Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Month in Review: February 2018

It's been at once a busy month, and a slow month. One of those "doing much, but getting little done" months - or at least, doing much but getting little finished. There are lectures and open days to deliver, undergraduate exhibitions to assess, PhD students to supervise, ethics applications and conference papers to review: all the day-to-day running of an academic life. The major news this month (leaving aside strikes) has of course been SUITCEYES: we had our a mini-advisory board meeting to discuss potential use cases and get a steer on the best directions we might take, and thinking about how we might deliver them, leading to discussion documents and a couple of interesting Skype calls with various organiksations, and lots of interesting thinking, but little concrete to share.

So, I'm having an interesting time, even if I can't find much to say about it!

Monday, 19 February 2018

Unintended Consequences

This post isn't as exciting as that heading makes it sound. Which is to say that I'm not about to report some hideous unintended consequences of my research. Rather, I'm thinking about the  Collingridge dilemma.

This was brought to my attention during my work on the AHRC Tracking People Network. The dilemma is this: during the early stages of developing a new technology, its design is easy to change - but its social consequences hard to predict. Once the technology is developed and in widespread use, its consequences become apparent - but now, the technology is hard to change.

This was something that clearly applies to tracking technology: the recent issue of Strava revealing the location of military bases is a good example. Likewise, social media's role in bullying and fake news: lots of early internet utopianism looks quite naive now. However well-intentioned, technology can be adapted and misused in many ways. After all, we're all designers: we combine various aspects of our environment to achieve our goals. A desktop computer can be a doorstop, a pint glass a weapon, a telephone a paperweight and so on. You can see how Deleuze and Guattari had a point about assemblages and territorialisation. It's a process that happens all the time.

The problem for the designer or engineer is that their products will be territorialised by other people, used for new purposes, for good or ill. This dovetails with the problem of engineering failure highlighted by Petroski: new things are more likely to go wrong, and we accept that engineers can't foresee every problem. In terms of physical failure, there are well-established methods: prototyping, simulation, test runs. For social consequences we just don't have the same thing. So what are engineers to do - if anything?

This is particularly on my mind because of SUITCEYES, especially in setting up the ethics advisory board and preparing ethics applications. We cover the research ethics - not exploiting participants, safeguarding their data, considering potential benefit. Yet, we find ourselves in the process of developing a new system - what ethical concerns are there? What are the social consequences, if any? Suddenly, we face the Collingridge dilemma head on. Should we even be developing this?

Which is hyperbole, of course. I don't have any special reason to believe that we are about to unleash a far-reaching chapter in history in the way of, say, Tim Berners-Lee and the internet or Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Then again, I don't imagine they thought they would have the impact they did. Though hey - I could be wrong.

It's always interesting to be on the other side of a problem, particularly in academia, where so much is about theorising what others should do, while frequently failing to apply it to oneself. I believe this is what is known in sociology as reflexivity. I've often thought about this in a decision-making context: doing my PhD I became fascinated by human decision-making and how design decision-making in particular varied from the ideals espoused in text books. I do a lot of design, yet I critically reflect on virtually none of my decision-making processes. Maybe that's something I should be doing more of.

And having espoused thoughts on the Engineering Imagination and tracking and Collingridge and ethics - here I am again, faced with the question of: what do we do? How do we address these questions in a messy, practical situation? "Reflect" doesn't seem like much of an answer (indeed, it raises the question - how does one reflect?), but perhaps that's the only one I have.

So maybe that's it. All I can do is try to capture the issues that crop up: a case study in the Engineering Imagination. That and actually read up on the  Collingridge dilemma. It's not like there's a shortage of people who've written on it...

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Month in Review: January 2018

And so the first month of 2018 draws to a close, and a busy old month it's been. But that's hardly new: every month is busy in Academia. The standout feature of this month, has of course been SUITCEYES, which is now officially live, and has been running for a month. There's been an exam to mark, an open day, a transfer viva, semester two teaching to deliver, and coursework to mark, too. Plus some time getting the Ada hand working for the Apex grant with Stuart Murray and playing around with Peltier modules and servo motors for various projects, which has been good fun.

But SUITCEYES has been the big deal. Partly because we have two postdoc roles to recruit, and a contract to sort out, and links with various partners to explore, and we're now having regular fortnightly meetings at Leeds to make sure we're all on the same page.

The main thing, though, was the kick-off meeting at our co-ordinator University: Högskolan i Borås. It was an intense three days (of solid work!) plus two days' travelling, so it took up a good piece of the month. But it was a productive time, and good to meet in person the people with whom I'd had so many Adobe connect calls.

