I was recently invited as a guest on the radio program The World of Science, which is diffused on the Algerian radio station Cirta FM. The World of Science is a weekly program run by Sirius Astronomy Association and aims to engage the general public with topics pertaining to science. The program was in Arabic, and covered broad topics related to my academic research as well as anasr.org activities. Here I present a translation of the transcript, with few details edited out for the sake of brevity. A recording can be found here or further below.
Presenter: Welcome everybody to a new edition of the World of Science, your weekly program diffused exclusively on the Algerian Radio Cirta Constantine 93.9 [..] Oussama, you are with us today through Skype, you’re talking to us from London, and you are talking live to Constantine.
Answer: Thanks for inviting me to your program, which I think is excellent so I salute your efforts and the great work Sirus association is doing. I’m honoured to be with you. I’m also honoured to be speaking live to the city of Constantine, the city of knowledge and scholars, the city of sheikh Ibn Badis. We have great hope in the Algerian youth in general and the youth of Constantine in particular who are listening to us today. We certainly hope to see a new renaissance and revival of knowledge and science to stem out of Constantine and change the course of Algerian history, just like the previous one did back then.
Presenter: We certainly hope so, thanks Oussama [..] You specialise in electronic engineering and computer science and particularly in..
Answer: Human-computer interaction is the major field of my area of research.
Presenter: Good, can you explain to us what this field is about? This is the first time I hear of it.
Answer: It’s one of the branches of computer science and it’s essentially concerned with studying how we design interaction between people and computers, so a major aspect of it is concerned with how we design interfaces that make computers easy and efficient to use. It’s also concerned with studying the effects of these designs on human behaviour, how they impact our cognition and our interactions with each other. So it’s a field of research that sits at the intersection of computer science on the one hand and other sciences such as cognitive science, psychology and sociology on the other. So it’s quite a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field.
Presenter: It’s a new field of research, isn’t it?
Answer: It’s relatively new, if we consider how we interact with computers, going back to the early 80s when the personal computer first emerged, this pretty much caused a revolution in the way we use computers in the sense that it opened up the possibility of using computers to the non-specialists, so anybody could from that point onwards use computers, and so this field of research emerged too because we had to start paying attention to how we design this interaction so as to make it easy and accessible to everybody.
Presenter: It’s true, computers revolutionised everything, on average perhaps everybody nowadays owns a personal computer, it’s incredible how in the 21st century, we could even say this is, well, terrifying to use this adjective.
Answer: Yes, nowadays a single person doesn’t only own a personal computer but probably a number of computers. That’s interesting because the concept of what constitutes a computer has itself been changing over the last decade or so, perhaps back in the days when we say a computer we think of this thing which has a screen and a keyboard and a mouse, but these days the computer is in your pocket, is in your car…
Answer: …and even in your furniture and clothing and so on, and this is why this field of research is gaining more and more importance because we are dealing with computers more and more, computers are now embedded in our everyday activities, we could pretty much say they are embedded in all areas of life, we even happen to interact with computers even when we don’t necessarily realise that we are. So, for example when you’re driving your car and you steer the steering wheel there is a computer that assist this process, so when you are driving you are in effect interacting with a computer while you might not realise it. So computers are everywhere and hence the importance of human-computer interaction (HCI) and the study of the extent to which this encounter between people and computers impacts our behaviour.
Presenter: It’s an intriguing field of research indeed, is it present in our universities here in Algeria?
Answer: Not directly. I have previously done a bit of research and looked through Algerian universities, at least those who have websites and make their research available online, and I couldn’t find this particular field of research pursued explicitly. There is some work out there which taps into HCI in some way or another, for example people working on e-learning issues, but I am yet to find specific labs studying or teaching interaction design and human-computer interaction in general. If anybody is listening to us who is working in this field I’d love to hear from them.
Presenter: OK great. Steven Hawking is a famous scientist in the UK, famous around the globe really
Presenter: Who is paralysed, but this guy is a genius of course, and he can communicate with people as you told me the other day using a single muscle that can link to a computer to help him express himself
Answer: Yes, Steven Hawking is a famous physicist who is paralysed in his whole body, and only has movement in one of his cheek muscles, so a special computer was designed for him based on this ability so he can issue commands to the computer, the interface is designed to allow him to create phrases and sentences which are then displayed in audio to communicate with others. This is actually a good example of the kind of work that I am involved in, because I research into what we call multimodal interaction. If we look at the way we interact with computers we find that there is a lot of emphasis on the eyes, we have to look at a screen a lot, in a addition to little movements with our hands to type on the keyboard and move the mouse, and this is different from say the computer that Steven Hawking uses, so input is captured through his cheek muscle movement and output is displayed in speech, so he uses a different set of modalities to interact with the computer than the ones typically used.
