Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Computer Science

First Advisor's Name

Christine Lisetti

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Naphtali Rishe

Third Advisor's Name

Tao Li

Fourth Advisor's Name

Ubbo Visser

Fifth Advisor's Name

Mark Williams


spoken dialog systems, health interventions, reinforcement learning, dialog management, embodied conversational agents, ECAs, IVAs, semantic networks, sentiment analysis

Date of Defense



Research endeavors on spoken dialogue systems in the 1990s and 2000s have led to the deployment of commercial spoken dialogue systems (SDS) in microdomains such as customer service automation, reservation/booking and question answering systems. Recent research in SDS has been focused on the development of applications in different domains (e.g. virtual counseling, personal coaches, social companions) which requires more sophistication than the previous generation of commercial SDS. The focus of this research project is the delivery of behavior change interventions based on the brief intervention counseling style via spoken dialogue systems.

Brief interventions (BI) are evidence-based, short, well structured, one-on-one counseling sessions. Many challenges are involved in delivering BIs to people in need, such as finding the time to administer them in busy doctors' offices, obtaining the extra training that helps staff become comfortable providing these interventions, and managing the cost of delivering the interventions. Fortunately, recent developments in spoken dialogue systems make the development of systems that can deliver brief interventions possible.

The overall objective of this research is to develop a data-driven, adaptable dialogue system for brief interventions for problematic drinking behavior, based on reinforcement learning methods. The implications of this research project includes, but are not limited to, assessing the feasibility of delivering structured brief health interventions with a data-driven spoken dialogue system. Furthermore, while the experimental system focuses on harmful alcohol drinking as a target behavior in this project, the produced knowledge and experience may also lead to implementation of similarly structured health interventions and assessments other than the alcohol domain (e.g. obesity, drug use, lack of exercise), using statistical machine learning approaches.

In addition to designing a dialog system, the semantic and emotional meanings of user utterances have high impact on interaction. To perform domain specific reasoning and recognize concepts in user utterances, a named-entity recognizer and an ontology are designed and evaluated. To understand affective information conveyed through text, lexicons and sentiment analysis module are developed and tested.


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