About Curiosity in Robots, Thinking outside the Box and Happiness

Fascinating interview and insights by Goren Gordon, from our expe(e)rts’ section @bornascientist.


How did you get here?

My road was long and multi-disciplinary. I was 20 years a student in the university. I have a bachelor, masters and PhD in Quantum Physics, I have a bachelor in Medical Science and Masters in Business Administration and another PhD in Computational Neuroscience. I did my post-doc in MIT Media Lab in the Personal Robots Group. At almost any point in time I studied two degrees in parallel, because it was hard to reconcile my two great passions: quantum physics and the brain. In the end, I (almost) stopped my research in quantum physics and am now focusing on my admiration of the human capability to learn.

What is your focus?

My focus is Curiosity, from many different perspectives. I’m studying it using my physics background, by trying to formulate general equations of curiosity and building a mathematical model of curiosity. I’m implementing this model both in psychology and robotics. In psychology, I’m trying to use the model to better assess people’s curiosity, both adults and children. In robotics, I’m trying to create curious robots, that learn in similar ways to infants. The main goal is to understand infants by building infant-like robots.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I’m thinking in equations because of my physics background. I’m always trying to simplify complex concepts into their bare minimum and trying to find this “one equation of the human mind”. While I know that is probably not possible, the fun is in the road to find it. It fascinates me to see infants and children learn by themselves so much and so fast. I wonder whether we will ever understand and be able to replicate that in robots. Furthermore, I learned about the possibility of social robots for education of children and it fascinates me that children can benefit so much from interacting with a social robot. I’m trying to combine these two seemingly-separate ideas, curious robots and curious children. What will happen if children continually interact with curious robots, that express enjoyment of learning, ask questions and explore? Will the child become more curious? Can we thus influence, promote and overcome the reduction in curiosity as children grow old? These are the questions that fascinate me and which I’m trying to answer through my research.

What are the biggest challenges?

There are challenges from different perspective. From a more fundamental point of view, the challenge is to understand basic human behavior and use reductionism to try and find a single principle underlying learning. There are so many aspects and the variability in human behavior is so great, it sometimes seems hopeless to find unifying principles.

From a robotics perspective, robots are hard. The only thing you can be sure of a robot is that it will break. They always break. Then you need to fix them in the absolute knowledge they will break again. However, this tests the researcher’s grit which is one of the most fundamental qualities of a successful scientists.

Then there are logistics. I am trying to run large studies in the formal educational system. There are so many bureacrats  to deal with and so much logistics that it seems it is a full-time job just to coordinate the study, let alone run it, analyze it and publish it. But the gains from these large studies and the impact they may have are definitely worth the hassle.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field

Choose a field you are deeply passionate about. Disregard other people’s opinions, the job market or fads and trends. Find something that makes you smile whenever you think about it and makes you wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and joy. All the other things will come from that.

…a post-doctoral researcher

Work hard but remember to enjoy the journey. There is always more work that can be done, more experiments to do and more papers to write, but you do not want to look back at this period in time as “I suffer now for the future”. The post-doc can be a wonderful time to explore, meet your future colleagues and do exciting things.

…a junior faculty

Hire a lab manager! From the start. The amount of bureaucracy is unbelievable and a lab manager, no matter how much he costs, is always worth it. Don’t wait for big grants to finance him, just hire immediately. As for students and labs, there are different ways for PI-ing, probably a different one for each PI-student combination, can’t help there. But some things are universal: in the beginning, you have no help from “senior-students”, because … you don’t have senior students, so it’s all on you. You have to train your students, so do it well and invest the time, it will repay in the future.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

I made some unorthodox decisions along the way, but I always had in mind to enjoy what I’m doing now and don’t worry too much about the future. I learned early on that if I do what I love, I do it well and it pays off. I did have to sacrifice for my post-doc, which I did not want to do, but in hindsight it was a good experience and aided my career a lot.

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice for the upcoming generation of researchers?

I read a lot about studies of happiness and there is a consensus on what makes people happy: surprise, surprise, it’s not work. It is their social circle and support. I actively invest energy and time to make the time to meet friends on a very regular and intense basis. I believe it is crucial and even though I have tons of work (don’t we all), I still make the time to play board games, meet friends, spend lots of time with the family. My best advice, which is probably the hardest to do, is to compartmentalize. When I’m at work I’m an orphan childless single researcher. When I’m at home, I’m an unemployed jobless father. If you can do that, everyone (including you) will be happy.

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be?

I would create many more truly multi-disciplinary positions. Today, most universities still hire based on faculty, even though so many researchers today are doing extremely multi-disciplinary work. It is extremely hard to land a job in engineering when you work with robots and kids, and vice versa. The same is true for publication and grants. While everyone loves to say they’re multi-disciplinary, in the end they judge by their own discipline and that’s so 20th century.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?

In order to do science you’ve got to have the passion. Without it, you won’t be happy and you won’t succeed. If you are passionate, don’t let anyone take it away from you; not editors of journals, not jealous colleagues nor grant committees. If you want to be a scientist, then you probably dream of changing the world. Go and do it and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.

What did you want to be as a kid?

A scientist, from since I remember.

For more on Goren Gordon’s work visit his webpage: http://www.curiositylabtau.com/

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