»We’re developing the European version of a voice assistant.«

5.10.2019 | Portrait: AI expert Birgit Brüggemeier Ph.D., since 2022 Birgit Popp Ph.D.

Birgit Brüggemeier, Ph.D.
© Fraunhofer IIS/Paul Pulkert
Expert in human-machine interaction using voice: Birgit Brüggemeier is researching the European version of an intelligent voice assistant at Fraunhofer IIS.

Everyone is concentrating, but the atmosphere is relaxed. Birgit Brüggemeier has called the User Experience (UX) team together for a quick meeting. She delves deep, making eye contact with every team member, while listening carefully. Research progress is discussed, appointments arranged, meetings scheduled – and news exchanged: another new research fellow is soon to join the team, and for good reason: “

»We’re working on a really exciting project,« says Brüggemeier, whose passion is researching human-machine interaction. »We’re developing the European version of a voice assistant – it really is a huge and fantastic project.«


»This is absolutely one of the most difficult problems in AI research.«


Alexa, Siri and the like are extremely popular, but the systems reach their limits when it comes to understanding complex contents and context or deriving semantic meaning. Brüggemeier knows what the problem is: »The machine lacks common sense. For more than 30 years, people have been trying to provide machines with common sense, which is absolutely one of the most difficult problems in AI research,« the junior scientist says, adding: »A third of requests to voice assistants result in error messages.« That’s why she is looking at how these errors can be communicated to the user without them getting annoyed and ending their interaction with the voice assistant. The aim is to make the experience satisfactory for the user.



»Wizard of Oz« method

Together with her team, Brüggemeier swears by the »Wizard of Oz« method, which is widely used in human-machine research. In the user lab, subjects believe they are communicating with the voice assistant, but in fact it’s an unseen human who is simulating, controlling and operating the software. The aim of this method is to find out what it takes for people to have a satisfactory user experience when interacting with voice assistants.

»The voice interface is one of the future alternatives to the graphical user interface,« Brüggemeier says. One possible application is voice-controlled driver drowsiness detection in self-driving vehicles. Their project has the working title »Phine« – a neologism based on Joseph von Fraunhofer’s first name, since it can be thought of as the founder’s »virtual sister.«

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Birgit Brüggemeier explains how the »Wizard of Oz« method works

»I want more colleagues to join us so we can create something new together.«

The 29-year-old studied neuroscience, psychology and linguistics. »I’m driven by my desire to understand complex systems.« But she soon moved on from university-based fundamental research in Oxford, Hamburg and Erlangen to application-oriented research. »And Fraunhofer IIS is the obvious choice for that,« Brüggemeier says.

Another thing she admires about the Fraunhofer journey toward more artificial intelligence in applications is the friendly and open environment she experiences at Fraunhofer IIS. Since the beginning of her research project just one and a half years ago, her UX team, which is part of Fraunhofer IIS’s natural language user interface project, has »grown very quickly.« When asked what she wants for the future, it doesn’t take her long to come up with an answer: »I want my enthusiasm to catch on, and I want more colleagues to join us so we can create something new together.« She compares the importance of AI research with the development of the foundations of the Internet in the 1960s: »This completely changed humanity.«


Written by Ilona Hörath



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