Gratitude in academia – the role of a press office, and blue sky research (again)

The actual award, which I've yet to see in person.
This is an email between myself and the University of Bath's – that is, my :-) – press office.  It got turned into an official press release.  But I thought I'd blog the whole conversation, because it thanks more people and process than could really be put in the press release, and also demonstrates how important other people & institutions are to any individual's success.  Note the prompts: I would never have thought to say the things in the press release without them, though I should have done.  And I might never have won the award if the press office hadn't suggested and then put me forward for my reddit AMA on AI.

I should note first that I couldn't pick up the award because it was in London and I was in the USA, but both of my current PhD students were invited to attend the dinner, and Andreas actually accepted with a funny speech (I've yet to hear...)

Hi Joanna,

Some people said it wasn't adequately clear that I was being ironic when I
babied the Sheffield iCub (see press release).  Is it clearer here?
Congratulations on the award! We’ll want to do a news story on the achievement.

Could you please send me a quote addressing:

·         How does it feel to have won? Were you surprised?

Obviously I'm very flattered to have won, in fact I was surprisingly excited as the award ceremony started.  It was a good year for me with the Science paper coming out and the reddit AMA, and I have two PhD students who have been very active in doing research and publications.  So all told I wasn't that surprised to have won.  But I was very happy.  It's fantastic my PhD students could be there and that with Twitter it was almost like being in the room, hearing about it realtime. Even though it's my full-time job to think about it, I can't believe how much Computer Science (not just AI!) is changing the human experience.

·         What drew you into the field, and what sustains your interest?
To be honest I am most interested in human and animal intelligence, but I was an extremely good programmer, so I thought that if I combined my interest with what I was good at I'd have a better chance of getting to attend and work in top universities.  So that's how I chose AI.  What drew me into AI ethics was in fact my psychology background -- I was amazed that people were telling me it would be unethical to unplug a nonfunctional human-shaped robot that I was sitting next to trying to program -- when it was already not plugged in!  I thought that was a strange behaviour, so originally I just published about it because it seemed insufficiently understood.  But then around 2007, since I came to Bath, I realised that AI was having so much impact in the world that this "bug" in human thinking could have serious consequences.  So I started putting more effort into research and publication [in AI ethics].  Then just last year when I was speaking to EU and OECD panels about AI and its impact on work, I realised that almost no one else has my combination of both expertise in AI and in human cognition and social behaviour, including cultural differences in cooperation and investment in public goods.  All of these things are critical for understanding how AI influences behaviour.  So now I am working on AI ethics almost full-time.  I still put a little time into systems AI and into pure human behaviour, but it all has impact on my AI ethics research.
They also gave me an image file.  Wow!

·         Are there any thank yous that you’d like to mention?

All of my past and present PhD students and heads of department have been very tolerant and supportive of how much I travel and work on these issues -- my PhD students have helped me understand the issues, also many of my undergraduate and masters dissertation students.  I'm still in contact with some who have graduated years ago.  There are a lot of great people out there though that you have no contact [with,] who quietly do research on who is doing research.  They come up to you after a talk and say shyly "I was the person who found you" and you don't know how to thank them.  Similarly I'm not sure who to thank for nominating me for this award, though I have a couple guesses that were both involved in the conference's organisation. Obviously I thank the organisers!  

The press office at Bath has been fantastic at recognising that what I was doing was important and in promoting it -- that's how I got the AMA in January.  But the press office has been helping me for years, sometimes they were the only people who seemed to notice my ethics work, even more than I did myself.  But more generally, it's a great aspect of British culture that [the UK] have always supported eccentrics and eccentric interests.  There was no telling in 2005 that my interest in language evolution or people's attitudes towards AI would turn out to be so important.  I'm really grateful that as long as you pay your way by teaching and writing occasional  mainstream papers, British universities in general and Bath Computer Science in particular will support blue-sky research.  We can never tell what will matter, but we can notice what we don't understand and pursue it.  That's a major part of what academia is for.

Also, our photo directory is down at the moment for some reason, would you mind sending me one of the photos you have of yourself?
I'm happy with the other ones you were sent, thanks fac-sci, but you can also use the attached if you like. The first one is a selfie, the second needs to be acknowledged Urs Jaudas/Tages-Anzeiger and the third [the one they used] is by Andreas Theodorou.

Andreas appears to have enjoyed collecting the award
Andreas also took the picture of the award at the top of this blog post, as well as the picture of me above. He also collected the award, with Rob Wortham, since I was in Syracuse, NY.

I think I'm not good enough at gratitude, particularly to the people I don't know who invite me to meetings and talks and nominate me for awards and just otherwise do nice things.  It's not that I take these things for granted, to be honest it's that I still find most of these things vaguely incomprehensible, which is part of why it's hard to know what to say.  Except for academic talks which I make invitations like that myself so I get that.  I also do try to put the right person forward whenever I do hear about an opportunity, not so much as a favour as that I have an aversion to wasted opportunities and just like to see things work well.  I guess that's why I program computers too.