The Robots are Coming!

Join Ruth Aylett at 1.50pm, Wednesday 9th August at the New Town Theatre (Fringe venue 7) to discuss whether common fears about robots are unfounded. 

 

Tell us a bit about yourself

Professor of CS, researching human-robot interaction (amongst other things) with a current project looking at whether a robot can help high-functioning adults with an ASD better process social signals

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

It is about misconceptions and panics humans have about robots

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

Because so many people apparently think robots are dangerous

Does it rightly have this label? Is the topic unjustly controversial?

People’s ideas/fears are somewhat detached from the reality of robots and their uses

Why is the topic important to you?

Because unjustified moral panics about robots can have a serious effect on our ability to research and produce useful social robots

Describe your show in 3 words

robots unjustified fears

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? 

They can see some real robots.

 

Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

Physics vs Psychology: Which is the Hard Science?

Join Helen Cammack & Kate Cross at 8.20pm, Tuesday 8th August at the New Town Theatre (Fringe venue 7) for a battle between physics and psychology. 

Tell us a bit about yourselves

Helen is a PhD student in Physics, working on quantum computing. Kate is a lecturer in Psychology (both at St Andrews)

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

It’s about the difficulties (and joys!) of working in our respective fields generally.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

It could overturn all of your assumptions about ‘soft’ subjects and ‘hard’ subjects, seriously change your view of science, and question your assumptions about what subjects are ‘for girls’

Does it rightly have this label? is the topic unjustly controversial?

We think we’re asking a perfectly valid and sensible question, about which many people get much, much too angry…

Why is the topic important to you?

Helen is sick of people goggling at her in astonishment when she reveals she’s a physicist. Kate is sick of being told her subject is ‘fluffy’

Describe your show in 3 words

Lively, silly, challenging

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

We’re not sure what will be learned, because a large part of our plan is to have a chat with the audience. So please come along and ask us some difficult questions! You might well find out exactly what you’re hoping to.

 

Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

The Pain Factory

Join Lauren Ware at 1.50pm, Monday 7th August at the New Town Theatre to discuss the ethics of the suffering induced in criminal punishment. 

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am an RSA Fellow, examining the nature and value of suffering in criminal punishment as part of the New Futures Network. I also work on the Universal Basic Income Project, looking at how workplace fear and anxiety might impact creativity and innovation.

My primary research is in the philosophy of emotion. I am interested in the role emotions play in political and legal decision-making, in the evaluation of risk and security, in social cognition and creativity, and in teaching and learning. I also have a specialisation in ancient Greek philosophy, especially Plato, and his ethical ideals of love, heroism, and beauty in a flourishing life.

I have taught Moral, Legal, and Political Philosophy at the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh, previously completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Philosophy of Law at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, and have held Visiting Fellowships at the Tilburg Center for Logic, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (The Netherlands), and the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung (Germany). Before postgraduate research, I worked for the Canadian Government on public policy and judicial appointments, and for the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

Emotions are all over the criminal law: from jealousy and reasonable provocation in homicide law, to fear in claims of duress, to compassion in assisted dying. A significantly overlooked area, however, concerns the emotions of those serving prison sentences. My research aims to question the purpose and justification of certain kinds of criminal punishment by investigating whether our punishment system has any good reason to induce emotional suffering. Ought prisoners pay through pain?

My research here looks at three questions:

  1. Is imposing suffering through legal means ethically legitimate?
  2. How do differences in individual prisoners’ experience of suffering impact the nature of the punishment afforded?
  3. Who can be made to suffer? Should we take into account the emotional effect of punishment on third parties (for example, the children of prisoners)?

The show draws on a set of “thought experiments” to flag up some pretty dodgy inconsistencies in the way criminal punishments are dealt out in practice, and discussed in the ivory tower.

A potentially horrifying implication of this is that rather than certain crimes having fixed sentences in terms of length, we might set it up on the basis of pain suffered: stealing a car yields 3 units of pain, murder 25 units of pain, etc. And then we design prisons to administer pain as effectively as possible. A pain factory.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

The topic is dangerous because many of the implications of this research will almost certainly mean huge changes for the way we not only think about, but actually administer criminal punishment in our prisons.

First, if an individual’s emotional experience is relevant to the form of her punishment, and different individuals experience significantly different amounts of suffering, this may require reconsideration of traditional institutional practices, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws. That’s where we get the pain factories coming in.

Second, if experiences of suffering are not relevant, yet suffering retains a legitimate role in punishment, we must revise the equality principle (the idea that equal crimes should have equal punishments): a longstanding and much-loved tenet of our understanding of justice.

