Monthly Archives: January 2012

Nature Article on the Paperless Lab

Very quick post to point out an interesting article in Nature this week, on how some labs are going paperless for their record-keeping and management. The examples given go well beyond just using an iPad instead of a paper notebook though – well worth a read. You can find the article here.

Why every (psychology) student should learn to code

Why should you, as a psychology student, or indeed any other kind of student, need to learn computer programming? My position on this is that the basics of computer programming should be taught to everyone, preferably in schools, at a young age. I think the benefits of this could be enormous – programming (just like learning any other language) expands the mind, and teaches you to think in new ways. In particular programming languages force the user to think algorithmically, and by their very nature instantiate the basics of formal logic. Unfortunately, a recent report by the Royal Society (Guardian write-up here) has highlighted the deficiencies in the UK’s teaching of IT in schools; despite the best computer:student ratio in primary schools in Europe, there is a massive lack of well-qualified and competent teachers. This is somewhat understandable; a competent programmer can easily make much more money actually being a programmer than teaching kids. It’s difficult to know how to effectively address this issue, but it would definitely be a shame if the UK starts to fall behind in its computer industry because of a lack of quality teaching staff.

So, assuming you didn’t learn to program at school, and you’re now a university student, why should you learn now? Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time learning the material you need to know for whatever course you’re doing, than learning some kind of esoteric skill that you might not ever need? The answer, is, emphatically, no. Programming is about as essential a skill as it’s possible to conceive of. As the world moves towards a knowledge and tech-based economy a lot of traditional skills are becoming more and more automated. Vast industries have been created in the last 20 years, focussed around building the systems which make this transition possible – and that means coding. Read the rest of this entry

How to use Google effectively – an infographic.

I’ve written before about how to effectively search for information on the internet, however I just found a fantastic infographic from a site called Hack College. There’s some other useful-looking stuff on the site too – it’s tips/resource site for (American) college students. Anyway, the infographic is reproduced below (click for full-size version) and if you don’t already know everything in it, then consider yourself duly chastised, you young scamp.

Read the rest of this entry

The iPad and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for Social Anxiety

The iPad - not totally useless after all, apparently

My lovely wife has just found a new use for her iPad in the course of her clinical work using cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). One of the techniques she uses for socially anxious clients is video recording them giving short presentations. Before giving the talk they generally believe that they will perform very badly, but when they view the video afterwards they’re usually pleasantly surprised by their performance. This technique was first proposed in this paper, and (I’m told) is pretty effective at convincing such clients that sometimes their own predictions of how they’ll perform in a given situation can be inaccurate and negatively biased.

Anyway, she used to do this by lugging along a video-camera, a tripod, and a laptop to her therapy sessions, video-ing the presentation using the camera and tripod, then connecting the camera to the laptop in order to let the client view the video on the larger screen. But, since she got an iPad she just props it up in the corner of the room, shoots a video using the built-in camera on the back (it’s not a great camera, but it’s definitely good enough) and when the client needs to see it, all she has to do is flip the iPad over and hit the play button. Simple, elegant, and all that’s required is the iPad itself. This is definitely the best use I’ve ever heard of for an iPad – perhaps they’re not just expensive toys after all? ;o)


BrainDesire, Online Experiments, Neuro-business and a Plea for Openness

I’ve recently had some correspondence with the CEO of a company called Brain and Science which runs a site called BrainDesire. The site purports to use…

“…the latest discoveries in brain science, and applies them to dating, relationships and love. Discover BrainDesire and find out which men or women have a real potential for dating and for a serious relationship with you.”

It does this by an online test, where you enter the name of the person you are romantically interested in and the name is then used in a relatively simple priming experiment where the name is used as the prime and the task is a lexical decision. The idea is that the name of Mr or Ms Right leads to higher arousal, and therefore a faster reaction time for the lexical decision. Once the test is complete, your results are then available for a modest fee.

My initial reaction to this was “pffftt… yeah, right”, and expressing this opinion on twitter was what first attracted the attention of the CEO of the company. We ended up having quite a technical discussion by e-mail about the scientific basis of the procedure BrainDesire uses and my assessment of it is now much better informed. There are several potential issues with the test which were immediately apparent.

Firstly, the scientific basis of the test. It’s largely based on a 2006 paper by Bianchi-Demicheli, Grafton and Ortigue which demonstrates the reaction time speeding effect when a beloved’s name is used as a prime. These authors are well respected scientists who generally do outstanding work and I have no reason to suppose that there is anything wrong with the paper (yes, I could get nit-picky about the methods, but I could do that with almost any paper). Incidentally, Scott Grafton and Stephanie Ortigue comprise the Scientific Advisory Board of the company. What I do have an issue with though, is that this result has never really been convincingly replicated. There’s another paper from 2007 which uses the same task in a fMRI scanner, and pretty-much replicates the result, however the effects are much weaker and the sample size is much smaller, plus only women were used in this experiment. Not totally convincing. Read the rest of this entry

I want to be a Robopsychologist

I was a bit of a weird kid. While my school-mates were running around in the playground playing football and mindlessly inflicting minor injuries on each other I used to sit on a bench reading 1960s science fiction books.* One of my favourite authors at the time was Isaac Asimov, and I was particularly captivated by his Robot stories, and the character of Susan Calvin, with her neologistic job description of ‘robopsychologist’. What Asimov astutely recognised back in the 60s was that if artificial intelligence of even a relatively simple and tightly-bounded nature was ever to be created, its behaviour would be complex, often unpredictable, and even occasionally aberrant. Susan Calvin’s job description is therefore to interpret and understand robot behaviour, and to manage and study their interactions with humans.

50 years on from the publication of Asimov’s initial robot books (and coincidentally, roughly in the time period in which Asimov set his stories), robopsychology might just be beginning to emerge as a discipline. While the robots we are currently developing are clunky simpletons compared to Asimov’s capable, graceful, positronic-brained creations, the behaviour they exhibit is arguably starting to be at a level where some serious questions need to be asked and investigated. A Google Scholar search for the term ‘robopsychology‘ turns up 22 results, most of which are spurious, but three in particular stand out. The first two are reviews by Alexander and Elena Libin, published in 2004 (PDF) and 2005 (PDF), and deal with similar themes. These authors seek to establish a set of principles by which person-robot interaction might be studied, and also present some findings derived from their use of a robotic cat with various cross-cultural and clinical populations (incidentially defining the term ‘robotherapy’ for apparently the first time). The third source found by Google Scholar is an unpublished MSc thesis from Diego J. Mejias‐Sanabria at UCL (PDF) which details some theoretical and experimental studies of the impact of different physical features on human-robot interaction, and particularly on the strength and type of relationship that is produced.

While clearly of great interest, this preliminary work is focussed almost entirely on the human side of the equation, with little to be said about the psychology of the robot itself. This is understandable, as most robots now commonly in use, while sophisticated in many ways, are capable of only a relatively simple set of pre-programmed behaviours. As such, there is relatively little to investigate from a psychological perspective. However, all that may be about to change. The inspiration for this blog post actually came from some stunning work performed by a company named TheCorpora, using the open-source, linux-distro-powered Qbo robot. In the video below, Qbo learns to recognise itself in a mirror:

And in this second video, Qbo learns to distinguish a view of itself in a mirror from another Qbo robot, using a flashing light pattern on its nose. Once the other robot is recognised as a different entity, a short conversation between the two is carried out:

Needless to say, this is some seriously impressive stuff. Astute students of behaviour will recognise the setup in the videos as an example of the Mirror Test, first devised by Gordon Gallup in the 1970s, and used as one way of guaging the level of various animal species’ self-awareness. The nose-flashes that Qbo uses to recognise itself are even equivalent to the methods used in an elaboration of the mirror test where odourless dye-spots are painted on animals in order to get a clearer behavioural indication of whether they respond to the mirror as an image of themselves.

This work done with the Qbo robot clearly raises a whole host of questions, principal among them being (to my mind at least), just what exactly is happening here? The exact interpretation of success or failure by a particular species/individual at the mirror test is a matter of open debate, and the arguments about what the results might mean quickly spin off into the realms of unfettered philosophising. Some have argued that the mirror test is unsuitable for assessing species which use odour or auditory cues more extensively than humans, if this is the case, how suitable is it for assessing the self-awareness of a robot? It could be that Qbo is merely performing a relatively mechanical set of pre-programmed responses when confronted with the mirror, however it could just be possible that something a lot deeper, and a lot more interesting, is going on.

The point I’m hoping to demonstrate here is that an understanding of what’s going on in these videos may require an understanding not just of the mechanics, programming and behaviour of Qbo, but fundamentally of its psychology. We need to know, essentially, what’s going on in its head when it recognises itself in the mirror. Such an understanding would doubtless be hugely valuable in driving further research and development of artificial intelligence, but could conceivably shed light on the development of consciousness and self-reflective abilities in humans and other species. For this, we obviously need robopsychologists, and with the pace of development of robot abilities and their increasing penetration into society it’s not unlikely that such needs may become pressing within the next 10-20 years. The field is currently so nascent as to be practically zygotic, and it may be some time before it produces the real equivalent of Susan Calvin, however, I have little doubt that given time, it will.

And that is why I want to be a robopsychologist. I leave you with a quote from the Master himself:

“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

My Own View” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978) edited by Robert Holdstock; later published in Asimov on Science Fiction (1981).


* The word ‘nerd’ hadn’t been invented yet, or at least wasn’t in common usage where I grew up, so I was a ‘boffin’ to my contemporaries, the heartless little cretins.