An Ethical Roboticist: the journey so far

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What do robots have to do with ethics? And how do you end up with the job of “roboethicist”? Prof. Alan Winfield, Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, explains his recent professional journey.

It was November 2009 that I was invited, together with Noel Sharkey, to present to the EPSRC Societal Impact Panel on robot ethics. That was I think my first serious foray into robot ethics. An outcome of that meeting was being asked to co-organise a joint AHRC/EPSRC workshop on robot ethics – which culminated in the publication of the Principles of Robotics in 2011: on the EPSRC website, and with a writeup in New Scientist.

Shortly after that I was invited to join a UK robot ethics working group which then became part of the British Standards Institute technical committee working toward a Standard on Robot Ethics. That standard was published earlier this month, as BS 8611:2016 Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems. Sadly the standard itself is behind a paywall, but the BSI press release gives a nice writeup. I think this is probably the world’s first standard for robot ethics and I’m very happy to have contributed to it.

Somehow during all of this I got described as a roboethicist; a job description I’m very happy with.

In parallel with this work and advocacy on robot ethics, I started to work on ethical robots; the other side of the roboethics coin. But, as I wrote in PC-PRO last year it took a little persuasion from a long term collaborator, Michael Fisher, that ethical robots were even possible. But since then we have experimentally demonstrated a minimally ethical robot; work that was covered in New Scientist, the BBC R4 Today programme and last year a Nature news article. I was especially pleased to be invited to present this work at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January. Below is the YouTube video of my 5 minute IdeasLab talk, and a writeup.

 

 

To bring the story right up to date, the IEEE initiated an international initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of Autonomous Systems, and I am honoured to be co-chairing the General Principles committee, as well as sitting on the How to Imbue Ethics into AI committee. The significance of this is that the IEEE effort will be covering all intelligent technologies including robots and AI. I’ve become very concerned that AI is moving ahead very fast – much faster than robotics – and the need for ethical standards and ultimately regulation is even more urgent than in robotics.

 

It’s very good also to see that the UK government is taking these developments seriously. I was invited to a Government Office of Science round table in January on AI, and just last week submitted text to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee inquiry on Robotics and AI.

You can find out more about Alan’s research and engagement on his own blog.

What happens to sci comms graduates?

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Lots of people are interested to find out what our Masters in Science Communication and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication students at UWE, Bristol get up to when they leave us. As the infographic shows, it’s pretty impressive. We’re currently advertising part-bursaries to study with us in 2016/17, if you’d like more info contact Clare.Wilkinson@uwe.ac.uk

Graduate destinations infographic page 1Graduate destinations infographic page 2

You can download a pdf of this infographic: Sci Comm UWE Graduate Destination Infographic 2016

Clare Wilkinson, the programme leader, will be presenting some of this information at next week’s PCST Annual Conference.

Science Writing Competition now open

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It’s been a busy few weeks in the office getting ready for the UWE Bristol SCU Science Writing Competition 2016. We are looking for 700 words on “the next big thing in science”.

Entrants can be residents anywhere in the world, but must be non-professionals (professional journalists and anyone else who writes for money). All others, including scientists and bloggers, are welcome to apply. There are no residency restrictions, and we have separate categories for under 18s and over 18s. Closing date for applications is 24th June 2016. For full details, please see the SCU website.

We’re excited to have an impressive judging panel on board, who’ve prepared some excellent tips for new science writers. Fascinating stuff for newbies and old-timers alike.

The competition is run by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit (SCU) in partnership with BBC Focus magazine and the Royal Institution.

It’s 2016: Are we communicating effectively?

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Corra Boushel is a project coordinator at the SCU.

