Where performance counts

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Emotions run high at Glasgow University's Science Festival, writes Douglas Blane, and that's just from the robot

THE LITTLE robot rolling around like a boisterous puppy on the ground has just scored a goal and seems to be feeling delighted. But it is only a machine, no matter how cute it looks, and machines don't have emotions. Do they?

"It's only a matter of time," Susan Stuart tells her secondary school audience at Glasgow University. "Right now, Aibo and the other robots I've been showing you, have no experience of what it is like to be a robot. But I believe they will and within your lifetimes."

The psychologist and machine intelligence expert is one of dozens of scientists taking part in Glasgow University's Science Festival which was launched in March and has been playing to packed lecture-theatres since.

Professor Stuart is a good example of what makes the festival distinctive, says its manager Rebecca Crawford. "Science festivals often hire artists and performers for their children's shows. They say it's easier to put science into a performer than performing skills into a scientist. We don't buy that. Maybe it used to be true. But there are loads of young scientists out there and some not so young who want to share their enthusiasm with youngsters and convey the excitement of being a scientist. We provide training, but many of them already have the necessary skills.

Nor is it only the science that scientists communicate most effectively. While aiming to explain what it's like to be a robot, Professor Stuart is also conveying, with every word and gesture, what it's like to be a scientist. "That is something an actor can never do, no matter how well rehearsed," says Dr Crawford. "We are real scientists. We don't have to pretend."

A nuclear physicist originally, Dr Crawford began sharing science with schoolkids 20 years ago, "with liquid nitrogen demonstrations and a thermal camera for looking at armpits". Later she took child-friendly science shows, with props like a six-foot bed of nails, into hundreds of schools.

As the Glasgow Science Centre's education manager she first noticed what the science festival has now confirmed. Place and surroundings have a huge effect on what children learn and whether they learn at all. "As soon as the kids come on to campus and start wandering among the cloisters and the quadrangles, and go up to the refurbished Hunterian Museum which seems like a castle to them they love this place. It's a unique selling point we didn't know we had until we started watching the children."

Back among the robots, Professor Stuart is talking about neural nets and learning algorithms. "You know if you don't like something when you taste it for the first time or listen to a new piece of music, but you keep trying, and the more you do the more you like it? These robots are learning in much the same way.

At the end of the session Bill Sergeant shepherds his computer science students back to Hyndland Secondary. "We have covered, in a very interesting way, about half the Higher syllabus on machine consciousness," he comments. "These are difficult concepts. The whole idea of what consciousness is and how you define it is hard."

Getting a knowledgeable perspective on challenging ideas is a huge benefit of bringing pupils to the university, says Janet Jamieson from Earnock High in Hamilton. "The examples the professor gave were very valuable. A lot of this subject isn't at all tangible. Ideas such as weightings in neural nets are hard for pupils to grasp. Professor Stuart related these ideas to things the kids are familiar with. So they will understand and remember them that much better."

The benefits have flowed in both directions, says Rebecca Crawford, so next year the schools will be back and so will the scientists. "If you get it right as a researcher you can see everybody in the audience, maybe a hundred people, all smiling back at you. That is a great feeling."

Rebecca Crawford, T 0141 330 6396; E r.a.crawford@physics. gla.ac.uk; www.glasgowsciencefestival.org.uk

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