Does it rightly have this label?  is the topic unjustly controversial?

One of the reasons the topic is—quite rightly—controversial is that a lot of people have strong (emotional! and at the same time rational!) convictions that prison sentences should be painful and that it seems somehow inappropriate to care about the “feelings” of people who have harmed others.

Why is the topic important to you?

I believe very strongly that philosophy—including the philosophy of emotion—can contribute in important ways to how we as a community recognise individual members of that community within a constructive circle of human concern. Those experiencing criminal punishment are often held to be outside of this community, but this is, I believe, a deep mistake for both love and justice. I want to be a part of this dialogue!

Describe your show in 3 words

Viva la revolution!

(Devastating, dystopic, human)

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

Nietzsche said that deep down we all actually enjoy watching other people suffer pain, but we just suppress it. I want people to question what they think about suffering, who should be made to suffer, and why.

 

 

Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

 

Doctor Google Will See You Now!

Join Mhairi Aitken at 8.20pm, Sunday 6th August and at 1.50pm, Saturday 26 August at the New Town Theatre (Fringe venue 7) to discuss the role our personal data should play in medicine. 

 

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a Sociologist and a Research Fellow in the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics at the University of Edinburgh and work in the Public Engagement team of the U.K.-wide Farr Institute of Health Informatics Research.

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

In my research I explore public attitudes and preferences or concerns relating to the ways that data are used in health research. This mostly relates to data collected in the public sector such as through the N.H.S. or education system. Previously my work has focussed on the ways that this public sector data is used in health research, but as more and more data is collected and as there is increasing possibilities for the ways this data can be linked together and used there are new questions being raised.

I am now examining ethical and social considerations relating to NHS health data being linked up with data from the private sector (e.g. from online shopping, social media or supermarket loyalty cards) or to commercial organisations being involved in research which requires access to NHS health data. Such practices are increasingly common, but people don’t necessarily know about them and they don’t necessarily have public support. I am interested in the extent to which these practices bring benefits or harm to the public and whether members of public would support them.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

The way health research is conducted is changing. Ground-breaking findings are often now discovered not in laboratories or hospitals, but, on computers. This research doesn’t require access to people’s organs or tissue samples but instead to their data. Data which comes from the NHS, education, welfare or other public sector bodies, and – potentially – from shopping or social media. When it comes to understanding patterns in health and illness, examining our data may be even more powerful than examining our bodies. Researchers can use this data to bring about public benefits, for example through examining patterns in health and illness or factors affecting wellbeing. But there are important questions regarding who owns this data, who decides how it can be used and what counts as a “public benefit”. Should our information be thought of as private and belonging to us? Or is it a public asset that should be shared and used in all our interests?

Different people have different ideas of what is acceptable: you can imagine that midwives might be interested to know if pregnant ladies post pictures of themselves smoking or drinking on Facebook; GPs advising parents of children at risk of obesity might be interested to see those parents’ supermarket loyalty card data to know what they are putting in their shopping baskets; a public health department might be interested in Google data on search terms to track patterns and trends and identify possible pandemics. A pharmaceutical company might like to use this information in a similar way but with different ends in mind… and what about letting Google have access to NHS records?

Who should be allowed access to your data and under what conditions?

Why is the topic important to you?

Data is becoming a currency and is transacted every time we shop, use online banking or post on social media. We leave data trails everywhere we go – but very few of us have any idea how these are used or what they reveal about who we are and the lives we live. This data can be used for very good purposes – such as health research – or for less worthy causes – such as direct marketing – but drawing the line between what is and is not ok is tricky and inevitably controversial. Given the increasing amounts of data being collected and the new ways that this information can be used, I believe it is really important people are more aware about this and understand what happens with the data they create.

This is also essential for making sure that where data is shared with different organisations or is used for different purposes this has public support. The recent controversy surrounding Care.Data in England showed very clearly that public support cannot be taken for granted.

This data relates to people’s lives, so it is vital that those people understand what is happening with this data and have a chance to express their views on this.

Describe your show in 3 words

Surprising – challenging – fun

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

The audience will learn about the data that is collected every time they go online, use their credit card or post on social media, but also when they visit their G.P., pay their taxes or claim benefits. They will hear about some of the amazing research that can be done by joining all this data together but will also be challenged to think about who should be allowed access to this data and for what purposes. The researchers we will discuss are not just academics in universities but also analysts in Google and Facebook. I hope the show will surprise people and challenge their ideas of health research and who conducts it.

 

Get your tickets here!:

6th:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

26th:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

 

Bring Back Child-Labour!