A recent experience with an organisation I won’t name left me disappointed, annoyed and then worried. Something I took for granted as straightforward turned out to be impossible for the other organisation to incorporate. It set me thinking: are the institutions I’ve worked at so unique? What is typical in similar organisations – universities, research centres, industry institutes etc – and what’s the norm in science-communication-land? It has repercussions for coordination between organisations, but also important ones for the environment. It reflects badly on our institutions and us individually if we fail to meet others’ expectations. In a nutshell: in 2016 am I wrong to expect we can all use Skype*?

Skype logo

Now when I say “we” I’m not assuming that absolutely everyone in the world has internet, or the know-how or desire to get themselves online. My dad will only skype if my mum sets it up and sits next to him, and that’s ok by him. I have worked at organisations with offices in developing countries where intermittent power supplies, crummy internet and occasional natural disasters hijacked our attempts to connect on a regular basis. But here I’m talking about professionally – between scientific, research and industry institutions – in the UK. I thought everyone did this nowadays but after my recent experience, was I wrong?

What are our technological (and environmental)  standards as an industry?

I know there are plenty of situations where online calls are less satisfying or appropriate than face-to-face meetings. I sit next to researchers who are looking at the importance of gesturing in human interaction, and how robots and computer systems can’t (yet) mimic that. I think it helps enormously at the start of new projects if you can get around a table and see eye-to-eye. Large group dynamics do not translate well down ethernet cables. There are many reasons why Skype might be a lesser alternative, but to me it is also an invaluable option. Furthermore, within science communication we see online communication being used to great effect: projects like ‘I’m A Scientist Get Me Out Of Here’ just wouldn’t grab the attention of young people in the same way if the class had to all write letters; here at UWE we offer online science communication courses so that people all across the world can participate.

I’m curious to find out: What does your office or institution provide? Should video conferencing be an option – I’m not saying a requirement – as a minimum standard to save travel time, money and emissions? What are our technological (and environmental)  standards as an industry? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences below – or you can email me directly corra.boushel-at-uwe.ac.uk if you’d like your comments posted anonymously.

*Other online communication software is available.

Engaging with strangers

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 What happens when social scientists and natural scientists start to work together? Clare Wilkinson summarises her recent research.

As a social scientist whose research has spanned a range of scientific issues, from genetics, to nanotechnologies, robotics to the environment, I’ve always been intrigued to think about the roles that social scientists play when they are working in cross or interdisciplinary settings. A few years ago, with the support of some funding from the British Academy I had the opportunity to consider some of those roles, as well as their benefits and challenges with a small group of interviewees based here in the UK.

Why then? It was a timely opportunity to talk to social scientists about these topics. The social science community was really starting to consider how it demonstrated impact, serves a real purpose and has a role to play in the types of large-scale interdisciplinary research projects that now seem so common. Examples like The Campaign for Social Science and the LSE Impact blog were spurring social scientists to think critically about disciplinary relationships and influence, and I was interested to explore some of these themes within this small piece of research.

Social scientists found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating… they also expressed challenges in collaboration.

21 social scientists participated in the interviews, and they were working at a variety of career stages and in a range of different areas associated to science and technology. It was clear from the data that they found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating, and that collaborating with scientists is often essential when you are interested in some of the social ramifications science potentially creates. However, they also expressed challenges in collaboration. Creating shared languages and understandings of the differing disciplinary approaches was often the most obvious, and this is of course not isolated to working with scientists, the language and approaches used in the social sciences can often be as daunting to ‘outsiders’ as that used in any other academic field.

Collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished.

What really came across in the data though was that collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished. When assumptions around what a disciplinary perspective might provide could be set aside, by both parties, there were opportunities to create fruitful and more creative collaborations. At a time when talk of ‘the two cultures’ is often revisited (see, for example, the recent British Science Association collection of essays Science: Not just for scientists which has some fascinating reflections on this age old argument) the paper concludes that for the best collaborative opportunities we don’t need ‘shotgun ceremonies’ or ‘brief encounters’ but more sustainable relationships over time.

Clare Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in the SCU at UWE.

