Thomas Erickson  Thomas Erickson photo       

contact information

Research Staff Member, Cognitive Objects and Environments
T. J. Watson Research Center (remotely from Minneapolis)


Professional Associations

Professional Associations:  ACM SIGCHI  |  IEEE

more information

More information:  My external page  |  Publications  |  Cognitive Computing


I'm an interaction designer and social scientist at IBM Research in New York (to which I telecommute from Minneapolis). I worked in the Social Computing Group from its founding in 1998 to its dissolution in 2013; since then I've been the Symbiotic Cognitive Systems Lab, and now the Human-Agent Collaboration group.

My current focus, as a research scientist in the Human-Agent Collaboration group, is on supporting conversation between humans and digital agents. In my view, this requires coming to grips with a contradiction: conversation is a powerful and graceful means of communication precisely because the conversants draw on their intelligence; however digital systems are not intelligent in the way humans are (not at all, I would say), and can not hold up their end of the conversation. I see two possibilities: 

  • One is that conversational interaction between humans and digital systems is simply a bad idea, and has only gotten traction because organizations would like to get (expensive) humans out of the loop.
  • The second is that there may be an approach to human-agent conversation that does not mirror human-human conversation, and is thus more tractable for digital agents -- sort of an analog to Stornetta and Hollan's "Beyond Being There" paper.

The optimistic side of me is interested in pursuing the second possibility; the pessimistic side of me is interested in how to minimize the cognitive shrapnel implicit in the first possibility.


More generally, my research has to do with designing systems that enable groups of people to interact coherently and productively.  Originally focused on online systems for distributed groups, the scope of my work has expanded to include real world environments ranging from rooms to cities.

My aim is to apply social computing ideas to cognitive systems, smart rooms, smart grids, and smarter cities and other things that may benefit from smartness. My view -- and a perspective I push within IBM -- is that much of the smartness that will come to infuse our systems and infrastructure will come from people rather than from digital systems.

Stepping back a bit farther, I am interested in topics such as genre theory, pattern languages, urban design, real and virtual communities, and the sociology of human-human interaction, all of which inform my approach to systems design. I've been at IBM since June '97; before that I spent 9 years at Apple, and before that 5 years in a now-defunct startup that competed with another startup called Lotus.

You can find a complete description of my work and a complete list of publications on my external home page at I have also begun sharing presentations at