Yesterday morning, I was shocked to hear about the passing of Clifford Nass over the weekend. He was a professor in Stanford’s Communication department and a brilliant researcher in computer interfaces. I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to take his courses and benefit from his mentorship, and it saddens me that he passed away in the middle of his career, with so many potential years of cutting-edge technology research still ahead of him.
I first met Professor Nass as a prospective freshman at Stanford’s Admit Weekend. He was giving a presentation on his latest research on voice interfaces, which found that people have the same response to variations in gender and emotion in voice recordings, regardless of whether the voice is human or robotic. He was so enthusiastic to share his work that he could hardly finish one sentence before moving on to the next one. His presentation demonstrated to me that Computer Science is not just about programming and algorithms, but rather about holistically making computers better, which resonated with me much more.
As a sophomore, I took Comm 1A, the introductory Media Technology course that he taught. I learned how the Internet served as a cutting-edge research platform for human behavior, just as TV had before it. Professor Nass was the first person I ever met who owned an iPhone, and he was the first to convince me that it was a revolutionary device, because of both its computing power for its size, and its touchscreen interface. I also learned that he was the inventor of Clippy from Microsoft Office, and he was eager to discuss all the complaints people had made about it. I appreciated his ability to pursue risky ideas and embrace and reflect on failures.
I went on to study Computer Science, specializing in Human-Computer Interaction, almost-but-not-quite minor in Communication, and work for an internet software company out of school. Professor Nass played a pivotal role in validating my academic interest in everything related to the internet, and welcoming me into the Communication department. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without him. Thank you, Cliff Nass, and rest in peace.