You can read the research article on which this post is based in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 34 (3-4). A copy is also available via the UWE Research Repository. With thanks to the British Academy [SG-54670].

Behind the scenes at Bristol Museum

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Text by Andy Ridgway, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, images by Marta Palau Franco, euRathlon project manager.

“Artists love this kind of thing,” says Bonnie Griffin, Natural History Curator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The thing in question is a scrawny-looking taxidermy pigeon that’s a victim of moth strike. The moths have stripped away the ‘feathery bits’ of its feathers, the barb, to reveal the rachis – the pointy bits in the middle.

He – or she – was introduced to students on our Masters and Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication during our tour of the Museum’s natural history store, somewhere that’s normally off limits to members of the public. The tour was part of a day spent at the Museum to get an insight into the inner workings of a museum with a vast natural history collection.

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Natural History Curator Bonnie Griffin shows our MSc students some of the extraordinary taxidermy in the natural history store

The pigeon may be one of the less exotic residents of the store but it illustrates the two principle challenges of having such a huge resource; how to make use of a valuable resource when display space is at such a premium and how to stop the objects themselves being eaten or decaying in some other way.

The store has 650,000 residents – all of them dead – and this represents 90-95 per cent of Bristol Museum’s natural history collection. This means there’s only space for 5-10 per cent of the collection to be on display at any one time. It’s not an uncommon problem (and has prompted some at other institutions to consider drastic action).

But ways are being found for the store’s residents to earn their keep. So while the scrawny pigeon is making its living as an artist’s muse (the shiny tropical beetles are popular too), other residents are the object of scientific study. A humming bird, for instance, is giving us a clearer picture of what dinosaur plumage was like – apparently the way the colour and shine are created is the same as would have been the case in dinosaur feathers.

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Mysterious samples make up some of the 650,000 items in the collection

It is Bristol’s history that has led to such a vast collection – its wealthy merchants of past years would pay for specimens from exotic lands to be brought to our shores. And the museum’s proximity to Bristol Zoo is another factor – several of the zoo’s inhabitants have taken up residence in the museum once they have died. Among them is Henry the orangutan, who once shared a cage with his orangutan sweetheart, Ann, at the zoo. Today, the store is taking in fewer new residents and rather than coming from far flung corners of the globe, most of it is roadkill.

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Henry the orangutan, formerly a resident of Bristol Zoo.

 

While moth strike is one of the threats to the natural history collection, pyrite decay (where the sulphite component of the mineral oxidises) is one of the – if not the – biggest threats to the collection in the museum’s geology store. So temperature and humidity down here are continually monitored. In the geology store we were given a guided tour by Senior Natural History Curator Dr Victoria Purewal.

Again it’s the detail known about some of the objects that helps bring them back to life. Take fossil of Pliosaurus carpenteri, that sits on one of the shelves and is the only known example of this species (it’s named after Simon Carpenter, who discovered it at Westbury clay pit in Wiltshire). Thought to be a female, it would have suffered from excruciating toothache in the final years of its life – its fossilised remains revealing signs of a tooth abscess.

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Shelves of fossils, some of them unique finds, in the Bristol Museum store.

Thanks to the staff at the museum for such a fascinating insight into their work – it was a valuable day out for our students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do science fiction films teach us about science?

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Science fiction and fantasy films like Star Wars, The Hunger Games and Interstellar are hugely popular, with a reach for which many science communicators can only dream; particularly as these films typically reach beyond our usual audiences. But what if we think about these films as science communication examples in their own right?

It seems that science communication researchers are beginning to do just that. I attended two conferences in 2015 that explored this theme: Stories about Science: exploring science communication in entertainment media at Manchester University, UK in June and International Science in Popular Culture at Alpen Adria Universität, Klagenfurt, in Austria, in September. I was struck by the wide range of examples put forward of films with high quality science content – from Soylent Green to the Theory of Everything. Speaking in Manchester, Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist, explained that Hollywood increasingly employed scientists as consultants on these (hopefully) blockbuster films. He did point out that while a consultant can influence how science is presented, they do have to be prepared to compromise.

