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Professor Emily Cross: From Social Cognition to Social Robots

LOUPS ‘pub’ talk 19th Nov 2020 - Sketch

 If my memory serves me correctly it was Professor Fred Toates who delivered the first OUPS online event with the 2020 OUPS Graham Mitchell Memorial Lecture “What is a human being?”. An apt link to Professor Emily Cross’s talk delivered all the way from Sydney, Australia, breakfast time for her whilst the rest of us are on post-prandial drinks. It’s not so very long ago that one had to book in advance a 3 minute phone call to contact relatives ‘down-under’, many were ten pound poms that emigrated under a scheme sponsored by the Australian Government, better I guess than the forced migration in the earlier development of our former colony? Here we were Prof Emily beamed in bright technicolour from her home to ours, as if she were next door. This was I think the seventh on-line only event from OUPS a slightly changed format using the Demio platform, personally I found it a little less personal as I couldn’t see a list of the attendees, only those that commented in the chat box, a little less human to my mind! Nice to see some of the usual suspects including Dr Babak Fozooni, did I mention his book? It seems also we had some guests from the IT areas of the OU too, sadly without human contact it was not possible to interact, is there not some way events could run on as a sort of after party? I always found a large part of the value of conferences was the later intercourse amongst delegates, I certainly miss that element.

Anyway, on to the talk. Prof Emily is an engaging and interesting speaker who outlined her research in opposite ends of our world at the Universities of Sydney and Glasgow! I obviously didn’t read the flyer correctly as I was quite surprised to see many fMRI scans illustrating areas of the brain that appeared to be working at various points in the experiments. Refreshingly I think she conceded that the interpretation of such images was not certain as there remain elements of doubt regarding actual brain processes. I was expecting more walking talking robots but the best we got was a still from the Austin Powers movies with a bevy of ‘fembots’ seemingly styled on Barbarella. The core of her research seemed to suggest that we interact differently depending on if we think we are dealing with a human or a machine. Prof Fred told us in May his thoughts on what it is to be human, I don’t believe however that he touched the subject of cyborgs or (non-human) automatons.

One experiment was quickly spotted by Amada Udres as a Stroop type experiment, whereby the participant had to imitate the actions of a robotic hand, if I recall correctly the voice instruction sometimes was sometimes the  same as the robot hand being viewed and other times opposite. I think the experiment was then carried out with human hands, the results seemed to suggest we were more attuned to human hands than robotic, reacting more quickly and more accurately when interacting with what we perceived as human. One other thing I noted is that Australians seem to call the middle finger the pointing finger- sounds sensible to me. There were other experiments with participants wired up and seemingly plugged in, Prof Emily assured us this was nothing to do with Milgram. I wondered if the results showed a Kahneman (and others) fast or slow thinking process depending if one thought they were interacting with a human or a robot, Prof Emily I think thought that a good question.

The session seemed to fly by with the hour being very quickly reached, including a five-minute intermission. I have only scratched the surface of the talk with this report from memory. This is a fast-moving field with many teams working both in academia and under the guise of the of the ‘big tech’ companies, indeed various ‘home’ robots are already available and seemingly very life like. The flyer for the event suggested a future of robotic companionship to save the workload of healthcare professionals, as a slight variation I know a couple of my friends programme Alexa  to remind their parents to take their medication and even eat, indeed I remember my mother in her late 80’s  conversing with her satnav! Prof Emily spoke of a soon to be released paper furthering her research, for the life of me I can’t remember the details but there are links below to the Social Brain in Action Laboratory and the ERC-funded Social Robots project, both of which she works with.

Thank you LOUPS I look forward to the next event which I sincerely hope can be held in real life assuming we can relax the restrictions imposed by our political masters as they seek to ‘follow the science’ of handling a pandemic!



Barry Morgan

Palmanova, Mallorca

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