Dr. Cliff Nass, a highly regarded professor at Stanford University who was known for his research on human-computer interaction and the impact of multitasking on cognitive performance, died from a heart attack this weekend. He was 55.
At Stanford, Nass was a professor in the communication department, as well as the director of the university’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media lab, known as CHIMe.
In a 1996 book he co-authored called “The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places,” Nass explored how human interaction with computers compares with real social relationships, reporting “that people are polite to computers; that they treat computers with female voices differently than male-voiced computers.”
In a 2012 book entitled “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” Nass explored how humans “empathize with, argue with and form bonds with” computers.
More recently, Nass was tapped to help out with Google Glass and the search giant’s self-driving cars.
“Cliff used to joke that you know that a scientific discovery is important when a decade later people take it for granted as truth,” Jeremy Bailenson, Nass’s colleague and founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said via email. “When he first published the findings, Bill Gates championed the work as ‘amazing.’ Now, its impact can be seen so pervasively that we take social relationships with media for granted.”
More than just a brilliant mind, Nass was revered by his many students throughout the years. As another member of Stanford’s communication department described it, he embodied the role of quirky professor.
He was known for performing multiple tasks at once (even as he studied multitasking), and often wore comfortable sweatpants, accessorized with large eyeglasses and an infectious laugh.
Nass earned his B.A. in mathematics from Princeton University in 1981, and worked as a computer scientist at Intel Corporation before earning a PhD in sociology from Princeton. He joined Stanford in 1986. His Stanford bio also states that he was a professional magician.
Members of the Silicon Valley tech industry reacted on Twitter last night with the hashtag #RememberingCliff, while many in the Stanford community are leaving their remarks here.
On a personal note, I had the fortunate experience of intersecting with Cliff Nass over the past couple months as one of his students in an experimental research course at Stanford, where I’m currently enrolled as a graduate student. Our team has been focused on continuing Cliff’s research on multitasking and cognitive impact – a topic he was passionate about.
“With this research, it might take a long time to get to the answers,” Cliff said recently. “I have parents emailing me a lot, asking me, ‘Is this [multitasking] bad for my kids?’ And the answer right now is, ‘I don’t know. We just don’t know yet.'”
On a recent Friday evening, he took our group on a tour of VAIL, the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab on Stanford’s campus, where he and other researchers have been studying human behavior in an autonomous-car simulator. He patiently took the time to answer all questions, until it grew dark outside the lab; in Cliff’s view, no question was a bad one.
“I will remember Cliff as a person who made any room a happier place,” Bailenson said in a statement. “His brilliance was exceeded only by his generosity and warmth.”
Here’s a video, published in February of this year, in which Cliff discusses the psychology of digital media and its implications:
Correction: A previous version of this article noted that Nass was the first member of his family to go to college, as reported earlier by the Stanford Daily newspaper. We have removed the reference to this and apologize for the error.