Students in Oswego, Australia team on transhumanism course, robot videos

Professors and students at SUNY Oswego and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia—as well as human and robot actors in Oswego—have given a new dimension to collaboration.

Scene from filming of robot videoCoursework in Australia and Oswego this spring linked graduate students in English literature, human-computer interaction and creative writing. Their studies pulled in topics as diverse as artificial intelligence, philosophy, graphic design and history. And, in a case of campus-community cooperation, their final project teamed actors from Oswego Players with robot actors.

SUNY Oswego HCI director Damian Schofield and English and creative writing graduate studies director Patrick Murphy co-taught “Transhumanism,” exploring the intersections of the real and virtual worlds in realms such as artificial intelligence, robots and avatars.

Taking it a step further, Schofield said he connected with a colleague in Australia to turn the effort into a Collaborative Online International Learning course. Once a week for part of the spring semester, students in Oswego met by live videoconference with students in Lisa Dethridge’s creative writing class at RMIT.

Robotic actors

The virtual classroom met real life when the Australian students began crafting questions for the Americans to answer. The goal in Melbourne was to write scripts for short videos starring friends of Schofield’s from Oswego Players and the college’s programmable, humanoid NAO robots.

“Robotics lets us step outside ourselves and allows us to do some problem-solving,” a visiting Dethridge told a SUNY Oswego audience at the college’s recent Symposium on Learning and Teaching. “That’s a kind of fourth-dimensional space” where people can project themselves onto an inanimate object, observe and learn, she said.

Dethridge said the professors asked their students to question the process of technological and scientific advances—including what makes one human, whether robots can learn to have beliefs or a sense of humor or mental illness, and what human values should be embedded in the processes for making “progress.”

The students in the transhumanism course provided their Australian collaborators with an eclectic set of resources, from academic research to pop culture, from scientific studies of robots and humans to comic books, movies, fiction and the literature of history, philosophy and cognitive science.

Five HCI students from “Transhumanism” followed up by traveling to Australia in the summer with Schofield and Tatiana Tavares, a visiting scholar at SUNY Oswego from Brazil’s Science Without Borders program. They continued working with some of the Australian creative writing students to refine the scripts for the robots and the actors from Oswego Players.

“As HCI students, we spend a lot of time thinking about humans and robots and computers,” said Phillip Moore, who enrolled in the program after receiving his undergraduate degree in graphic design. “We brought them a little different perspective just thinking about how to write for robots.”

The playlets were filmed in a home in New Haven. The resulting videos—funny but pointed—portray a robot as surrogate husband for a widowed woman, as the confused foil to a contest winner who speaks in Aussie slang and as a mood-transferal device for a sleepy man.

Global interaction

COIL, a SUNY-wide initiative focused on globally networked learning, promotes a teaching methodology that emphasizes cost-effective ways to grow students’ multicultural competency.

Anthony Kirkpatrick, an HCI student who made the Australia trip, said the COIL course presented logistical hurdles—the Australians’ semester began later than Oswego’s, the time zones were 14 hours apart and there were stereotypes to overcome.

“It was difficult at times, but that’s part of the good thing about it,” he said. “It took me out of my comfort zone. I can sit through a class on artificial intelligence and robots and things like that and enjoy and understand it, in layman’s terms. But throw in literature and philosophy and it’s taking me out of my comfort zone.”

HCI student Carly Karas added, “It kind of feels now like we have a little more experience with the wider world. The classes talked about the past and the present and the future. I think it added some depth.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Robot wranglers—Human-computer interaction graduate students Bobby Tew, left, and Anthony Kirkpatrick ready one of SUNY Oswego’s NAO robots for a scene in a video titled “Rob-ot,” where the programmable humanoid plays surrogate husband for a widowed woman, portrayed by Oswego Players actor Joannie Anderson. Oswego students in a co-taught HCI and English literature course worked with creative writing students in Australia to produce three human-robot videos during a Collaborative Online International Learning partnership. (Photo by Tatiana Tavares)

(Posted: Oct 24, 2013)

Tags: transhumanism, robots, human computer interaction, damian schofield, artificial intelligence