David Kirby of Manchester University (organiser of the Stories about Science Conference and a speaker at the International Science in Popular Culture Conference) argues that scientists and some science funding agencies see popular culture as both an opportunity to stimulate popular interest and knowledge about science, and a threat to public understanding (e.g. if the science is incorrect). Given the interest and concerns raised by David Kirby, what do we know about the impact of science fiction films? The answer seems to be ‘not a lot’.

Searching the literature, I found studies of the impacts of science fiction films on children in schools (e.g. Lin et al, 2013; Arroio, 2010) suggesting that there is some interest in the potential of science fiction film and TV as a teaching tool, but few studies of ‘films in the wild’ or with adult audiences (i.e. studies of cinemagoers). Instead, much of the research on science fiction films seems to focus on content. This approach mirrors many studies of media communication which explore how science is portrayed in the newspapers and how accurate the content is, rather than its impact on readers.

Amongst the rare studies of science fiction films ‘in the wild’ are Lowe et al.’s (2006) study of The Day After Tomorrow. This study asked why cinema goers went to see this film, and found that only 5% were motivated by the environmental content. Actually, I find it surprising that as many as 5% state this, perhaps raising questions about how you ask audiences about their motivations. Nevertheless, Lowe et al.’s study provides some interesting insights into the potential of science fiction films as science communication. They conclude that films reach new audiences, not otherwise primarily motivated to engage with climate change, that films can raise awareness of issues and also that the audience is sophisticated – they recognise this type of film as fiction but also connect content with pre-existing knowledge.

Lowe et al.’s study, and the conferences, open many questions about the potential role of science fiction films as science communication. The wide reach of films and the mixed audiences they attract suggest they could have far reaching impacts on audiences, though Lowe et al.’s study highlights that these audiences read such films in sophisticated ways. Simple content analysis can only tell us what and how the science is presented; more sophisticated research is needed to understand the impacts on the public.

Dr Emma Weitkamp is Associate Professor in Science Communication at the University of the West of England.

References

Arroio, A. (2010). Context Based Learning: a Role of Cinema in Science Education. Science Education International, 21(3) 131-143.

Lin, K-L., Tsai, F-H., Chien, H-M., & Chang, L-T. (2013). Effects of a Science Fiction Film on the Technological Creativity of Middle School Students. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 9(2), 191-200.

Lowe, T., Brown, K., Dessai, S., de França Doria, M., Haynes, K. and Vincent, K. (2006). ‘Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change’. Public Understanding of Science 15, pp. 435–457.

You can read more about the International Science in Popular Culture conference at: http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1403_2015_E.pdf

Masters and beyond with the SCU

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Clare Wilkinson explains some of the programmes that UWE Bristol offers in Science Communication, and how coming back to school builds towards the ‘university of life.’

This year we had around 25 new students joining us to start our MSc Science Communication programme and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication.

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MSc student discusses a project during a UWE open day

At postgraduate level we work with students in a number of ways. Most students join our MSc Science Communication programme, as either a full or part-time student. Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice. This means it continues to attract both those who have just completed a university degree and have already made the decision that their future lies in science communication, as well as students who have been working in a related field for a while and either are looking to make a career transition or to firmly establish a more formal qualification.

Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice.

We also have a smaller number of students who take our Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication. Typically students on this programme tend to be practicing researchers who have been communicating their own research alongside their ‘day job’ and are looking to develop that experience further. On similar lines we also have a number of PhD students, from a wide range of areas at UWE, who are taking one or two of our science communication modules as part of their PhD programme. It’s fantastic to see early career researchers identifying a role for communication and engagement and building this into their research from the outset.

I tend to think about the programme in three ways; as ‘back to school’, the ‘light bulb’ moment and the ‘university of life’.

