Emma M. van Zoelen

Design and AI Research, Human-AI Collaboration,
Human-Centered AI

Vision on the world, Design and AI

I believe we should design a future world, instead of designing merely a future product. A future world in which technology is not added to our society, but in which it creates and cooperates with our society.

Many innovations and technologies advance in such a way that they don’t bring real value to our lives or society. They help us in all sorts of practical ways, but no one seems to stand still to truly think about the cultural and societal effects on a bigger scale. Most people either just accept that these technologies are there, losing themselves in the chaos of fast developments, or they become afraid that technology will take over the Earth and become a danger to the human race.

This creates a challenge. The challenge to make technology that enables people and intelligent technology such as artificially intelligent systems to work together on the same level, to empower people in using their qualities such as imagination, to encourage people to live life to the fullest and create their own stories of life.

To achieve this goal, designers with a vision should cooperate across disciplines to be able to match (inter)national policymaking with technological development.



I think. A lot. About the world, society, life, death… And about technology and the role it has to play in the story of the human race.

I often wonder what the world would look like if certain technologies or ways of dealing with life would be different. I wonder what the changes would do to us, the people, what it would do to our feelings and perception of the world. Stories, especially in the genres of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, help in challenging the views we have on the world. They create scenarios of how society might be different when some aspects would change.

Writers and storytellers are designers of worlds, whereas many people are designers of little aspects. I want to design systems that take a vision of a future world into account, by using narratives and stories.

I want to research the interaction between intelligent systems and people, and how they can empower each other. I want to find out how the presence of intelligent systems influences people’s perception and experience of the world and how I can support the processes of changing values and cultures.

I am...

A design and AI researcher. I like to research fundamental issues around the social system of the world and how intelligent and autonomous systems can play a role in that, while using creative and pragmatic methods from design. I focus on the unique qualities of people and even though I might conduct more theoretical and technical work, experiments with humans are essential to me. In this, I highly value a combination of quantitative, qualitative and constructive methods to get a broad view on a research topic. I thrive in interdisciplinary teams where team members can provide me with different viewpoints. One of the most enjoyable challenges in interdisciplinary research for me is to try to find the common ground between those viewpoints, a direction that makes most out of all expertise present.

The Story of becoming a Design & AI Researcher

A few years ago, just before my Final Bachelor Project, I became interested in Artificial Intelligence as a technology, and its role in the social fabric of the world. My FBP was a first exploration of the social role that AI can have. Many questions came out of this, which made me realize I needed more knowledge on AI. Combined with a wish for learning more mathematical and theoretical knowledge and skills, this made me decide to pursue an AI Master’s program next to Industrial Design.

My goal was to focus on the Math, Data and Computing expertise area in the AI program, and to focus on the User and Society expertise are within ID. Ultimately, I wanted to combine the two by working on complex technologies and their role in society. Moreover, I wanted to learn more about research and research methods. With this, I wanted to become a design researcher into the topic of human- and society-centered AI.

Over the years, however, I first slowly became more of an AI researcher and less of a designer. Since the two programs were so separate, it was sometimes difficult to combine the two in one clear identity or profession. While working on my AI thesis though, I realized that part of me is still definitely a designer. Although the topics in AI research highly interest me, I lean towards the topics that are more aimed at interaction with humans. Also, I missed being creative throughout the research process and being able to speculate about future societies, something that has always been a great part of my process here at Industrial Design.

Following this, my FMP was a search for a balance between AI topics of research and viewpoints and methods from design. Coming right out of my AI thesis, it was a challenge to get back to the design mindset, and I think that it took me the complete M2.1 semester to get comfortable in the methods I was choosing. Using design to communicate my ideas at the Dutch Design Week helped me to gain back confidence in my design and storytelling skills, as I was able to paint a clear picture of the future-oriented ideas I had.

View some of the highlights of my story below.