Philip Cook is a lecturer in Political Theory in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Join him on 4th August at 8.20pm at the New Town Theatre (Fringe venue 7) to discuss why we should bring back child-labour.

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

I believe the way we treat children in today’s societies is mostly wrong. We treat them more like pets than people. We deny them truly equal rights, and this includes the right to work. My research focuses on persuading people that children should be liberated from this infantilising treatment. One of the most radical ways children can become our equals is by giving them the right to work. So, as someone interested in the philosophical questions around social justice, I want to argue that the right to work for children is a matter of justice. My research into the rights and wrongs of child-labour is part of a bigger project I’ve been working on for some time that looks into what justice requires of our treatment of children. I’ve written in defence of votes for children (abolishing a minimum voting age), and am also working on what justice in schools would look like. But as I think about it more and more, work is central to the project of liberating children from the unjust treatment they experience, and that’s why I’m excited to explore this idea with our wonderful, inquisitive (and I’m sure critical!) Fringe audience.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

All liberation movements have been seen as ‘dangerous.’ Womens’ ‘liberation’, colonial ‘liberation’ and racial ‘liberation’ have been radical and disruptive ideas in their different ways. There are lots of vested interests at stake, and it can be challenging to recognise that ways of living that seem normal and perfectly civilised are in fact riven with oppression, discrimination, and inequality. Children’s experience of childhood is similarily oppressive. Children’s liberation from childhood is not a new idea, but it is a minority view to say the least. But we have not always treated children the way we do today: children used to be treated much more as ‘little adults.’ Though we don’t want to go back to the days of sending children down mines (even if we had any left), we should at least recognise that the way we treat children is a choice, and not something ‘natural’ like the weather. Family life, economic life, and political life would be changed radically if children were allowed to work, and many might see this as dangerous. It might not be easy, but it is worth doing. At the very least, it’s at least worth thinking about very seriously.

Why is the topic important to you?

I’m passionate about treating children with greater equality. Equality is a radical value, it means we have to change the way we treat others. And that means we have to change ourselves, and for most of us, that is a big challenge. It goes against the grain of today’s society driven by values of consumption, control, desire, satisfaction, and pride. Equality demands some humility, some restraint, and some compassion towards others, accepting we and our ego cannot always be put first. If we think about the group of people whom it is most acceptable to boss around, to control, and to treat as ‘minors’ or inferiors, it is children. If you take equality seriously, you’ve got to reconsider the way to treat children. Inequality is a choice, and I would like to argue we can choose to treat children more equally.

Describe your show in 3 words

Surprising; outrageous; revolutionary

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

Almost everyone has a view on how children should be treated. Almost everyone tries to treat their own and other children as well as they can. My talk challenges the view held by most people that stopping children from working and forcing them to go to school is good for children. So almost everyone should be interested in this show! Although I work in political philosophy, the ideas are accessible to everyone, and the fundamental values I draw on are shared widely. So in the spirit of equality that animates my talk: I hope it will be accessible to all. Of course, I would be pleased if some people came away agreeing with me! But my main goal is for the audience to leave with some new questions in their mind, and some tools to think about those questions so they can make up their own mind about the issue. We generally don’t talk about children’s equality very seriously today, let alone the topic of child-labour, so let’s at least aim to open-up the conversation and cast-off assumptions that the way we do things today is necessarily the best.

Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

Outer Space – The Next Empire?

Matjaz and Pippa’s CoDI show ‘Outer Space – The Next Empire?’ is on at 1.50pm, Saturday 5th August at the New Town Theatre (Fringe Venue 7).

Tell us a bit about yourselves

Matjaz Vidmar – research student in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies Space Exploration and Industry in Scotland at The University of Edinburgh; science communicator at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and elsewhere; occasional blogger and writer; involved in many “out-there” ideas, including a project proposing a geostationary space station

Pippa Goldschmidt – a “recovering Astronomer” with a PhD from The University of Edinburgh/Royal Observatory Edinburgh; worked on Outer Space policy in the UK Government, including puzzling questions such as “What is Outer Space and where does it start?”; now an acclaimed writer about science in fiction. Winner of 2016 Suffrage Science award (for women in science). Author of novels, short stories, poems and essays.

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

The exciting CoDI show we are hatching together fits perfectly with Matjaz’s work in trying to use arts to understand the role and importance of Space Exploration and Industry for society at large and Pippa’s creative work on how science and technology inspires and informs artistic expression.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

The topic dares ask a question about what are we humans doing in and to Outer Space? In the not very distant future, humans will for the first time visit another planet (Mars). Later on we will likely establish some interplanetary outposts.