Back to school

As programme leader I tend to be in touch with our new students a lot, even before they start their courses. I’ll be confirming people’s module choices, double checking they are on the right programme and often having last minute meetings to let new students, and sometimes their families, get a feel for our campus and team.

Deciding to undertake postgraduate study is a big commitment, intellectually but also from a time and financial perspective, and so it’s understandable that often our students, their partners and families can feel a little nervous about it. I vividly remember once having to explain the potential job prospects of our course to an applicant’s father. Science communication was new to him and he wanted to be 100% sure it would offer his science graduate son a potential route to his desired employment in the future. I’m also well practiced in finding the odd coloured pen or piece of paper for a restless five-year old accompanying their parent to a UWE open evening, with very little interest in the new MSc their caregiver is about to undertake.

Any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interests.

So, whatever the age, circumstances or commitments of our new students, starting a postgraduate programme will often mean change, uncertainty and challenges. My aim is that by the first day all new students feel confident that they have made the right decision for them, so that the ‘back to school’ feeling is one they (and their families) can embrace.

The light bulb moment

The start of the programme is always really busy, and this year was no different. Amongst registration activities, introductions to the library and the practicalities of life as a UWE student we also try to fit in content about life as a science communicator, and importantly, lots of opportunities for our students to meet and talk with each other. You only need to look around the room on the first day to realise that people are feeling nervous, anticipating what they will have in common with their new peers and eyeing up those they might potentially be friends with. This brings me to the light bulb moment.

We get introductions happening straight away… ‘Tell us about yourself’, I will say to each person, ‘just some snippets about you, where you are from and why you are here’. It’s then that it starts, each person around the room expressing their passion for communicating, that they love their subject (whatever that might be – we don’t only accept only science-based students on our programme), but that they think their real strengths lie in engaging around it. And one after another, any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interest in communicating and that this will be their home for the coming weeks, months or years.

The university of life

On the first day, we distribute module guides and assessment information, talk about the various disciplines that influence science communication, and outline the expected level of reading. It will become clear that no student can learn all that there is to know about science communication in the first days or weeks of teaching and that much, much more is to come. As one door has closed on their undergraduate studies, the possibilities at Masters level can seem endless. It can be overwhelming, but as with the start of any new project the possibilities are exciting.

 If you are interested in finding out more about the UWE Bristol Science Communication Masters or Postgraduate Certificate, please go to our website.

Science communicators need to get it: science isn’t fun.

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I am writing on the flight that takes me to a conference in Warsaw, which will nicely draw to a close a research cycle that started shortly after I joined the SCU. As part of my job interview at UWE Bristol almost exactly 4 years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to share was concerns about the role of “fun” in science communication, and specifically in science centres. These concerns had developed during the decade or so I had spent working in science centres and with the media and I felt they needed to be addressed through academic research alongside practitioners.

I am unable to tell exactly when and where I developed an interest in investigating this currently ubiquitous trend of “fun,” but I found I was not alone in this endeavour. I liaised and collaborated with Guillermo Fernández, an engineer and exhibit designer I knew from the times when he would offer his services to the science centre I worked at. We were later joined by Pere Viladot, a very experienced museum educator and since recently PhD in science education. I was also able to draw into the investigation various undergraduate students in their final year at UWE, through their third year project. I must say, as well as ticking the boxes of integrating research into teaching and providing a unique student experience (in that the students did real original research, as opposed to repeat experiments of well-known phenomena), this has been the part that I enjoyed most. It was simply awesome to see these undergraduates doing research work that was often of better quality than what we see in MSc dissertations, and to share their excitement at seeing their work being accepted and presented at international conferences.

Scientists see their work as fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting or important, but not “fun.”

