Cyberselves: How Immersive Technologies Will Impact Our Future Selves

We’re happy to announce the re-launch of our project ‘Cyberselves: How Immersive Technologies Will Impact Our Future Selves’. Straight out of Sheffield Robotics, the project aims to explore the effects of technology like robot avatars, virtual reality, AI servants and other tech which alters your perception or ability to act. We’re interested in work, play and how our sense of ourselves and our bodies is going to change as this technology becomes more and more widespread.

We’re funded by the AHRC to run workshops and bring our roadshow of hands on cyber-experiences to places across the UK in the coming year. From the website:

Cyberselves will examine the transforming impact of immersive technologies on our societies and cultures. Our project will bring an immersive, entertaining experience to people in unconventional locations, a Cyberselves Roadshow, that will give participants the chance to transport themselves into the body of a humanoid robot, and to experience the world from that mechanical body. Visitors to the Roadshow will also get a chance to have hands-on experiences with other social robots, coding and virtual/augmented reality demonstrations, while chatting to Sheffield Robotics’ knowledgeable researchers.

The project is a follow-up to our earlier AHRC project, ‘Cyberselves in Immersive Technologies‘, which brought together robotics engineers, philosophers, psychologists, scholars of literature, and neuroscientists.

We’re running a workshop on the effects of teleoperation and telepresence, in Oxford in February (Link).

Call for papers: symposium on AI, robots and public engagement at 2018 AISB Convention (April 2018).

Project updates on twitter, via Dreaming Robots (‘Looking at robots in the news, films, literature and the popular imagination’).

Full disclosure: This is a work gig, so I’m effectively being paid to write this

Scientific Credibility and The Kardashian Index

 

The Kardashian index is a semi-humorous metric invented to the reveal how much trust you should put in a scientist with a public image.

In ‘The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists‘, the author writes:

I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous

and

a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued. Here, I propose that those people whose K-index is greater than 5 can be considered ‘Science Kardashians’

13059_2014_Article_424_Fig1_HTML
Figure 1 from Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome biology, 15(7), 424.

Your Kardashian index is calculated from your number of twitter followers and the number of citations your scholarly papers have. You can use the ‘Kardashian Index Calculator‘ to find out your own Kardashian Index, if you have a twitter account and a Google Scholar profile.

The implication of the Kardashian index is that the Foundation of someone’s contribution to public debate about science is their academic publishing. But public debate and scholarly debate are rightfully different things, even if related. To think that only scientists should be listened to in public debate is to think that other forms of skill and expertise aren’t relevant, including the skill of translating between different domains of expertise.

Communicating scientific topics, explaining and interpreting new findings and understanding the relevance of science to people’s lives and of people’s lives to science are skills in itself. The Kardashian Index ignores that, and so undervalues it.

Full disclosure: My Kardashian Index is 25.

Open Science Essentials: The Open Science Framework

Open science essentials in 2 minutes, part 2

The Open Science Framework (osf.io) is a website designed for the complete life-cycle of your research project – designing projects; collaborating; collecting, storing and sharing data; sharing analysis scripts, stimuli, results and publishing results.

You can read more about the rationale for the site here.

Open Science is fast becoming the new standard for science. As I see it, there are two major drivers of this:

1. Distributing your results via a slim journal article dates from the 17th century. Constraints on the timing, speed and volume of scholarly communication no longer apply. In short, now there is no reason not to share your full materials, data, and analysis scripts.

2. The Replicability crisis means that how people interpret research is changing. Obviously sharing your work doesn’t automatically make it reliable, but since it is a costly signal, it is a good sign that you take the reliability of your work seriously.

You could share aspects of your work in many ways, but the OSF has many benefits

  • the OSF is backed by serious money & institutional support, so the online side of your project will be live many years after you publish the link
  • It integrates with various other platform (github, dropbox, the PsyArXiv preprint server)
  • Totally free, run for scientists by scientists as a non-profit

All this, and the OSF also makes easy things like version control and pre-registration.

