Sunday, 28 November 2010

Robot interaction seen through the eyes of children

Our project hopes to discern new patterns of behaviour emerging from robot interaction. A concern is that the robot team will be unable to discern new patterns – ‘unable to see the wood for the trees’. Might it be that children are able to see patterns that as the research team we would miss? One of our team members, Sajida Bhamjee, has taken e-pucks into schools and collected data on the children’s reactions to seeming them moving around. The e-pucks were programmed to follow each other by sensing each other’s tail light and following it. Due to variations in the environment, such as light levels, there was some variation in what they actually did. The e-pucks moved quickly and bumped each other. The children talked in interesting ways about what was happening and who was controlling it.

Our next step is to show children the robots imitating each other. It is difficult to set this up outside the robotics lab (not impossible but time consuming and technically challenging), so instead of taking the robots to the children we have filmed the robots. However, when they imitate they move slowly as you can see if you follow this link to the film on You Tube:

This might not interest children. Would it catch their attention if speeded up? The video is available for down load. Please try viewing the film speeded up.

From the data collected through the tracking equipment in the robot lab, and using ‘Player Stage’ software, the robots as seen in the film can appear as an animation with their tracks as if ‘drawn in the sand’. You can download a video of this. Below is the tracks they drew.

It maybe that the children would enjoy seeing the animation more than the film of the robots. There is also the question of whether the animation should show the 'tracks in the sand' or not.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Open Science and the Artificial Culture Project

From the start of our project, the intention has been to make it open to all who are interested, and to enable this by having an interactive project website and to put our data on the website. The idea of open science was new to me but immediately seemed attractive. Why? Here are some reasons I find persuasive. Open science opens up opportunities for ideas to flow into the project from anyone who is interested. It increases access to the process of doing science to the public and makes us as scientists more directly accountable to the public. It allows others to analyse our data to check our analysis or try new ways of doing the analysis and there is potential for others to discern emergent patterns in the data or maybe the research process, that we as a team do not notice as we are part of the project.

So why have I found it hard to write about the project on our project blog? There are technical reasons such as forgetting the password for signing in and not being online when I have an idea for a blog entry. However, a deeper reason is feeling I do not have anything worth saying – or at least not yet.

My ‘not yet’ includes a whole mixture of assumptions and feelings of which these are a few have clarified through discussion with Ann Grand and Alan Winfield.

The process of doing research is not interesting, only the result, and even then the result should have some obvious implications for the global community and environment.

Actually I don’t believe that. As a sociologist my research includes the study of processes of doing and using science. Science involves a lot of people working away at small parts of a problem, without being sure of the implications of what they are doing. If we knew the results of our research beforehand it would not be research. We can of course suggest why it might be important to investigate a particular aspect of the world, but we cannot know for sure that our research will have impact.

Research is about finding new knowledge so it I need to check something is new before I talk about it.

To be sure of this takes a lot of time as it involves searching the literature and reading everything that is relevant. This approach dominates health sciences and arguably is the appropriate approach in this field of research, which is applied to improving health. However, from working with scientists from other disciplines, I understand that there is not this obsession with searching for all relevant literature. The difference seems to be that in health sciences we are often working from a current understanding of a biological, psychological or social mechanism and then testing whether an intervention, based on this understanding, then makes a difference when used in a population. In biological, and indeed social science, we are more often seeking to understand the mechanism. This demands a different critical approach to what is already known.

But there are also feelings..

So far my reasons for ‘not yet’ are bound up with the research disciplines in which I work – sociology and health sciences. However there are also my feelings. There is the fear that people will judge me negatively and the fear that people will take my ideas and beat me to the credit. These fears seem to be contradictory, suggesting that I feel I am both a terrible scientist and a brilliant scientist. Having contradictory feelings is very normal. However, I think these fears are bound up with the results of research rather than the process. I know it is possible to undertake research that has a rigorous process but does not make a world-changing discovery. I spend time teaching rigorous research processes to students. So, although the feelings are unlikely to go away, I can perhaps muster the confidence to open up the research process to scrutiny. Anyway, if I do have a good idea and then someone else gets the credit, I will be in the good company of all the other scientists who have put in place the building blocks for the world-changing discovery.