So, quite early on, student Megan Lyons explored the perception of the “fun” in science by people at different stages of their scientific career, showing that with time and experience “fun” becomes less and less of an adjective used to describe their work, and that there are many other words that are preferred in its stead, such as “fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting, or important”, to name but a few. We presented this at a conference in Lodz (Poland), where people involved in Childrens’ Universities met to discuss their practice. It was quite an eye opener to encounter such a lack of understanding of what I was saying, and in the lively Q&A session I kept having to repeat again and again what we were warning against (conveying the message that science is fun) and what we weren’t (making science teaching and communication as fun as possible).

In the context of science centres, undergraduate student Hannah Owen had already explored whether science centres are actually addressing and providing opportunities for “dialogue” between science and society. Her analysis of At-Bristol and Techniquest that concluded that indeed they are not, and that the only attempts to do so are through activities and events, not through the exhibitions. This was presented at the 2013 edition of the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham and recently selected for publication in the Pantaneto Forum.

Science centres have tried and failed to understand their own role… and it sends out the wrong message about science.

This provided another example in which to understand how science centres have tried and failed to find a way to understand their own role, focusing on “fun” being just one more of these attempts. Reflecting on this we have been able to identify various “wrong messages” that are conveyed in this way: it sends out the wrong message about science communication (deterring scientists from engaging in it), about science (as being a scientist is definitely not about having fun), about science education (as it seems one has to go out of the classroom to have fun, the conclusion being that class is boring), about science centres (as they become a venue of entertainment only, displacing from them valuable approaches such as inquiry based learning, for which they are an ideal venue), and about children (as it condescendingly assumes they would only engage in things that are fun).

We presented these reflections at the EASST 2014 conference in Torun (Poland) and to Physics teachers at the TPI-2015 (Teaching Physics Innovatively) conference in Budapest, where undergraduate student Jessica Tee complemented the research with the outcomes of her final year project. She confirmed that science centres are indeed a valuable educational resource, thus reinforcing the message that this is not something they should lose at the expense of concentrating on providing “fun”.

Science centres need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master.

Now in Poland I will present all this to the science centre community, which were the only players of the field to which we had not yet had the occasion to communicate our proposal. We think that instead of “fun,” science centres should focus on what they do best and constitutes their core business, namely exhibitions. To do so, they need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master, just as movies use the cinematographic language. This means that museologists need to be engaged, something that does not currently happen. In the educational front, science centres could use such well-designed and conceived exhibitions as the “field” for data collection in inquiry based learning. Again, to do so they need a shift in their hiring: this needs highly qualified educators instead of – or at least in addition to – museum explainers that are volunteers, interns or other temporary staff. The alterative is science centres trying to compete with other venues or options in what these others do best (fun, entertainment, multimedia & audiovisual communication etc…), hardly a promising prospect in the long run.

Just two days ago we submitted an article about this to Ecsite’s SPOKES magazine, and another one in more detail is about to appear in the Spanish Journal of Museology. Together with the presentation in Warsaw they constitute a satisfactory culmination of this collaboration. As the plane prepares to land (and I am asked to switch of this tablet), I can’t help enjoying a sense of achievement and starting to look forward to the next research cycle on which I will report in due course…

Erik Stengler is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE.
@eriks7

Bristol Bright Night summary

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BBN groupOn Friday 25th September 2015 Bristol was one of the many European cities celebrating research and researchers. The European Researchers’ Night takes place every year, on the last Friday in September. The event is known locally as Bristol Bright Night and it’s jointly organised by UWE Bristol, the University of Bristol and the Bristol Natural History Consortium.

BBN talkRunning for the second year, Bristol Bright Night offered an array of activities including talks, hands-on, debates, comedy and many others. Margarida Sardo from UWE Science Communication Unit was responsible for evaluating the event. The evaluation was designed to suit different venues and audiences.BBN crop

For this event the methods used included paper and online questionnaires (using an ipad didn’t work very well!), observations, a feedback wall – which was particularly popular with school children – and post-event interviews with researchers and organisers.

For more photos from the event, go to the BNHC website.