Good science is open science. And the fringe benefit is that making materials open forces you to properly document everything, which makes you a better collaborator with your number one research partner – your future self.

Cross-posted at tomstafford.staff.shef.ac.uk.  Part of a series aimed at graduate students in psychology. Part 1: pre-registration.

 

Open Science Essentials: pre-registration

Open Science essentials in 2 minutes, part 1

The Problem

As a scholarly community we allowed ourselves to forget the distinction between exploratory vs confirmatory research, presenting exploratory results as confirmatory, presenting post-hoc rationales as predictions. As well as being dishonest, this makes for unreliable science.

Flexibility in how you analyse your data (“researcher degrees of freedom“) can invalidate statistical inferences.

Importantly, you can employ questionable research practices like this (“p-hacking“) without knowing you are doing it. Decide to stop an analysis because the results are significant? Measure 3 dependent variables and use the one that “works”? Exclude participants who don’t respond to your manipulation? All justified in exploratory research, but mean you are exploring a garden of forking paths in the space of possible analysis – when you arrive at a significant result, you won’t be sure you got there because of the data, or your choices.

The solution

There is a solution – pre-registration. Declare in advance the details of your method and your analysis: sample size, exclusion conditions, dependent variables, directional predictions.

You can do this

Pre-registration is easy. There is no single, universally accepted, way to do it.

  • you could write your data collection and analysis plan down and post it on your blog.
  • you can use the Open Science Framework to timestamp and archive a pre-registration, so you can prove you made a prediction ahead of time.
  • you can visit AsPredicted.org which provides a form to complete, which will help you structure your pre-registration (making sure you include all relevant information).
  • Registered Reports“: more and more journals are committing to published pre-registered studies. They review the method and analysis plan before data collection and agree to publish once the results are in (however they turn out).

You should do this

Why do this?

  • credibility – other researchers (and journals) will know you predicted the results before you got them.
  • you can still do exploratory analysis, it just makes it clear which is which.
  • forces you to think about the analysis before collecting the data (a great benefit).
  • more confidence in your results.

Further reading

 

Addendum 14/11/17

As luck would have it, I stumbled across a bunch of useful extra resources in the days after publishing this post

Cross-posted on at tomstafford.staff.shef.ac.uk.  Part of a series aimed at graduate students in psychology. Part 2: The Open Science Framework

Don’t speculate on others’ mental health from afar

In The Guardian, Nick Davis makes a clear and timely case for affirming The Goldwater Rule. The Rule, which binds members of the American Psychiatric Association, forbids giving an opinion on the mental state of someone you have not examined.

The US president’s behaviour has brought the rule back into the public eye, but Davis argues that we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of the Rule, and how it protects us all from speculation about our mental health – speculation which is often flavoured by simple prejudice:

Read the article here: The Goldwater rule: why commenting on mental health from a distance is unhelpful 

The Enigma of Reason (review)

The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber was published in April, and I have a review in this week’s Times Higher Education.

The books follows on and expands on their landmark ‘Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory‘, published in 2011 in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The core of the argumentative theory is this (quoting my review):

reasoning is primarily a social, rather than an individual, tool. Here the purpose of reasoning is not inquisitive, but instead justificatory – we provide reasons to other people, and we evaluate the reasons provided by other people. The niche of reasoning is in the highly social world of human cooperative groups, a niche where it is highly advantageous to be able to transfer information and trust between individuals who are not kin

You can read the full review on the THE site, but I highly recommend checking out the book. It’s a fantastic example of a book which has both theoretical depth and reach, connecting fundamental theoretical perspectives across cognitive science to give a provocative and satisfying account of the nature of human reasoning.

You can also check out Hugo Mercier’s pages about the argumentative theory, which has links to experiments suggested by the theory (which have by and large confirmed predictions it makes).

What triggers that feeling of being watched?

You feel somebody is looking at you, but you don’t know why. The explanation lies in some intriguing neuroscience and the study of a strange form of brain injury.