I won't bore you with the details: suffice to say they had a cake (a cake!) to mark the start of the project, and a symposium ("From Touch to Cognition") covering various aspects of haptic communication for people with deafblindness. You can find a full report over at the SUITCEYES website.

Anyway, there was much aligning of expectations, and pronunciation (SUITCEYES is pronounced "suitcase", whereas I had been pronouncing it "suit-kize"). I'm excited to take this forward: after so much planning, it's good to be transitioning to actual work!

Oh, and I volunteered Leeds to host the second consortium meeting, in the summer. So there's that to look forward to. It's all gathering pace...

Friday, 5 January 2018

2018: Year in Preview

Happy New Year! As is customary, I will start the year not with New Years Resolutions, but with a few goals that will guide me through the tear. As always, a simple bulleted list, in no particular order:

On the Blog
* At least 24 posts - the same as last year.
* At least 2 posts per month - to avoid having gluts followed by long silences.
* At least 1 non-review post per month: this is challenging, but I found that the "tick-tock" model of one monthly review and one "other" post worked out pretty well. The other posts are likely to continue being a bit random, and probably will still crop up at the end of the month when time is running out, but it at least encourages me to get my thoughts down on various topics.

* Deliver the SUITCEYES and APEX projects.
* Submit at least five grant applications as either PI or Co-I: this is a bit ambitious, since I've got several live projects to deliver on this year, but it doesn't hurt to try...
* Submit at least two *more* papers to high quality journals (resubmitting the ones under review don't count).
* Get the MagONE force sensor incorporated into FATKAT.
* Get BIGKAT (the new generation of PSAT that incorporates prehensile as well as postural measures) up and running.
* Continue to develop the grip model to address feedback and corrections: This, having no direct funding attached to it, remains the poor cousin to other work 

* Make some inventions: And get back into Leeds Hackspace while I'm at it. I haven't been for about eighteen months. 
* Formulate a reading list for the Engineering Imagination.
These are two that got dropped last year: let's see if I do any better this time...

This is going to be a demanding year. It certainly has the potential to be an exciting one...
Here goes!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Year in Review: 2017

This will be my last post for 2017, and what better way to end the year than with my customary review of the year? Right back at the start of the year I set some goals, and I reviewed them halfway through. Let's see how I've done now that the working year is at its end...

On the Blog
* At least 24 posts - the same as last year. Done! This is Post 25, so even if we discount the cheeky "placeholder" post in April, I've hit this target.
* At least 2 posts per month - to avoid having gluts followed by long silences. I'll tick this one off as done, despite a few wobbles. I technically missed this in January (by a day!), only made it in April by cheating, and there are a few a places where I ended up with a review and non-review post in quick succession (or had gaps of three weeks or more between posts), but I think met the spirit of it. The "tick-tock" approach of doing a review and non-review post each month works well, since it's stopped me from just padding with short review posts, and encourages me to have regular deadlines for getting content out. Even if it does mean that it tends to be two posts a the end of the month!
* At least 4 non-review posts (since I managed 3 last year), to avoid the blog being nothing but a diary of how busy I am: Done! I managed three in the first half of the year, and five in the second, for a total of eight. 

* Deliver the Tracking People and Augmenting the Body projects: Done!
* Submit at least five grant applications as either PI or Co-I: Done! I managed six in the end, and three of them got funded to boot, with one still waiting to be heard from.  This will probably go down as the best success rate in my life, so I'll savour this moment before my success rate regresses to mean!
* Submit at least two papers to high quality journals: Done, though both are still under review.
* Get the new iteration of FATKAT into experimental use: Done! PhD student Latif Azyze has been hard at work on this, and I've had a couple of undergraduate project students developing a new three axis version.
* Get PSAT (the postural sway assessment tool) finished and field tested. Done!
* Adapt our grip model to address feedback and corrections: Not done, though progress has been made.

* Get an "Engineering Imagination" discussion group up and running for postgraduate students in iDRO. Not done. I got a bit overtaken by events, and with the Robotics@Leeds and N8 Robotics and Autonomous Systems Student Networks getting up and running, I've opted to focus my energies there instead.

* Make some inventions. Not done. This has definitely been a weak spot this year. While grants have been succesful, I haven't been managing to put a lot of time into my own making activities.

* Formulate a reading list for the Engineering Imagination. Not done. That big list of books is still sat there, and hasn't made its way into an actual list.