Presenter: This is incredible indeed, everyday technology and science presents us with, let’s say it solves the various problems that we encounter.
Answer: Yes, you know the Hollywood myth that says that one day robots and computers will take over..
Presenter: Control humanity and the world!
Answer: Yes, terminator style and the like, we might say we are living that reality right now but perhaps from a different perspective, almost everything is nowadays controlled by computers and software, so we should really work out how best to make use of this technology to advance our societies and solve its problems and address its challenges.
Presenter: So, these days in Algeria there is all these tablets and 3G phones, can you explain to us what is the technology that allow these devices to capture touch, with touch alone these days we can control a whole bunch of things!
Answer: Well the technology is usually, the screen of the tablet has a sort of a grid or matrix of electrical layered fibres, so when one puts their finger in a particular place on the screen one creates an electrical reaction, this helps pinpoint the exact location of the finger on the screen and this is typically how touch is captured to support interaction with these devices. In reality what is happening is that we are increasingly going in the direction of using more of the human senses to interact with computers, so what is happening is a paradigm shift from an interaction model which focuses a lot on the visual modality and towards a new interaction paradigm where we use more senses, such as sound and tactile feedback, and little by little we are incorporating more of the human faculties, including whole body interaction, so using gestures and movements and so on.
Presenter: So what does the future hold for us in this area. Stay with us, we are live through the Algerian radio waves from Constantine [..] with our guest live from London.
Presenter: Good afternoon again you are listening to the World of Science live from Constantine. So my question that I asked a moment ago, what does the future hold for us, is that it, we are taken hostage by the machine by computers or what?
Answer: If we take a look back at recent history, the use of computers has been increasing, so we can only assume that this will continue to be the case, so if we started off with desktop machines, which then got miniaturised and got embedded around us in all areas of activity, in furniture and clothes and hospitals and cars and on the street and so on, we now got to a point where one person possesses a number of computing devices, and now these devices are themselves connected and communicate with each other. So we have arrived at a model where one person uses a number of computing devices, which talk to each other, and through these devices human communicate and interact with each other, so the medium of interaction between people is now a collection of interconnected devices and this is likely to continue to be the standard model of interaction in the near future.
Presenter: So is it possible that we are now living in a virtual environment through the excessive use of computers, computers are everywhere, wouldn’t this isolate us and in turn this will affect our personalities and our societies?
Answer: Clearly technology is a double edged sword, excess in anything can tilt the balance towards undesirable consequences, there is certainly an effect, and there is a lot of research specifically examining the effects of excessive presence on virtual environments. I personally prefer to focus on the positive side of things, you know throughout history humans have always came up with new technology that helps us exceed and extend our abilities, we invented the wheel and we invented computing devices, so computers are just another tool to help us take the next step in our journey to extend our abilities and improve our societies, computing technology opens up a whole new set of possibilities, especially with this new development where everything is connected, I think there are more pros than cons as far as I can see.
Presenter: Considering your research and your specialism, what do you expect from the next ten years, what would computers and their use be in ten years times?
Answer: Well the personal computer emerged in the early 80s and the developments that we have witnessed in the past 30 years have exceeded all expectations and predictions, so it’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen in the next ten years, but like I said the pattern that we have seen so far tells us that digital information will form an integral part of our societies and will influence how we interact with each other and how we interact with information and data itself, so since there is no going back, then we have to carefully study how these things impacts our abilities and how they define them, how they define our behaviour and our cultures.
Presenter: [..] a quick break, stay with us and we will see you shortly.
Presenter: [..] You started an initiative together with some of your colleagues in the UK and established a network and called it ANASR, which also includes a magazine called Inspire. Tell us more about this project.
Answer: First of all ANASR stands for the Algerian Network for Academics Scientists and Researchers, it’s essentially an interaction space that aims to provide opportunities for contact and exchange between Algerian scientists, particularly between those based inside and outside of Algeria. It’s an independent initiative, not for profit and it’s run and maintained by a number of Algerian researchers on a voluntary basis. We started working on the network in 2011, we launched the website in 2012 ansar.org, we also launched Inspire Magazine in the same year, a magazine for scientific outreach, and we launched the Algerian Paper of the Year Awards in January 2013.
Presenter: This is all to encourage scientific research and communication between Algerian researchers, it would be great if you give us an overview of the researchers who are members of this network.
Answer: Well at the core of the website anasr.org is a directory of Algerian researchers, any Algerian scientist or researcher can register themselves onto the website so that they can be included in this database. At the moment we have around 140 members and they include researchers who are not all based outside of Algeria, but also from inside Algeria, the type of members span students and researchers…
Presenter: In which fields and areas of research?
Answer: Well in 140 members we have almost all areas of research, although that’s a bit of an exaggeration of course, but it’s hard to enumerate them all, so plenty of areas of research and also plenty of levels of expertise from students to junior researchers to full professors, it’s a very heterogeneous group both in terms of areas of specialism and level of expertise.
Presenter: In relation to Inspire Magazine, you are the editor-in-chief of this magazine
Answer: Yes, I edit this online magazine with the help of two other members of our network. The motto of anasr.org is to “discover, share and inspire Algerian intellect across the globe”, so the magazine focuses on exposing the scientific output of Algerian researchers from around the world, we get in touch with researchers and encourage them to write for us and submit articles about their projects and their latest results on the one hand, on the other hand we also do interviews with researchers from various fields. For example we interviewed Prof. Nourredine Melikechi who works on the NASA Curiosity Mars rover mission who I’m sure people have heard of
Presenter: Yes the one that reached Mars
Answer: Yes the rover that is currently on planet Mars, so Prof. Melikechi is an Algerian researcher who is based in the US and is involved in this project We also interview Prof. Deriche who was recently awarded the EADS Prize in Computer Science and who is based in France. In general we try to produce interesting content that aims to encourage the Algerian researcher by exposing successful models and examples of success stories such as these to inspire young researchers.
Presenter: and finally the initiative of the best scientific paper in the sciences and which aims to discover and promotes talents.
Answer: That’s correct. Basically, the principle that our work in anasr.org is based upon is that the environment and climate that helps researchers produce and innovate in science is extremely important and must be encouraged and promoted. The various activities that we do follow this line. The Algerian Paper of the Year Awards was conceived for this purpose too. We want to celebrate and encourage the achievements and efforts of Algerian researchers, which take the form of scientific publications produced within Algerian universities, in the framework of the awards.
Presenter: So any Algerian researcher can send in their nominations for these awards on the website which is http://www..
Answer: http://www.anasr.org/awards. The nominations for this edition of the awards was open on the 15th of january and will close on the 15th of February 2014.
Presenter: So not much time left
Answer: Not much time left, we have actually received a huge number of nominations already, much more than last year’s edition, and I think this shows that the Algerian researcher is eager and keen on this kind of initiatives. I think our initiative is a modest one, run on a voluntary basis, yet the participation is huge, which could indicate that there is a high demand and a desperate need for these kind of activities in the Algerian research environment, it shows that the Algerian researcher would like to see more dynamics of this sort in their research environment, ones that acknowledge and reward efforts and innovation. We see the levels of participation that we have received over the last two editions of the awards as a sign and a desperate call to the concerned authorities to think about implementing stimulating initiatives that can engender a healthy and innovative research environment. These kind of initiatives can contribute towards creating a healthy research ecosystem, which in turn engenders a strong culture of science and innovation and hopefully increase scientific productivity in Algeria.
Presenter: Correct. In the same spirit, you have certainly heard of the Cirta Science competition that is organised by Sirus association, and here I open a bracket to say this is a call to all students those who have been contacted by their schools to be present tomorrow at 12noon at Amir Abdelkader University for Religious Studies to register and compete in this unique science competition, maybe unique in all the Arab world, and which will send the top three winners to the biggest particle accelerator in CERN in Switzerland.
Answer: I was very happy when I heard about this competition because as you know engendering a culture of science does not start at the university but way earlier in the schools and through the educational system, through educating the new generations on the principles of scientific thinking, critical thinking and curiosity. An initiative like yours encourages these kinds of things. But again this is an initiative that stems from your association, and independent organisation, we would like to see more of such initiatives also promoted through official frameworks and throughout the country.
Presenter: We hope so. You were with us live from London in our weekly program the World of Science, I hope you will come to talk to us again in future shows.
Answer: I hope so.
Presenter: Thank you again, our meeting with our listeners is scheduled for next week, see you then.
This is an audio recording of the interview: