@rooksbym SOcial Brain in Action (SOBA) lab https://www.soba-lab.com/ UofG’s IN&P @UofGPsychology
An Abrupt Pause
In March 2020, I was one of many, many people whose work had come to an abrupt pause. The UK had taken the most decisive action to date against the Covid-19 pandemic and issued restrictions on everyday work and life. It was the start of many lockdowns to come. In some ways, it was a relief to finally have a system that was aimed at keeping us all safe and to protect vulnerable groups. At the same time, I found it hard to believe the timing of it – I had planned on booking a flight that very week for a two-month research trip to Japan to conduct a study. I had taken up my current post the previous year as a postdoc to join SOBA lab, tasked with the delivery of a cross-cultural research project for an EU-funded research programme, Social Robots. Having worked in child psychiatry previously (@ACE_Centre_UoG), this was a new challenge and an opportunity for me. After months of reading up on the social robotics literature, gaining practical insights into the capabilities and limits of social robots today, I seemed to have finally come to a concrete research design and a viable plan to execute the study. The learning journey was made possible by help in the lab, but especially thanks to Bish (@b_Bishakha) who, at the time was the lab’s programmer and introduced the robots and coding gently and kindly to me. The timing of the trip was also planned with childcare and family in mind, so that my two primary-aged children could come with me and attend a local school in Japan while I worked on the study.
At a Loss
I guess, at least there was no question about it, all of those preparations and plans were to stall, at least for the time being. Still, I had to admit that I was at a loss. I had planned to embark on an investigation on our sense of social space, known as proxemics, during interactions with robotic agents, and to study it cross culturally between the UK and Japan. How could I possibly study this without even having access to the physical space to run the study, let alone having access to our robots? As if that wasn’t enough, I knew that our natural sense of social space itself would now be disrupted with the requirement for social distancing.
Part of a Research Community
Of course, I was in no way alone in this situation. I was very much part of the whole research community being hit by it. Around me in our lab (albeit virtually) were talented colleagues who lost no time in adapting their research for lockdown work mode. I was surrounded by inspiring examples. Dorina de Jong (@dorinadejong), Ruud Hortensius (@RuudHortensius), Te-Yi Hsieh (@TeYiHsieh) with our PI, Prof. Emily Cross (@brain_on_dance) had soon started running numerous online studies on our in- and out-group perceptions and decision-making process with artificial agents. They were not only being the model examples but also generously shared with our lab how they did it, using free-source tools and resources such as Psychopy while practicing open science research via OSF to promote transparency and reproducibility.
The encouragement and inspiration I received from them, was amazing. In turn though, it also highlighted some specific challenges for my study. It relied heavily on physical space as both the subject and the context of investigation, and the premise of same-space interaction as the prerequisite. Can our sense of space during social interaction be studied online? For a few weeks, I scratched my head while also discussing with my PI and with the team in lab meetings. I came to realise that this itself had to be part of the research questions. As the study design was constructed and more details filled, all the while bearing in mind that it had to be replicable for Japanese participants, the realisation that this was very much a trial, remained a helpful reminder.
A Stroke of Luck
So I began exploring options. For a start, and even before I could finalise the study design, I had to have a viable plan for securing study materials. In my case, this would need to be something that could be presented to our participants in an online space, which could yield concrete measurement as responses, that are in the context of interacting with robots. But how could I, without having access to the robot needed for enacting situations of social interaction? Again I was fortunate, just so lucky. This time, help came as part of my PI’s recent relocation to an institution in Australia and thanks to her ingenious lateral thinking. The pandemic was of a global scale, but so was the geographical spread of our lab by early May 2020. Our team was working from across continents as a result of the ongoing lockdown in the UK. I was offered an opportunity to work with a fantastic colleague based at my PI’s new institution, Iman Aryanfar. I could not have imagined more relevant or prompt help even if I tried. Iman didn’t just have access to the robot I needed (NAO, see right). He was gifted with the skills to operate NAO to my requirements, to take high quality video clips to share with me, and to engage with me for many rounds of iterative process for fine-tuning the video clips for the study
Embracing New Challenges
Having gathered the materials, I proceeded to finalise the study design to reflect research questions and hypotheses. I then began the process of exploring and learning about various platforms on which to build (Psychopy), post (Pavlovia) and to deliver the study with specific participation criteria (Prolific). The whole process here was another unknown territory for me. Having started my career as a developmental psychologist working with very young children, I had always preferred hands-on data collection through direct interactions with my participants. But here was my chance to embrace some new challenges and to learn on the job. Again, experts in the lab (and even their families!) came to my rescue, from video editing to providing feedback as participants. Ten months on, the study has been registered as a pilot study on OSF, and completed data collection for the UK sample. I am currently preparing to roll it out for the Japanese sample (online) with collaborators based in Japan. Already, the learning gained during the UK data collection is paying off, allowing us to focus more on recruitment of suitable participants and translation of the study. As the uncertainties continue with worrying epidemiological figures, my study, like a little boat, seems to have managed so far to keep bobbing on the waters of evolving situations and restrictions.
An Ongoing Story
Much has already been written on the inadvertent experiences and learning prompted by the pandemic. This is just my story. Like others, it’s an ongoing story, and it has been made possible thanks to the expertise, as well as generosity and kindness of my team and collaborators.