What does this mean for society down here on Earth? By reaching so far away from our planet, are we taking enough care over the possible harm we might cause to other planetary environment and life, and the possible harm we might do to ourselves?

Are Outer Space resources ours for the taking? Even if they are – who are “we”? Will it be whoever first plants the flag or do we come to a broader agreement on sharing?

How do we make sure we don’t choke our own planet in Space Debris, which is bits of disused space craft and rockets already swarming around the Earth and possibly increasing exponentially in the next few years?

Does it rightly have this label? Is the topic unjustly controversial? 

If Space Debris starts raining down on Earth, as outlined in one of Pippa’s stories, it will get pretty dangerous pretty quickly! And that is only one of the topics we will explore in the show! It may also get very dangerous for Space Dodos (whatever they are)!

The severity of danger is really in the eyes of the beholder, but we think we need to have an inspired and inspiring conversation about the scientific, technological and societal implications of exploration of Outer Space and how it touches upon other aspects of the everyday life of us Earthlings (as well as Martians!).

Describe your show in three words

Serious Space Fun

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

They will learn a bit about what we are up to in Outer Space and what possible futures await us.

There will be examples of how Scotland is “reaching for the stars” and how it contributes to more space waste. We will discuss whether humans are ready for space travel and if so, where you should buy your ticket!

We will talk about science, technology, ethics, politics, achievements, beliefs and imagination, mix them all together and throw in a big measure of drama and humour.

We will read some short stories and see if we can disentangle facts about Outer Space from Science Fiction.

To sum up, we will have some serious fun with some serious issues – and all in the name of science!

 

 

Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe

Being heckled by my dad… and four other things I learned doing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

[Reblogged from Thirty-Fifth Century Romance and written by Amy Burge, who performed at the 2016 Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas]

I love public engagement. Broadly defined as “engaging the public with research” (as the RCUK puts it), public engagement has been pretty extensively embraced by universities as a way of highlighting the relevance, importance, and impact of academic research beyond the university. In other words, it’s a great way to show that the research we’re doing as academics can make the world a better and richer place. While we might be the experts in our own research areas, talking to non-academics – professionals, local communities, governments, charities, and multinational organisations – about our research can be incredibly rewarding (and challenging).

Photo credit @edbeltane

This summer, I dived into public engagement by getting involved with the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The Cabaret (or CODI for short) is organised by Beltane and is basically an opportunity for academics to present a ‘dangerous idea’ from their research (e.g. exercise is bad for you; we should get rid of zoos) and discuss it with a non-academic audience while standing on a small wooden stage in a yurt at the largest arts festival in the world. Piece of cake.

I’ve previously written a bit about the content of my show (that we should take romance novels more seriously) and if you’re more of an audiophile you can listen to a slightly clumsy radio interview where I talk about the show and my research. What I want to talk about in this post is more generally about my experiences of doing public engagement in case it’s of use to any other academics who might be interested in sharing their research more widely. I’m certainly no expert in public engagement, but I’ve definitely learned some things this summer.

So, in no particular order, here are five things I learned doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show.

1. Talking to the public is scary (the first time). 

I don’t mean talking to people at the next table in the pub, or chatting to the lady on the bus. Talking one-on-one to people in non-work environment is easy. But when you’re up there on that stage, with 40-odd people staring up at you, and they’re expecting you to be both clever and funny (it is the Fringe, after all) it can be quite intimidating. I’m not scared of public speaking. I remember being nervous before my first seminar as a postgraduate tutor, and I was slightly intimidated when giving my first lecture to 200 students in the week of my job, but I’ve taught for so long now, that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have your stomach in knots, your thoughts scattered, and your hands shake visibly.

Doing a Fringe show reminded me of all of that. I felt that I needed to apologise to anyone I spoke to in the hour before the show started because I’m not sure I was in any way coherent. My stomach was tied in knots and my hands were shaking so much I was sure people could see it on the stage. But, after the first ten minutes or so, as people started to laugh and to contribute thoughts and questions, it stopped being so scary. About half an hour in, it even started being fun. And the minute it finished, I wanted to do it again. I suppose anything is scary the first time you do it, and sometimes that nervousness is a good thing – it gives you adrenaline that gets you through it. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next time, when I hopefully won’t be scared at all.

2. You will get heckled by your dad (if he’s anything like mine).

I think the scariest thing about talking to a public audience is that you’re not sure how they’re going to react. When you give a paper at an academic conference, you know roughly what’s going to happen. More often than not, three people will give twenty-minute papers, followed by a half-hour Q&A session. Generally, people don’t  interrupt, they’ll ask (hopefully) polite questions at the end and you might exchange email addresses afterwards in case you want to build a new research relationship. There’s a code. There are rules.

