Emilie Caspar is a Ph.D. student who works with Axel Cleeremans as part of the CO3 lab. She works on the sense of agency, the sense of embodiment and intention-binding, with the use of a robotic hand that she developed with the help of engineer Albert de Beir. De Beir and Caspar have recently won the Theodorus III Prize, which will fund the creation of a company that will provide robotic equipment for many different enterprises such as scientific research, computer programmes, and other every-day life uses.
Could you start by explaining how you applied for the Theodorus Prize and what it is?
My colleague who works with me on the robotic hand, Albert de Beir, had already talked about starting a business venture specialised in the construction of robotic equipment or engineering equipment which could be useful to researchers. Looking this up on the internet he found out about the Theodorus Prize, which had its deadline the next day. We rapidly prepared an application and later found out we had been received.
Can you explain what your project is, and in which context it was developed?
So the principal aim is to develop robotic equipment for scientific research. That is, we’ve realised that this type of equipment can be useful in many different fields but it is often difficult for researchers to access such equipment, either because it is hard to find or because it is completely unaffordable. We both think that research could greatly benefit from access to products that are tailored to one’s needs, specifically in psychology but also in many other fields.
So the main difference between technology companies that are specialised in robotics, and your project, is that your aim is to make these products low-cost?
Yes exactly, with the funds from the Theodorus Prize we aim to create a company that has four different areas: Science & Research, Manufacturing, Entertainment and Innovation. I will be responsible for the Science & Research part, specifically designed to provide robotic equipment to researchers. In the beginning it will not take up much of my time because all I need to do is use the products developed by the company for my own research, and this will generate its own advertisement by my presentations at various conferences and in publications. We originally got the idea for the robotic hand on my first day as a PhD student: I entered the CO3 lab, and an Engineering Masters student, Albert de Beir, had come to enquire if we would have any use for robotic objects, because as part of their research project, the Masters students had to develop a piece of robotic equipment. Their robots usually ended up at the back of a dusty cupboard. Albert de Beir thought somebody might actually have a use for something he could develop.
So on your first day you already had a clear idea that you would need a robotic hand for your research?
Yes, I seem to remember that I had already discussed using a robotic hand with Axel a few weeks before, and I knew that the studies that had been done with active hands used extremely basic techniques, like toothpicks to hold two fingers together. We had talked about using such paradigms in our studies but the toothpicks and strings necessary to move the hand did not appeal to us at all. And then on the first day, this student appears out of nowhere, with exactly what we need! The collaboration started in this way, and we quickly got in touch with the Robotics and Multibody Mechanics team of Bram Vanderborght at the VUB, where De Beir was working at the time. They generously provided the funding necessary to build the first prototype of the hand, and we are now engaged in further collaborative scientific work. We soon realised that there are many things we could do with the robotic hand. I realised this especially when I presented it in conferences: it would generate immense interest and people would come up to me with so many ideas. For my part, I use the robotic hand to insert additional steps into causal chains, but I am also part of another study that is ongoing in Patrick Haggard’s lab in London, which studies the cortical inhibition of finger movements. This could become part of a larger clinical study with patients suffering from dystonia [a neurological movement disorder in which sustained muscle contractions cause twisting and repetitive moments], in which the robotic hand could help to rehabilitate movements. Witnessing the fusing of ideas generated by the robotic hand prompted the idea of creating a company that could commercialise and distribute our products and ideas, as well as protect the intellectual property of the robotic hand.
Do you think of the company as independent from your own research, or do you think it could contribute to it?
The real benefit of the company for my research is that I will be in direct contact with professionals who can make improved equipment for my studies. As I use robotic models in most of my studies I am constantly thinking of improvements to be made for future models. With each new experiment I see new ways in which the robotic hand could be enhanced. We can thus make better objects in the future which are tailored to each specific need.
Can you give me examples of how a more evolved robotic hand could help you in your research?