PDP M1.1 PDP M1.2 PDP M2.1 PDP M2.2 AI Thesis

Learning about Agents

Doing the Agents track in the AI Master program provided me with a basis in general logic, game theory and learning in intelligent agents and multi-agent systems, as well as an overview of the academic literature.


Writing Critical Research Proposals

One course in the AI Master program required me to write AI research proposals based on literature from psychology and linguistics. This taught me to be critical on existing research and to find new ways to apply it to my own work.


Interdisciplinary Seminars Honors Program

Participating in an interdisciplinary research honors program made me work with peers and teachers from a wide variety of backgrounds (e.g. philosophy, business, psychology, chemistry). This inspired me and made me value the power of interdisciplinarity.


AI thesis: Learning to Communicate Proactively in Human-Agent Teaming

For my AI thesis I interned at TNO, where I discovered other people with a strong interest in human-agent collaboration. I worked on reinforcement learning agents that learned to communicate proactively by training in simulation first and learning more socially desirable behavior from collaborating with humans.


M1.2: First Research Project

Conducting my first full research project helped me to confirm that I really enjoy research. I learned how to do a systematic analysis of qualitative data obtained in a longitudinal study.


M1.1 Paper accepted to AutoUI

After having worked on several academic papers, the first that was accepted was my M1.1 work. I went to AutoUI to present the work and was very inspired by the community and the work presented there.


Talking about AI & Design

I was invited to talk about my vision on AI & Design and my work at Mind the Step 2017, at an Art + Technology Society event and at the Design United exhibition of 2019. Talking about my ideas was very motivating and helped me start a discussion with a more general audience.


Overcoming Insecurities

During my Master, it was sometimes difficult to see myself as an AI or design expert, and especially during my AI thesis I was often feeling like I wasn't good enough. The last semester I have worked on regaining my confidence, and other people's trust in me helped me to believe in myself again.


Mutual Understanding in Human-Machine Collaboration Evolving Leader-Follower Behavior

My FMP project is a research study on evolving and emerging leader-follower behavior between humans and intelligent machines. This topic originated from an interest in creating mutual understanding between humans and intelligent machines through emergent interactions. Through a final experiment, I studied how people shift leadership in situations where there are seemingly conflicting intentions between themselves and the machine.

M2.1 Paper M2.2 Paper + Report
Design & Research Processes
Reflection on Goals
User & Society
Math, Data & Computing
Technology & Realization
Creativity & Aesthetics
Business & Entrepreneurship

Please browse through my other Learning Activities

Skills and Knowledge in the Expertise Areas

My chosen areas of expertise are User & Society and Math, Data and Computing. Click below to read about my skillset for each expertise area.

User & Society
Math, Data & Computing
Technology & Realization
Creativity & Aesthetics
Business & Entrepreneurship

Future: Dreams and Ambitions

Next month, I will be starting a PhD in the Interactive Intelligence group at the TU Delft, combined with the Perceptual and Cognitive Systems group at TNO. The topic of my PhD will be personalized learning in Human-Agent teaming context: I will be working on how we can build agents that support the learning of humans by learning themselves in collaboration. This relates a lot to the topic of my FMP, as it is also about how both human and machine learn and adapt to each other.

Before I found this specific position, I set up a few requirements for a job. Looking across disciplines and envisioning what role (AI) technology might play in a future world is what I would love to do. There are four aspects that I feel I need in a future job:

High-Level Human-Agent Interaction such as human-agent collaboration or teaming

Future Society Oriented, taking into account future societal developments and culture changes, which makes the work rather exploratory

Mixed Methods: also creative: it should be possible to use various methods, and there should be openness to unconventional and creative methods such as Research through Design

Multi/Inter-Disciplinary Team: it would be especially great if there are other people working on the same or a similar project, preferably people with different backgrounds

Currently, I think that the topic of my PhD meets these four requirements, and while working on it I will make sure that they are continuously met. I do not yet know whether I want to stay in academia after my PhD, but I do know that I want to keep doing some kind of research, that involves the above requirements. I am looking forward to a future with lots of new human-AI collaboration knowledge!