InScience Experiments: Day 3
Day 3 of InScience 2023 was packed with wonderful programs. Read more about the screenings of De Diepvriesdierentuin, O en Sophia here.
The frozen zoo. Is it a zoo with polar bears, emperor penguins and arctic foxes? No. It is the department of a zoo where genetic samples of their menagerie are kept. Even though they’re not entirely sure of the why yet.
The techniques we have now are incredible. The documentary De Diepvriesdierentuin shows us passionate scientists who try to prevent the extinction of the Northern white rhino. There is hope that the methods will further improve in the future, which would give us more possibilities to rescue animals. That will, however, require a diverse gene pool, which is why the genetic material is already stored in the frozen zoos.
After the showing of De Diepvriesdierentuin, made by Susanne Linssen, the director steps forward for a talk with Philippe Helsen and Zjef Pereboom of the Antwerp Centre for Research and Conservation. The first topic is one they must have discussed many times by now: is this the same as Jurassic Park? The answer is short and clear: “No”. The difference is that the animals that are currently researched were driven to extinction by humans and not by a natural occurrence.
That statement appears to bring about strong feelings in the audience. Soon questions are heard such as “Do we experiment on these animals to ease our own guilty conscience?” and “Are we taking into account the necessity of bringing back a specific animal?”.
Pereboom freely admits that that is an ethical and moral issue which might need a closer look. The documentary showed us the example of the przewalski’s horse. “About that one I’d say: it’s a no-brainer”, says Pereboom. “Humans have caused this animal to be threatened with extinction and it is obvious that the ecosystem would benefit if these animals were a part of it. In the case of the Northern white rhino, it is less straightforward. There are plenty of Southern white rhinos left that might be a suitable replacement in the ecosystem. Perhaps that would be a better solution.”
Linssen responds: “That is correct, but even so the research that is done with the Northern white rhino is very important for the knowledge we gain. We will need that in the future. And a charismatic animal such as the Northern white rhino is effective in making people understand the necessity.”
To that Helsen adds: “People, this fantastic documentary provides a promising scene for the future, but our main goal should be to protect the habitat of wild animals.” De Diepvriesdierentuin is a last resort. Hopefully we won’t need to take them out of the ice.
(Text: Regina Behoekoe)
Science above all?
20.000 eggs in cabinets. It is hard to imagine. Luckily the documentary O was screened at InScience, giving us an impressive look into the lives of a group of oologists (egg scientists). During the Second World War they passionately continued with the collection of their eggs.
Pim Zwier, the director, tells us about how his documentary came about after the showing. It turns out it was by chance, but he was sold from the moment he opened the first drawer with eggs. When he discovered that it came with stacks of dossiers and correspondence, he knew he could make a film about it.
The contrast between collecting eggs and the ongoing war is an important theme in the film. Although war raged around the oologists, they rarely spoke about it in their letters. With apparent ease they set aside the horrors of their daily lives in favour of their obsession. Thus, the documentary doesn’t just provide a depiction of the past, but also provides us with something to think about in our current world.
(Text: Regina Behoekoe)
Experiments at the library
The experiments at the InScience Film Festival are not limited to the screen: visitors can also participate in scientific research! In the Mariënburgbibliotheek researchers conduct short tests, which lets the public experience science to the fullest.
That does, however, occasionally require them to come out of their comfort zone. The experiment ‘Stressful Saliva’ measures the amount of saliva people produce when they go to the dentist. People can also test their imaginative power with a short computer experiment. Spoiler alert: it’s harder than you might think. And a text-based adventure game lets you go back in time, to 2023. Will you succeed in preventing the temperature rise of 2050?
Afterwards the researchers take time to answer questions about their research. They are all very happy with the enthousiasm of the visitors. Thus, the library becomes not just a place for discovery, but also to contribute to science.
(Text: Regina Behoekoe)
Sophia and career advice for robots
Restless inventor David Hanson has spent countless years perfecting his humanoid robot Sophia. But what makes a human human? And do robots deserve human rights? The compelling documentary Sophia offers interesting insights into these questions. But robots come in many shapes and forms. Often they are used to automate jobs in industries like manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture. Robotics professor David Abbink (TU Delft) gave career advice for robots, accompanied by an opera choir, led by musical theatre director Isabel Schröder.
When someone asks us to envision a robot, we imagine something like a metallic humanlike machine. Movie like Star Wars teach us to think about robots in an anthropomorphic way. However, most real-world robots look nothing like this. Think about robotic vacuum cleaners, bomb disposal robots or asparagus pickers. A research team at TU Delft talked to employees who are using these robots on a daily basis. They discovered the expectations and demands of robots in the workplace.
David Abbink explains: “Movies do not deal with the same questions that we as researchers have to deal with. Topics like robotic relationships and robotic rights are all very metaphysical. The questions we deal with revolve around practical robots in the workplace. We work on the algorithms in order to improve the human-robot interaction.” The research team emphasizes the importance of actually listening to people who work with these technologies. “The only meaningful way to develop a robot is by doing it in collaboration with the people who are going to use the robots.” Current robots and their designers are often limited to production improvement of sub-processes. That is why robots do not always align with the needs of the employees. The only way to surpass this threshold is to open the conversation between the user and the scientist behind the algorithm.
The conversation has resulted in a list of needs employees request from the manufacturer. This was translated to opera form by musical theatre director Isabel Schröder. “The choir represents the group of people who already work with robots and report on it.” They channel the desires, fears and needs of the employees. The opera is divided into three parts. “Precision, Perfection, Property” are words that were repeated throughout the first part. They express the need for precision and a sense of quality which is currently not met. The middle part delved into the vulnerability of machines: how they tend to break down at the worst of times. “You are so very sensitive, you are a piece of work. You broke down again.” The final part was about buttons, which form a gateway between user and machine. This is where the interaction takes place. Music surely is a smart, if not unique way of presenting the outcomes of research. Opera always has a sense of urgency and seems perfectly capable to express nuances whilst remaining accessible. Overall the program was a success, with quite a large turnout. The diversity of the program perfectly captured the extensiveness of the field. Robotics reaches far beyond A.I. and Computer Science. And with a musical touch, robotics becomes comprehensible for everyone.
(Text: Ru Dahm)