Developing Ways to Change Human Behavior

Date Published: 
Thursday, August 3, 2017

Mary Lou Maher, PhD., Professor and Chair of the College of Computing and Informatics’ Department of Software and Information Systems, is spearheading a research effort to try to determine how artificial intelligence models of curiosity can be used to change human behavior—in this case their eating habits.  Dr. Maher said one of the components of “Q-Chef” is to build a model so researchers can tell whether recipes that have been presented to people will encourage them to be curious or not.

Dr. Maher said they are trying to see how they can encourage people to try food they have not tried before.  She said the research is not only intended to help provide healthier dietary options but to create situations that get people to explore outside of their comfort zones. 

“Our intent is to introduce recipes that aren’t identical to what people are used to but close enough to cause some curiosity,” said Dr. Maher.  “As a result, it could lead people in the direction of dietary diversity.  If we can create recipes that cause them to be curious they may try things they hadn’t thought of, thus creating dietary diversity.”

Mathew Zent, an undergrad student at St. John’s University in Minnesota, participated in the initial research this summer as part of the Research Experiences for Undergrads, held each summer at CCI.  His research was two-fold.

“I was tasked to design and develop a model for personalized food curiosity,” said Zent.  “We collected data from 100 people to determine their aptitudes for being curious about different foods.  We used this data to categorize people with a curiosity score. We then looked at over 86,000 recipes, looked at how many were tagged with common cuisines, came up with a list of seven different cuisines, determined the ingredients used in those recipes, and trained machine learning models to fill in missing information about cuisines.” Together, the curiosity score and the recipe database provide the basis for a Q-Chef app.

Dr. Maher said—beyond food curiosity—the results of the research could extend existing search engines with computational systems that are more personalized, and encourage people to be more curious. The idea is to return with search results that will broaden their horizons. 

“We hope to integrate the model of curiosity into existing personalized or adaptive learning systems,” said Dr. Maher.  “The model will give teachers the ability to customize the order in which new material is presented to each student to maximize curiosity and engagement.  This essentially takes personalized or customized teaching models to the next level by encouraging curiosity in the students.”

Dr. Maher said in the next year to year and a half, they hope to have a public app for Q-Chef, helping to determine whether the theoretical model of human curiosity matches the human model.

About the College of Computing and Informatics
The College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) is the largest and most comprehensive technology program in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the nation, offering scale and critical mass in cutting-edge research and innovation. CCI is a national leader in interdisciplinary partnerships, bridging fundamental research with critical scientific, societal, and national defense challenges. It is also the home to leading research centers and institutes, including the Cyber Defense and Network Assurability (CyberDNA) Center, the Bioinformatics Research Center, the Charlotte Visualization Center, the Complex Systems Institute, and the Center for Education Innovation.  Active research awards currently total $38 Million.  @UNCC_CCI

About the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

UNC Charlotte is North Carolina’s urban research university. It is the fourth largest campus among the seventeen institutions of the University of North Carolina system and the largest institution of higher education in the Charlotte region. Current enrollment exceeds 28,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students.


# # #

Media Contact:  Clark G. Curtis, 704-687-7983,