Something makes you turn and see someone watching you. Perhaps on a busy train, or at night, or when you’re strolling through the park. How did you know you were being watched? It can feel like an intuition which is separate from your senses, but really it demonstrates that your senses – particularly vision – can work in mysterious ways.

Intuitively, many of us might imagine that when you look at something with your eyes, signals travel to your visual cortex and then you have the conscious experience of seeing it, but the reality is far weirder.

Once information leaves our eyes it travels to at least 10 distinct brain areas, each with their own specialised functions. Many of us have heard of the visual cortex, a large region at the back of the brain which gets most attention from neuroscientists. The visual cortex supports our conscious vision, processing colour and fine detail to help produce the rich impression of the world we enjoy. But other parts of our brain are also processing different pieces of information, and these can be working away even when we don’t – or can’t – consciously perceive something.

The survivors of neural injury can cast some light on these mechanisms. When an accident damages the visual cortex, your vision is affected. If you lose all of your visual cortex you will lose all conscious vision, becoming what neurologists call ‘cortically blind’. But, unlike if you lose your eyes, cortically blind is only mostly blind – the non-cortical visual areas can still operate. Although you can’t have the subjective impression of seeing anything without a visual cortex, you can respond to things captured by your eyes that are processed by these other brain areas.

In 1974 a researcher called Larry Weiskrantz coined the term ‘blindsight’ for the phenomenon of patients who were still able to respond to visual stimuli despite losing all conscious vision due to destruction of the visual cortex. Patients like this can’t read or watch films or anything requiring processing of detail, but they are – if asked to guess – able to locate bright lights in front of them better than mere chance. Although they don’t feel like they can see anything, their ‘guesses’ have a surprising accuracy. Other visual brain areas are able to detect the light and provide information on the location, despite the lack of a visual cortex. Other studies show that people with this condition can detect emotions on faces and looming movements.

More recently, a dramatic study with a blindsight patient has shown how we might be able feel that we are being looked at, without even consciously seeing the watchers’ face. Alan J Pegna at Geneva University Hospital, Switzerland, and team worked with a man called TD (patients are always referred to by initials only in scientific studies, to preserve anonymity). TD is a doctor who suffered a stroke which destroyed his visual cortex, leaving him cortically blind.

People with this condition are rare, so TD has taken part in a string of studies to investigate exactly what someone can and can’t do without a visual cortex. The study involved looking at pictures of faces which had their eyes directed forward, looking directly at the viewer, or which had their eyes averted to the side, looking away from the viewer. TD did this task in an fMRI scanner which measured brain activity during the task, and also tried to guess which kind of face he was seeing. Obviously for anyone with normal vision, this task would be trivial – you would have a clear conscious visual impression of the face you were looking at at any one time, but recall that TD has no conscious visual impression. He feels blind.

The scanning results showed that our brains can be sensitive to what our conscious awareness isn’t. An area called the amygdala, thought to be responsible for processing emotions and information about faces, was more active when TD was looking at the faces with direct, rather than averted, gaze. When TD was being watched, his amygdala responded, even though he didn’t know it. (Interestingly, TD’s guesses as to where he was being watched weren’t above chance, and the researchers put this down to his reluctance to guess.)

Cortical, conscious vision, is still king. If you want to recognise individuals, watch films or read articles like this you are relying on your visual cortex. But research like this shows that certain functions are simpler and maybe more fundamental to survival, and exist separately from our conscious visual awareness.

Specifically, this study showed that we can detect that people are looking at us within our field of view – perhaps in the corner of our eye – even if we haven’t consciously noticed. It shows the brain basis for that subtle feeling that tells us we are being watched.

So when you’re walking that dark road and turn and notice someone standing there, or look up on the train to see someone staring at you, it may be your nonconscious visual system monitoring your environment while you’re conscious attention was on something else. It may not be supernatural, but it certainly shows the brain works in mysterious ways.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.