Meet ML@GT: Lara J. Martin Trains AI Agents to Become Storytellers

Lara Martin

The Machine Learning Center at Georgia Tech (ML@GT) is home to many talented students from across campus, representing all six of Georgia Tech’s colleges and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

These students have diverse backgrounds and a wide variety of interests both inside and outside of the classroom. Today, we’d like you to meet Lara Martin, a fifth-year Ph.D. student who is interested in teaching artificial intelligence agents to tell interesting and coherent stories.

Name: Lara J. Martin

Hometown: Medford Lakes, NJ

Advisor: Mark Riedl

Current Georgia Tech degree program/year: 5th-Year Human-Centered Computing Ph.D. Candidate

Other degrees earned and from what institution: BS in Computer Science and Linguistics from Rutgers University—New Brunswick and Masters of Language Technologies from Carnegie Mellon University

Tell us about your research interests. Where might people be impacted them in everyday life?

During my Ph.D., I have done research on automated story generation, which means getting artificial intelligence (AI) to tell interesting and coherent stories. People often ask me why storytelling is important, and there are many reasons!

My main motivation is that people are natural storytellers; it’s one of our main modes of communication. However, it’s one of the hardest problems in natural language processing out there! Just imagine if your smart home device (e.g. Alexa, Google Home) could understand and tell stories. It opens up a whole new world of communicating with computers.

I’m interested in other aspects of language technologies as well—such as understanding speech and how the way people say things can affect how they’re being perceived, and also computational creativity more broadly.

What drew you to wanting to research these areas?

After being introduced to computer science and linguistics separately, I was trying to find a way to combine the two during my undergrad. I found the book “The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive” by Brian Christian and was entranced by the idea of chatbots. A lot happened since then, but my love of speech came from an appreciation of music and my love of storytelling came from my advisor and from playing a lot of point-and-click adventure games growing up.

What inspired or motivated you to pursue your Ph.D.?

During my undergraduate studies I realized that research was fascinating to me. It took me a little bit to realize what intersection of computer science and linguistics I would focus on but I knew that research was the right direction. Plus, it kind of runs in my family; my dad’s a Ph.D., as was his dad.

Favorite place to hang out on campus or in Atlanta and why?

I’m a big fan of tea and dogs so I like to hang out at Parkgrounds, but I like exploring around the city and finding new things. I love just how many parks Atlanta has. It’s great for my dog.

What is it about machine learning that excites you?

I think what excites me the most about machine learning is knowing what it can and can’t do. There’s a lot that you can do with ML, but we’re in an exciting time where we have the hardware but we still don’t know how far we can push the software. A lot of problems (storytelling being one of them) are still far from being “solved.”

Earning your Ph.D. requires a lot of work. What has been challenging, rewarding, or unexpected about this experience?

One thing I definitely didn’t expect was that I’d meet my partner and get married during the course of my PhD. Having him (and my pupper) in my life has definitely helped me keep things in perspective.


Tell me about some of your hobbies:

I’m a huge computer game nerd. It’s part of the reason I got into computer science in the first place. I play piano and accordion, and I’ve been getting into cross-stitching more and more in the past several years. Hiking around Atlanta is also a blast. 

Favorite Georgia Tech experience:

Mentoring students. Really, the reason why Georgia Tech has been so special to me is because of the people I’ve been working with (and/or friends with). Part of what drew me to Georgia Tech was the collaborative, friendly air in the department. Having been a part of mentoring the next (or current) generation of graduate students has been priceless. They have all been an honor to work with.

What are your plans after graduation?

I plan to get a tenure-track position at an awesome university. (Awesome being subjective)

If you were in the circus, what would your act be and why?

I would want to be an elephant because they’re such smart, graceful animals, but I guess that’s not really an act. I guess I’ll have to settle for being an animal trainer, teaching them all to do tricks while treating them humanely. It seems like it would be a satisfying job to make close connections to all the animals.

Who is someone that inspires you and why?

My advisor, Mark, inspires me greatly. He is a constant reminder to me that you can be kind and still do well in academia. It’s not an either/or. 

What is your proudest accomplishment?

It’s difficult to say what’s my proudest accomplishment. One big one is the fact that I have gone from a highly insecure public speaker to winning the “Best Doctoral Consortium Presentation” award at the Tapia conference last year.

School of Interactive Computing Chair Ayanna Howard and College of Computing John P. Imlay Jr. Dean Charles Isbell celebrate Lara’s win for “Best Doctoral Consortium Presentation” at the 2019 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference.

We just started a new decade. What are you most looking forward to in the next ten years?

Starting my career. Starting a new life!

What is the most random or useless talent that you have?

I can whistle in chords.

Podcast, movie, tv show, or book? Why that medium and what are some of your favorites from your chosen medium?

Movie. What’s nice about movies, compared to those other media is that they’re in bite-sized chunks. You can experience another whole world for a couple of hours before you have to come back to reality.

Some of my favorite movies are “The Princess Bride,” “Brazil,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Beetlejuice,” “A Clockwork Orange,” now “Parasite” has be up there. I’ll also throw in some Marvel movies for good measure. The list can go on and on but I think this paints a pretty good picture of what I’m into.

If you could time travel, what period of time would you go to and why?

Really any time in the future or past that I haven’t personally experienced. There’s so much of history that isn’t recorded or is poorly recorded that would just be amazing to witness. The language nerd in me is really curious how Old and Middle English sounded.

Why do you think embodying Georgia Tech’s motto of “progress and service” is important, especially in regards to ML and AI?

AI needs to be constantly progressing. ML and AI are inherently biased by the people who make the algorithms and where the data comes from. If our society is constantly changing, AI needs to be changing with it.

Press Contact:

Allie McFadden

Communications Officer

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