On changing the world (one step at the time): An economist’s story

Ema Talam writes about her PhD research titled “Evaluating the potential of public policy to jointly promote firms’ exporting and innovation”.

Economics is an immensely powerful scientific field. Economists have for centuries observed; analysed; contributed to understanding, interpretation and shaping of complex real-life phenomena (e.g. what contributes to the better performance of our economies). To illustrate the diversity and the breadth of research that economists do, as well as the impact their research can have, I will use the example of the research agenda of my PhD supervisor: Professor Geoff Pugh (https://www.staffs.ac.uk/staff/profiles/gtp1.jsp).

During the past couple of decades, Professor Pugh has contributed to the shaping and making of public policy within different areas. Over the past decade, Professor Pugh’s focus has been on the economics of innovation and he has (together with collaborators) examined the effectiveness of different policies used to promote firm-level innovation, particularly by small- and medium-size firms within traditional manufacturing industries (e.g. manufacturing of food and beverages, textiles, ceramics, etc.). Previously, the focus of Professor Pugh’s research was the economics of education, covering topics such as: the dynamics of school performance; and the effects of school spending on pupil attainment. Additionally, over the years, Prof. Pugh also examined:

  • the impact of progressive beer duty on small breweries;
  • the impact of institutions on macroeconomic performance;
  • the effects of the transport infrastructure on industrial land development and employment, etc.[1]

From the examples, it is apparent that economists explore a range of different issues and that the research economists do can contribute significantly to public policy making. For example, Prof. Pugh’s research contributed to the introduction of progressive beer duty in the 2002 Budget as well as to a recent Treasury (HMT) review of this policy.

My PhD research project, titled “Evaluating the potential of public policy to jointly promote firms’ exporting and innovation”, examines three broad and very current topics: innovation; exporting; and productivity. All three topics have long been on the agendas of policy makers and their importance can be hardly overemphasised. Both human and economic progress rests on innovation. Without innovation, we would not have even the most basic of tools, let alone sophisticated production engines, computers, smartphones, etc. Just think about how different the simplest of tasks (e.g. making your morning coffee, or doing a grocery shopping) would be a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago or a millennia ago! Ponder the miseries of pre-modern medicine and dentistry!

The first part of my research investigates the complex links between innovation, productivity and exporting at the level of firms. While there is a body of literature examining these links, it largely suffers from the “chicken-and-the-egg” problem. We know that the links exist, but are less certain about their exact nature. My research aims to fill this gap. The second part of my research looks specifically at how public policy can be used to jointly promote innovation, exporting and productivity. My thesis contributes to the current and growing interest on the topics of: productivity; innovation and innovation policy; and industrial policy. Furthermore, as already suggested in the title, my research will offer a number of public policy recommendations, grounded on economic theory, the extant body of literature and my own empirical investigations.

[1] For a list of Professor Pugh’s publications, you can look at his Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=-0m5qfsAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=sra or Staffordshire Online Repository: http://eprints.staffs.ac.uk/view/creators/index.P.html

Ema Talam is a PhD student in Economics at Staffordshire University interested in topics of productivity, innovation and exporting. The title of Ema’s PhD research project is “Evaluating the potential of public policy to jointly promote firms’ exporting and innovation”. Ema completed her Master’s degree in Economics at University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). She received the Preseren Award of the Faculty of Economics of University of Ljubljana for her Master’s thesis, and the Award for academic achievement for outstanding academic achievement during her Master’s degree.

E-mail: ema.talam@research.staffs.ac.uk

Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ema_Talam

Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=jhy23OoAAAAJ&hl=en

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ematalam/

Twitter: @ematalam

Can Robots Feel Pain?

Carl Strathearn writes about his research which he hopes will reduce some of the unsubstantiated claims of the field of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Recently I was invited to give a talk on BBC Radio Stoke about new research published by Cambridge and Brussels University researchers regarding the creation of a robot arm that can self-heal and feel pain. I knew instantly upon reading the journal paper before the broadcast that the research was misleading in its title and context. I have spent the last two and a half years of my PhD researching, developing and testing new ways of creating artificial muscles using organic fibres driven by electrostatic energy for use in a novel robotic eye system. I presented my work to the world’s leading experts in the field of soft robotics at the SWARM conference in Japan, which I was awarded best paper and publication, so I have a sound grasp on recent developments and limitations of the field.

I went on air knowing that I would have to demystify many of the claims that these scientists promoted and the potential impact and fear factor of claiming that we are on the verge of creating robots that can feel pain and emotions like a human. However, such claims are not uncommon in the field of AI and robotics and have led to issues such as accrediting citizenship and human rights to an android named ‘Sophia’ before the robot is anywhere near human-like enough to be considered equal to humans. Similarly, a humanoid robot named ‘AIDA’ has amassed over a million pounds in the sales of so-called ‘AI Art, but is nothing more than an animatronic with a pen plotter for an arm’. The problem with putting showmanship before academic rigour is that scientists are trying to advance the field of AI and robotics quicker than it is. This poses a serious problem when presented to the public as fact. A key concern is that, as humanoid robots look and act like humans, it is the human drive to instinctively presume they can also think and feel like us, which is not the case. If I was to put a toaster oven inside a mannequin, would you think AI was making your breakfast? Well of course not, but this is the same thing as claiming a robot can be as creative in producing works of art as a sentient human being and selling it for twice the price because the robot looks slightly human!

I recently published an article in the conversation to outline my PhD work in creating an evaluation procedure called ‘The Multimodal Turing Test’. The objective of my research is to implement the first graded evaluation system for measuring the authenticity of humanoid robots towards creating androids that are perceptually indistinguishable from humans. I hope that this universal evaluation method will be used by future engineers to benchmark their progress towards creating higher modes of human emulation and reduce some of the unsubstantiated claims coming out of the field of AI and robotics today. To test the validity of the Multimodal Turing Test, I have implemented the robotic eyes into a humanoid robot named ‘Euclid’ (pictured) to run a series of experiments starting this term. 

Carl Strathearn is a PhD candidate at Staffordshire University studying AI and Humanoid Robotics and can be contacted here: