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Category: Research (page 1 of 18)

Returning to work and writing

I’ll complete the overviews of chapters from Robots and Communication later this month (or next), but for now I want to track a few other things, mostly for myself, but also for anyone else who’s interested.

2015 was a good but also a difficult year. My book was published, which was all that I had ever wanted to complete in life. I published an article in a scientific journal (from a humanities perspective), something that pleases me greatly. I edited and wrote a few more chapters and articles too. I also presented at a great conference, which provided the opportunity to meet and speak with a scholar whose work will likely influence what I write for the next few years. However, shortly after this my mum, who had been living with cancer for years (although for much of that time not knowing that it was just in the wings waiting to come back on stage) reached her terminal phase. I’m very glad that the flexibility of my work meant that I could be there for her, so that her final wish to stay at home could be realised, but it was difficult, and I am beset by sadness at some point each day. I struggled sometimes with our chats over the last few years, twice a week over Skype, but I miss the sounding board that she provided for my research ideas, however outlandish they might have been.

The three weeks of holiday I took over December was therefore much needed. I played games on the iPad, walked the dog, became much more serious about my running and didn’t touch work hardly at all. I recorded a few articles etc that I saw on Twitter for future reference, but nothing more than that. I needed a break, and this was the first time in years that I really allowed myself that. The return to work is proving… challenging, to say the least.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been working. Thinking, attending grant writing workshops and (thanks to running and meditation) maintaining a level of calm that I have never achieved before. Writing productivity, though, has been low in the last two weeks. Deadlines loom, and my writing mojo is just not there. In an effort to apply some of the hints and tips I give my students I have decided to try a number of well known ways to kick start writing (and hope to document the results here).

The first technique is to write anything at all. For example, a blog post. Job done. Has it helped? We shall see.

Pomodoro technique

The second technique is to use pomodoros to get me started on more concentrated thinking and writing bursts. I have an app for that, which makes it easy to set up the intervals. Part of me would prefer one of those tomato timers (picture above), but it’s not really necessary! I also have two key tasks to focus on today. One is a book review. I have read the book and have some notes to work from (although not that detailed, I fear). The most important is an Expression of Interest for a grant application.

If I remember, I’ll add an edit later to record how today went.

EDIT: What happened?

Writing the blog post did help. I think.

Pomodoros worked in the morning, but not so well in the afternoon. When I took a look at the time first off, I was horrified to see that I used to do 25 mins work with 5 mins break for 4 repetitions and then 30 mins break repeated over the day. Since I couldn’t get my head around that I went for 18 mins work with 2 mins break for 4 repetitions and then 30 mins break. It did work ok, but as I got into it I think 18 mins was not long enough and 2 mins is nothing! I also remembered how difficult it was to control pomodoros when you are legitimately needing to email people and watch email for replies. It is so easy to lose your break time as you “just finish off that thing…”, and that put the whole thing off track.

In terms of progress, the EOI for the grant is done, from my perspective, but it turned out that I will have to submit late because I can’t get authorisation in time for the deadline (and apparently it is ok to be late, which irritates me because I find deadlines stressful and feel that I must adhere to them, particularly when it is an administrative deadline). The book review is now in progress. I transcribed my recorded notes, but that only gets me about half way through the book and already in too many words. I need to tighten up the review across all the essays.

Lost epigraphs – Chapter 4

Fish and Bird

Chapter 4 Stories and Dances

yellow_quotation[A]ll actors become who they are in the dance of relating, not from scratch, not ex nihilo, but full of the patterns of their sometimes-joined, sometimes-separate heritages both before and lateral to this encounter (Haraway, 2008, p. 25).

The Fish-Bird Project is the second robotic art installation discussed in Robots and Communication. For this work, created by artist Mari Velonaki and roboticists at the Centre for Social Robotics at the University of Sydney, the idea of the encounter (discussed in Chapter 3 with respect to the ALAVs) is again important. However, an analysis of Fish and Bird and their interactions with each other and with human visitors also introduces ideas about framing with a back story, and the communication that occurs as people and robots move around one another. This ‘dance’ of interaction draws attention to the importance of embodied communication, which I have already introduced in Chapter 2 in relation to human-animal interactions.

