The PhD student inspired by robots
Find out about Marina Sarda Gou's journey from learning about cognitive syntax to human-robot interaction
PhD Student, Human-Robot Interaction at Sheffield University
When Marina Sarda Gou started out her career in linguistics, she never had technology in mind. But that all changed when she started learning about cognitive syntax during her undergraduate study in Barcelona.
Learning about how humans organise language in the brain fascinated her, and she realised that she could apply that knowledge to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. “So much of AI is inspired by nature,” she says.
Marina then decided to do an MA in the field, first teaching herself using internet tutorials and online courses and finally with a private tutor. Eventually, she started her MA, specialising in natural language and cognitive science. It was there that her tutor encouraged her to apply her expertise in the field to AI.
"The first time I saw a humanoid [robot], it was the first time I thought ‘this is what I want to do with my life’”
“I thought – I want to learn about this. Then the first time I saw a humanoid [robot], it was the first time I thought ‘this is what I want to specialise in.’”
She was encouraged along the way by researcher Luz Rello, who was doing a postdoc whilst Marina was completing her MA. Rello uses AI to help children with dyslexia and Marina says “she supported me morally and in my move to a PhD”.
Marina acknowledges her luck here and also points out that it’s unusual for her to experience obvious barriers because of her gender. “In Sheffield, my colleagues are amazing. But outside of the university, the external people I meet at conferences sometimes think I’m the host, not the primary researcher. People have questioned my skills and my knowledge.”
“But it’s unusual. And usually, I’m confident enough to correct them.”
That doesn’t mean that AI is always an easy place for women to be. “There’s definitely a lack of interest in AI,” Marina says. “Socially, I think women don’t pursue the career because they think they’re not smart enough – there are women role models from the past, like Ada Lovelace, but for young women today it’s still intimidating to pursue a career in this.”
"We all think in different ways and think of different solutions. We need all of these.”
This puts the AI industry at a “disadvantage”, she says. “Everyone should be valued according to their abilities, and a female perspective is very vital in every field. We all think in different ways and think of different solutions. We need all of these.”
Education is of the utmost importance, in Marina’s view. “I would educate young girls on all the things that can be created and built using technology – technology gives you a set of tools.”
This goes for robotics more widely, too, which Marina believes is a misunderstood area. “In my PhD, we’re trying to see if different types of contact [with robots] could affect people’s attitudes,” she says. “I’m programming to see how people interact with robots in different situations, such as a shop assistant.”
“People think robots are what you see in science fiction; they need to base their understanding on real references, not on fantasy.”
“We should promote more contact with robots so it’s normalised. That way people will begin to get over their fears and have a more positive attitude.”
As for women? Visibility helps, too.
“We need more events that focus on women in technology,” she says. “Showing how women contribute to the field is a very powerful thing.”