The current version of the hand was built to last for one to two months and I’ve now been using it for a year and a half and it’s slightly falling apart… so a definite upgrade is needed in durability and solidity. This model we first made was meant to be extremely low-cost and we are now planning a slightly more expensive version that is more resistant, has a better glove, and has more realistic movements. The movements of our current version are still quite mechanical and there is space for improvement in many ways. With the new one we will see more intricate movements with quicker responses to the software. We’ve also thought about creating a glove that saves data like skin conductance or temperature, measures which could be useful in my research. Another important functionality is the strength of the fingers of the robotic hand: our current version is not strong enough to press on a keyboard – only to touch it. I have results that show that the robotic hand’s key press affects the subject’s entire perception of the movement. All in all, it is the hand’s sensitivity, its durability, the software that controls it, and the fluidity of movement that will be enhanced. There are two more functionalities we would like to add to the hand as well: wifi-control – in order to get rid of cables which can limit how far the hand can be from the subject, and would help to better study the sense of embodiment – as well as flexibility of the hand, which would allow us to model painful movements, like fingers that pull backwards for example. This would allow me to study how distortions in movement affect the subject’s perception.
So are you planning to commercialise the hand itself, or promote the idea of it and provide instructions for researchers to construct one themselves?
The hand could be commercialised but what we are specifically aiming is a service and not a product. We would like to be able to provide answers to questions from researchers about specific equipment as well as an ongoing service in the long-term. In this way we will construct a hand that is made in accordance with specific, personalised demands.
Clearly multi-disciplinarity is a fundamental part of your research, as you use engineering in the construction of the hand, psychological measures for your studies, as well as neuroscientific methods like brain imaging… How do you think access to such various domains impact your work?
I think multi-disciplinarity is absolutely essential to research – it allows you to be more open-minded and to put your work in a more global context, and see how your results could affect many different fields. This makes it both more interesting and more valuable. My work is also inspired by social neuroscience, because I study the sense of agency in criminal and social contexts. Working in different domains is helpful not only to my career but also for providing inspiration and perspectives that I can adopt in future studies.
Does your research have an impact on legal questions?
For the moment my research has allowed me to infer some answers to social questions, on topics like non-intentional crime and the sense of responsibility, and under what circumstances the former is reduced – but I am not specifically targeting this type of question yet. I have begun working in a field that counts small numbers of researchers so there are many things to do, but my intention is to prepare myself for legal-orientated topics, criminology, and forensic psychiatry. These are topics that are still very touchy, because it is easy to misinterpret results, leading to many ethical considerations. The problem with studying criminal brains, is in imagining that one day we will be able to deduce from brain imaging whether an individual is responsible for an act or not. During my PhD I am laying the foundations for more practical, legal questions and experiments I will conduct and from which I will be able to infer more answers. For a post-doctoral position I would like to collaborate with a lab where I can study forensic psychiatry, by working with patients and maintaining a neuroscientific perspective.
Do you feel like it is your responsibility as a researcher to find answers to such social and legal questions, as you are in a position where you can look at them from a fresh perspective?
Law did not wait for neuroscience, when it comes to judging of the responsibility of an individual during a trial. The distinction between intentional and non-intentional crimes is well determined, and how the sense of responsibility can be diminished. A question I would like to address during my PhD is how these laws were developed, and on what basis concepts like mens rea and actus reus were defined. I think law could be greatly informed by neuroscience but neuroscience is still so vast that when you ask one question, you end up with ten more questions about the brain, so it is difficult to give a complete answer. There are so many factors that affect cerebral processes that there is never a simple answer. Nonetheless, being able to research such legal questions in this way and bring people to think about these issues is already an interesting outcome. We are in neuroscience’s baby steps, and there are so many people with so many ideas about how to study the human brain, and there are so many things to do, that this is an extremely exciting time to be a neuroscience researcher.
Research highlight by Lua Koenig