Research Details

There are two main themes to my research, which are of course overlapping in many respects: Memory-Centered Cognition, and Human-Robot Interaction. Below is just a brief outline of these themes, outlining the most significant aspects of each. For publications, please see my Publications Page

Theme: Memory-Centered Cognition

A New Perspective on Memory for Cognitive Robotics

This was the subject of my PhD research: the foundations of an application of a new perspective on what role memory should play, what it should be constituted of, and how it should interact with other aspects of autonomous cognition.

In essence, I developed a theoretical framework (of which I developed a minimal computational implementation on a mobile robot) describing the interaction of four main aspects (figure above): associative memory as the substrate for activation dynamics, value system, embodiment, and constructivist development - each of which interacting with one another in continuing interaction with the environment (thus an enactive approach).

Memory-Based Cognitive Architectures

Related to the new perspective is the question of cognitive architecture, which is the task to define a set of principles and mechanisms that define cognition (cognitive behaviour, cognitive 'processing', etc) in a domain general manner. In my view, taking inspiration from humans is a useful way forward, as we provide the best (not going into questions of optimisation...) example of high-level cognition - although learning from animal behaviour is frequently a useful way of elucidating the capabilities of humans (in a mechanistic manner).

In any case, with the perspective on memory that I have taken, this has some fairly fundamental consequences for cognitive architecture. For example, the question of knowledge/information representation is typically (but not always) based around symbol processing in current cognitive architectures. Symbols then can be manipulated using standard computing architectures in well defined ways: i.e. cognitive processing. Emphasising rather the sub-symbolic methodology that the memory-centered approach commits you to thus requires a re-adjustment of how cognitive processing is viewed (figure above). Building on my PhD work, this is, to me, a fascinating question.

Theme: Social Human-Robot Interaction

Long-term Social Human-Robot Interaction

This work is in the context of the ALIZ-E project (with new work now being conducted as part of the DREAM project). The aim of this project is to extend the length of social interactions between robots and children from minutes to days and weeks. Two important themes emerge from this work: (1) believable any-depth interaction, which means (for example) that the robot system is robust to low quality sensory information, and resulting uncertain knowledge of child/environment state, and can nevertheless maintain an engaging interaction (this is a very difficult problem!), and (2) a strong commitment to testing and evaluation of systems 'in the wild', i.e. in settings that are typical for our subjects, and not for ourselves as roboticists, specifically schools and hospitals (extremely difficult both practically and methodologically!).

My role and interest within the project is to explore the role of Memory within such robotic systems capable of adaptive social interaction over extended periods of time. Starting from my perspective of memory in the wider context of cognition (see description above), my emphasis has been on how associative processes can be used for a number of purposes, including concept acquisition (a more abstract study), and multi-modal (and typically non-linguistic, i.e. behavioural) alignment within a game interaction (see Sandtray description below). 

Contextualising Social Interactions: the Sandtray

Since early 2011, I have developed and continue to work on the Sandtray: a touchscreen-based setup for providing context to unstructured social human-robot interaction. Primarily focused on use with children in one-on-one interactions with the Nao humanoid robot, the Sandtray does not inherently provide an interaction structure, thus facilitating more naturalistic interaction on the part of the children.

The Sandtray has been very successful in its application to HRI studies. We've used it extensively in Plymouth, but it has also now found use in scientific evaluations in Italy and the Netherlands in the context of the ALIZ-E project, and other EU projects are now using similar touchscreen-based setups. It is continually undergoing refinement, development, and application to new domains: WoZ control, adaptive & autonomous robot behaviours, application to learning about nutritional content of food, robot teaching behaviours, etc.