Building automation-proof soft skills using social networks

As more jobs are replaced by automation, Raiyan Abdul Baten explores how social networks can strengthen uniquely human skills like creativity and oral communication.
June 2021

Meet

Raiyan Abdul Baten

Graduate (Ph.D.) Research Assistant, University of Rochester
Raiyan Abdul Baten
degree
MSc 2018, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Rochester
ResearchGate member since
2019
current role
Ph.D. Candidate, Human-Computer Interaction Lab (ROC-HCI) at the University of Rochester
Currently researching
Social network-driven development of creativity and communication skills
home country
Bangladesh
Based in
Rochester, NY, USA

Raiyan’s research

Automation in the workplace is here to stay, and it’s already had a measurable — and, some would say, worrisome — impact on jobs and the economy. Last year, the World Economic Forum predicted that automation could displace up to 85 million jobs by 2025.  

But there’s another side to this trend. More and more, people in the workforce need “soft” skills — like creativity, communication, and leadership — to stay competitive. So how can we measure influence and foster creativity among a population that must build these skills to stand out?

Raiyan Abdul Baten, a network science and human-computer interaction (HCI) researcher, is exploring these questions by meeting humans where they are: on social media. Raiyan’s doctoral research at the University of Rochester focuses on understanding soft skills like storytelling, creativity, public speaking, and problem-solving, and on investigating ways that online social networks can help users develop these capabilities in themselves and in others.

Raiyan stands in front of a grafted descendant of Newton's Apple Tree in Cambridge. (“Too bad they wouldn’t let me sit under it, so no apple-inspired moment of Eureka for me!” he says.)

One of Raiyan’s creative skills: speed sketching his friend in under a minute.

One of his earlier digital paintings, a fond tribute to the look and feel of Disney cartoon backdrops.

Rochester welcomes spring with its fabulous Lilac Festival. Raiyan has recently picked up a new creative domain to explore — photography — and captured lilacs in bloom.

In one recent paper, Raiyan and his team found that high-performing creative leaders can help inspire others’ creativity. But elevating only the most popular and creative leaders within social networks can limit the overall diversity of ideas. Additional research from Raiyan’s team showed that users are more likely to be open to ideas from collaborators with whom they share certain demographic characteristics, like gender — which can also limit the overall creative outcomes.

The next steps for his research, he says, include exploring how to increase diversity in creative ideas shared through social networks. This could include developing something similar to the “Suggested Friends” or “Suggested Followers” feature that social media users are already familiar with.

“People would still [be] self-organizing and choose who they want to follow. But perhaps the computer can give them feedback,” he says. “It's like how Twitter recommends who to follow. But this would be from a creativity standpoint.”

Raiyan's journey

Raiyan’s academic path has in many ways been formed by the online social networks he now studies. Raiyan grew up in Bangladesh, and in 2016 he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Throughout his undergraduate studies, Raiyan followed the work of Dr. Ehsan Hoque, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rochester and co-leader of the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Group. They eventually connected over Facebook and communicated about their research.

But all the while, Raiyan was pursuing his own creative endeavors: as a gifted digital illustrator and designer, Raiyan was also designing book covers and working as a graphic designer for the global charity Save the Children in Bangladesh. These skills made him a natural fit for creativity research.

“This is a background that helped me get into this Ph.D. program,” he says. “My advisor was presumably looking for someone who would bring engineering, skill development, creativity, everything together. And that's where I fit in.”

Noticing Raiyan’s talent for mixing creativity with technology, Dr. Hoque offered him the opportunity to start his Ph.D. in Rochester. Raiyan arrived in Rochester in 2016 and completed his Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2018. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering and plans to graduate in Spring 2022.

As a researcher, Raiyan has continued to make use of social networks, including ResearchGate, to grow his community. He uses the recommendations on ResearchGate’s homepage to find papers from other researchers that interest him. He also appreciates the fact that he can see when others read or comment on his papers, especially those from other disciplines.

“So I can see, now people from physics [have] taken an interest,” he says. “This is information you don't get from other sources.”

He also has a suggestion for ResearchGate, straight from his own research: consider recommending that researchers read papers from others who are only loosely connected to their own fields of interest. Branching out could spark new ideas.

“Since we're talking about a lot of researchers who are looking for creative inspiration, it would be a disservice to just show them very similar papers to their own,” he says.

Raiyan enjoys exploring his own creativity outside of his academic work. His latest projects include photography, and cooking and baking with his wife, using recipes they find on YouTube. And he has held on to creative interests developed before he arrived at the University of Rochester.

“My old hobby of graphic design, doing digital illustrations, has remained a long-term love. That is something I'm very passionate about,” he says.

In the short term, Raiyan plans to complete an internship this summer in the Computational Social Science Group at Snap Inc., the company that developed Snapchat. Long term, he’s currently weighing his options for his career path after graduation.

“I would ideally like to become a professor and go to academia. But I'm flexible right now,” he says. “I'm open to industry, as well. I think that's also important and fascinating.”

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