Unexpected Highlights
Of course, opportunities arise during the course of the year that I wasn't aware of back in January. These mostly fall under the "grant applications" headings, so they have sort of already been covered, but a few were particularly notable opportunities that came along:

SUITCEYES: I mentioned this in my last post, and you'll be hearing a lot about it over the next few years, I expect. It's been a huge part of this year, and the opportunity to join the consortium came right of out of the blue last February. It wasn't even on the radar at the start of the year, so getting stuck into it will be really exciting. Of course, now there's just the thorny issue of delivering.

APEX - Engineering the Imagination: This was a call for proposals that came out of nowhere, and Stuart and I decided to have a go, if only to force us to think through our ideas on augmenting the body in more detail. It's paid off handsomely, and the process of developing an "empathy hand" is throwing up some really interesting questions, and to cap it all, we've been selected to exhibit down at the British Academy's Summer Showcase next June. This one definitely needs a blog post in the new year!

Robots, Puppets and Humans: What's the Difference? This was another one that I've blogged about elsewhere, which really gave me the opportunity to think about my work from another angle. It was good fun, and contrasting the approaches of Samit, Anzir and myself was really interesting.

So, not a bad year, all-in-all. Join me next year when I'll be looking ahead to what I hope to achieve in 2018...

Friday, 22 December 2017


No, it's not a typo: it's an acronym: Smart, User-friendly, Interactive, Cognition-Enhancer, Yielding Extended Sensosphere. Let me explain.

One of the big features of this year (and by extension, the next three years as well!) was a successful bid to the EU's Horizon 2020 Funding Scheme for a 3-year project to explore the use of smart textiles to provide haptic communication and navigation aids for deafblind people. The project is worth €2.4 Million, and has a consortium of five academic partners and two industrial partners from seven countries. You can find more detail on the partners than I could possibly fit into this post at the project's official website.

This builds upon - among other things - the work I undertook with Brian Henson and Bryan Matthews on haptic navigation aids for the visually impaired in the Department for Transport -funded WHISPER project (remember WHISPER?).  Whereas there we looked at barriers to navigation, and the potential for haptic aids to navigation, this project takes the whole approach to a much deeper level, bringing in expertise on Smart Textiles (The University of Borås, Sweden, who are co-ordinating the project), machine learning and object recognition (Centre for Research & Technology Hellas, Greece), psychophysics (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands) and gamification (Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany), a major producer of adaptive technology (Harpo, Poland) and a producer of tactile books (the delightfully named Les Doigts Qui Rêvent). This focuses on the broader issue of communication, beyond just the requirement for navigation, and emphasises the needs of deafblind individuals, rather than just the visually-impaired.

The work at Leeds focuses on two of the work packages making up the project: engaging with deafblind people to explore their needs and ensure that the project remains focused on addressing these; and exploring the use of haptic signals to aid navigation. The latter goes beyond the simple use of distance sensors and vibration motors that we explored in WHISPER: we'll be looking at bringing in inertial and GPS measures to enrich the navigation information, and by bringing in work from the other partners, we'll be exploring more sophisticated haptic signals (and a more sophisticated interface than wristbands with vibration motors attached!), and the use of object recognition from a camera feed. 

We'll be kicking the project off with a symposium at Borås in January: From Touch to Cognition.

I can't wait to get started!

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Month in Review: November 2017

As you will notice, I came within a hair's (well, a day's!) breadth of missing my two post target! Posting two days in a row isn't brilliant spacing, but never mind! Such is the nature of November: this November in particular.

This is one of those periods of "peak teach" I've discussed before. Projects are in full swing; early assignments are in for marking, later assignments are being finalised and set; exams are due (I wrote mine over the summer, but a late change in regs meant writing an extra question at short notice!); lectures and tutorials must be delivered; applicant days have begun. On top of that, we had an accreditation meeting this week. And no less than three seminars at the University have cropped up.

All good, but it all means a fine balancing act. A new grant due to start in January means finalising budgets, advertising jobs, and booking a trip to Sweden. More on that in due course.

Amongst all this, there have been three significant research events. The grand finale of the Tracking People AHRC network ran at the start of November - I wrote about my thoughts on this in the previous post, so I won't go further here.

On the Apex grant that Stuart Murray and I are working on, we've just had a copy of the Ada hand printed, which is really exciting. And my PhD student, Latif Azyze, has just some exciting results on handwriting forces.

Busy, busy, busy - but all good stuff. Roll on December, eh?