and appreciate if an interaction with a machine is designed to take account of their ‘humanness’. This is the Computer As Social Agent (CASA) perspective. Another perspective is the Uncanny Valley of Mind (UVM) perspective, where the machine is very human-like but with some slight defect and this makes a human uncomfortable without necessarily knowing why.

The PhD study will build experiments using chatbot development frameworks employing these UVM and CASE perspectives and will explore which interaction paradigms work best with people, across ‘smart’ speakers’ and social media ‘direct messaging’ modalities. The work builds on a significant track record of success at Ulster University in chatbot research, including European, UK and Northern Ireland funding.

This is an opportunity to be part of a growing interdisciplinary research team in this exciting area, with researchers from computer science, psychology, and business researchers in the University all contributing to the team.

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £14,777 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


As Senior Engineering Manager of Analytics at Seagate Technology I utilise the learning from my PhD ever day

Adrian Johnston - PhD in Informatics

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 18 February 2019

Interview Date
25 to 29 March 2019


Jordanstown campus

Jordanstown campus
The largest of Ulster's campuses

Contact supervisor

Professor Maurice Mulvenna

Other supervisors


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