People of ACM European Chapters - Abdallah El Ali

June 11, 2024

How did you initially become interested in human-computer interaction?

I first got interested in human-computer interaction (HCI) when I picked up Andy Clark’s Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence in the early 2000’s. Not too long afterward, I stumbled on Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. I strongly recommend both of these books!

This interest, however, only later materialized into an incessant pursuit of research within HCI. During my Master’s in Cognitive Science at the University of Amsterdam, I attended a lecture on emerging mobile interaction techniques. I was totally inspired by this type of work, as it brought together my learnings within Cognitive Science, and showed the application-focused / real-world side of neuroscience research on human cognition, emotion, and behavior. I now know that is a core part of HCI research. This led me to complete a PhD in HCI.

In your area of research, what recent advance/emerging subfield will yield important advances in the years ahead?

In short, a combination of increased computing power, shrinking sensors and actuators, and advanced (on-device) AI models. By integrating personal and imperceptible low-cost and low-power sensors and devices onto ourselves and into our everyday environments, human-machine interaction is being redefined. We are ever closer to possibly surpassing J.C.R. Licklider’s vision of computer-human symbiosis for intelligence amplification, and Mark Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing. Considering that language models are recently exhibiting remarkable capabilities (even if not there yet) on several human intelligence tasks, this hybrid human-AI symbiosis will be truly transformative for HCI. Especially so should all our personal and ubiquitous computing devices become networked and “AI-enabled”, in other words, when they “wake up.”

This will result in an unprecedented amount of both real and endlessly generated synthetic data, which will unlock new ways of interacting with and through machines. It will require research into how we can interact with this content in a multimodal manner, across devices, displays, and environments. We will also need to better understand how this symbiosis will influence our cognitive, behavioral, and physiological states. This I expect will influence every aspect of our lives such as how we interact, collaborate, and ethically coexist with various AI models, for the future of work, play, and beyond.

Will you tell us about us about some of the regular activities or upcoming plans for the Netherlands ACM SIGCHI Chapter?

CHI Nederland (CHI NL) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to connect, support, and represent HCI professionals in the Netherlands.

Events can be seen as the pulsating heart of CHI NL, so each year we organize our lovely annual get together with the Dutch HCI community. This year the event took place in April and, as usual, was packed with inspirational talks. While in previous years this took place after the CHI conference, this year CHI NL organized a pre-CHI event. We also aim to organize once again in November 2024 our flagship Experience & Beyond event, which is a more practitioner-focused event. This event aims to weave together the more industry-focused UX research as well as the world of academic-style HCI research.

Within CHI NL, we’re also constantly busy reaching our (sometimes overly ambitious) yearly goals, some of which are: solidifying our governance procedures and infrastructure (e.g., ensuring sustainable finances); expanding our ‘voice’ for HCI in the Netherlands and beyond (e.g., through creating HCI-focused tracks at local conferences); and considering ways to scale up our events and support activities (e.g., workshops, summer schools, and implementing HCI mentorship programs).

What advice would you offer a younger colleague just starting out in the computing field?

Three (perhaps somewhat obvious!) pieces of advice:

First, find a “good” supervisor/mentor. By “good”, I mean someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to help nurture your future in the best possible manner, as ultimately that’s a win for all parties. In short, it is best to chase good people and learning opportunities, not brands!

Second, you don’t need a computer science background to get into the computing field. In my case, I went from BA English Language and Literature → Copywriter → Screenwriter → Master’s in Cognitive Science → PhD in Human-Computer Interaction → UX Designer → Research Scientist. And I’m certainly not an outlier here!

And third, have fun! I personally find doing HCI research and teaching / supervision to be quite enjoyable, whether solo or collaboratively. Consider that should at any point things do not go as expected, you would have enjoyed the process anyway!


Abdallah El Ali is a Research Scientist at the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in the Netherlands. He works within CWI’s Distributed & Interactive Systems group. El Ali has a background in Cognitive Science and his research areas include Affective Interactive Systems and Trustworthy Human-AI Interaction.

El Ali serves as Chair of CHI Nederland (CHI NL), the ACM SIGCHI Netherlands Chapter.