With public engagement, there are no rules. Well, there are rules, but they’re different to the rules you get at an academic conference. For one, talking at a Fringe show meant that people were much more likely to shout things out in the middle of the show (to be fair, I did encourage them). Begging my friends and family to come also meant that one of those hecklers was my (lightly refreshed) father.

But actually, I found the more informal atmosphere energising. Like a teaching session where students are really engaged I had to think on my feet, but because the audience contributed so many comments and ideas, it meant that my role was far more facilitatory, rather than managerial. Being able to riff off and refer to content from the audience meant that I had to spend less time talking, there was less attention and pressure on me as the ‘sage on the stage’ and I enjoyed myself much more.

So, I suppose, thanks for the heckling, dad.

3. You won’t get asked the questions you expect.

When I was a PhD student preparing for my first conference paper, I was advised by a friend to practice for the Q&A session by trying to think of all the possible questions I could be asked. As it happens, this was good advice; as academics, we know what other academics might ask us because they’re the kind of questions we would also ask.

Members of the public won’t ask these kinds of questions. During my show, the suggestions and questions asked were sometimes far more basic than I’d usually be asked and often more unexpected: “is the bible a romance novel”? I realised how much, as academics, we rely on a base level of research knowledge as a shorthand; we don’t, for example, ask about the story content in the Canterbury Tales because the assumption is that we already know it. Members of the public don’t always have this base knowledge and so you might find yourself answering questions that (to you) seem obvious, but to your audience are not.

4. Public engagement support exists (and it’s for people like me too). 

Before this summer, I was aware that organisations like Beltane existed, that my university had a whole office devoted to helping academics with public engagement, and I knew that colleagues were involved in public engagement activities. I just never really thought that it could be something I could do. Not just because I research books that are either really old (it’s hard to do a panel discussion with a medieval romance author) or really uncool (as I said, we really need to take romance novels more seriously). It was also because as a teaching fellow who wasn’t being paid to do research, I felt that I fell somewhat outside of the structures.

Talking about sexy books in a yurt (photo credit: Beltane)

Most funding council or bodies now require some public engagement as part of any research they fund. Equally, the Research Excellence Framework (a roughly five-yearly census of research outputs in all university departments) now also requires universities to submit case studies of public engagement or research impact. So for most academics, public engagement is definitely on the radar.

What’s more, as a PhD researcher, I had several opportunities to engage wider audiences with my research. I took part in the 3 Minute Thesis competition (where you have 3 minutes and one slide to explain your entire PhD topic to a non-academic audience) and helped to organise events where academics talked to and alongside professionals, artists, and writers.

Universities have clearly done a lot to help academic staff and research students to do public engagement. But as an early career researcher who wasn’t employed to do research, I found myself somewhat in limbo. Many of the fellowships and pots of money made available to support public engagement are not available for teaching-only staff. In addition, while my department were super supportive, I get the sense that in other places, researchers like me (who are, effectively, independent researchers who happen to work at a university) might miss out on research mentorship and guidance that they might otherwise receive from a line manager.

But, things have changed. While there might not be as many opportunities for a non-research staff member, there were still opportunities out there. By going along to some of the public engagement events supported by Beltane and by getting to know some of the staff who work for Beltane (it helps that we share a building), by following their activity on social media, and by signing up for their mailing lists I realised that there are opportunities for me to get involved in events where I can talk about my research and to get support for it. It was just a question of asking.

5. Once you pop…

At first it was just the one Fringe show. But then there was the associated Tweeting and blogging, the radio interview, the social media connections (this has been great for my Twitter follower numbers, guys). I’ve since been invited to speak on a panel at the Sheffield Festival of the Mind. I get the feeling that once you’ve started getting into public engagement, people start to recognise you as someone who can communicate their research well to non-academic audiences. You begin to be publicly associated with particular research areas. You get invited to more events and activities and, through networking and working with other publicly engagement academics, you learn how to be better at public engagement yourself.

Behind the Scenes at CoDI 2016

Five shows in and everyone knows their place. Here we are in action:

Young woman with iPad and dark haired man at sound desk

Alex Oates, marketing guru (especially social media), and our faithful sound man John. John has done sound for CoDI for three years and even matches the show intro music to the show titles

 

 

 

 

 

man in yurt
Producer Stephen Wright keeping an eye on the first show

 

 

 

 

 

Emergency sign-making on day one. (Alex has a very handy boyfriend with access to wood, and she is a rather talented artist herself.)

team chat

Pre-show chat in a break between rain showers