Encounters with Fish and Bird demonstrate the way in which movement is assessed from a distance and also read when in closer proximity as a sign of intent and the emotional state of a character. The quotation from Donna Haraway that was to have been the epigraph for this chapter encapsulates both the idea of histories, back stories or ‘heritages’ and the new ‘dance of relating’ that mingle together in driving the unusual experience of communication that develops when people meet the robots in this installation.

Haraway, D. (2008) When species meet. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.

Image courtesy of Mari Velonaki.

Lost epigraphs – Chapter 3

ALAVs - Blubber Bots

Chapter 3 Encountering otherness

yellow_quotationCommunication is an adventure of a subjectivity, different from that which is dominated by the concern to recover itself, different from that of coinciding in consciousness; it will involve uncertainty (Levinas, 1980, p. 120).

In this chapter, I introduce the first of the interactive robotic art installations discussed in the book. The Autonomous Light Air Vessels (ALAVs) are flocks of blimp-like robots. In the first version of the installation, these robots did not communicate using human language, although this capability was introduced in later versions. In all versions, the robots communicate through their movement, sounds and lights. In spite of their unusual behaviour, visitors to the installation can see how the robots appear to interact with one other, and are encouraged to interact with the robots themselves in various ways.

This chapter extends Emmanuel Levinas’ conception of the encounter between self and other even further beyond considerations of human-human interactions than David Clark argues is possible in his consideration of human-animal relations (in particular that between Levinas and other prisoners of war with Bobby the dog) discussed in Chapter 2. An encounter with the ALAVs is relatively easy to frame as an ‘adventure’ that involves a great deal of ‘uncertainty’ (Levinas, 1980 p. 120). Indeed, interactions between humans and these robots are excellent examples of encounters that bring self and other into proximity even as they remain separated by an irreducible distance (where this idea of distance in Levinasian terms refers to the difference between communicators more than their physical positioning).

This chapter therefore concerns itself with the initial moment when self and other meet, identifying the importance of paying attention and being open to the other’s otherness. This moment is described by Levinas as ‘the face to face’ although, as I explain, for Levinas the face does not need to be a physical human face, which allows me to extend this idea to a consideration of human-ALAV encounters.

Levinas, E. (1980) Otherwise than being, or, beyond essence. Hague: M. Nijhoff, p. 120.

Image taken by Jed Berk: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56961858@N00/2978907470/in/album-72157608417461554/

Lost epigraphs – Chapter 2


Chapter 2 Human-Animal Communication

yellow_quotation[W]hat is ‘language’ if it is not the wagging of a tail, and ‘ethics’ if it is not the ability to greet one other and to dwell together as others? (Clark, 1997, pp. 190–191).

I realise that it might seem odd to move away from discussing robots so early on in this book, to talk instead about human-animal communication, but, as this quotation indicates, considerations of animals and their interactions with people have produced some of the most compelling arguments to take communication, and the relation that can develop, between humans and non-human others seriously. To make this move you need to extend the idea of communication beyond considerations of spoken language, to include the nonverbal, in the case of dogs, for example, so that you take communication involving barks and tails that wag seriously.

This quotation also raises another, more philosophical question, relating to whether non-humans can take part in ethical encounters. Robots and Communication doesn’t argue that robots are, or might in the future be, moral agents. Instead, the focus is on uncovering the ways that humans encounter robots, and in the process recognise them (often only for the period of interaction itself) as other beings, worthy of attention and an attempt to communicate. This is an important aspect of assessing why someone might decide to try to communicate with a robot, in particular over an extended period of time, whatever its form.


Clark, D. (1997) ‘On Being “the last Kantian in Nazi Germany”: Dwelling with animals after Levinas’, in Ham, J. and Senior, M. (eds) Animal acts: configuring the humans in western history. New York: Routledge, pp. 165–198.

Images taken by Eleanor Sandry.

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