Sahar Niknam completed an impressive journey before arriving in Luxembourg. From robotics engineering and philosophy of science in Iran to cognitive science in Germany, the young PhD student built her research focus around AI, a subject she feels very strongly about. Currently, the self-described 'AI rights activist' is however part of the University of Luxembourg's ChronoPilot team, an EU-funded project that seeks to find out how humans perceive time – and how that perception can be modified. And while Sahar arrived in Luxembourg by chance, she definitely doesn't regret the decision.
You are part of ChronoPilot, a EU-funded project that seeks to control the perception of time. What is the premise of this project?
The premise is common knowledge: humans perceive time in a subjective way. One minute could feel shorter or longer than the actual duration. For example, you are having fun hanging out with some friends, and one minute feels like almost nothing. But then imagine holding the plank position for one minute! Research in time perception shows that based on our physiological conditions (body temperature, heart rate, …), emotional states (being angry, being calm, …), and cognitive load (how deeply we are paying attention to something), we experience the same duration with different psychological lengths. ChronoPilot tries to make use of these and extend/compress human subjective time whenever required.
Which factors influence our perception of time?
Roughly speaking, at any given moment, we are consciously paying attention to something; it could be something that we are doing, the book we are reading, or simply a thought we are pondering. At the same time, parts of our brain are processing other information that we are unconscious of, such as the colors of the wall in the room or the radiator humming. Then we also have this other part of the brain which is taking care of time and is responsible for our time perception. Now if we put a lot of pressure on the conscious attention, for example, by engaging in a difficult task like mentally doing math, there wouldn't be enough space left for the unconscious and time attention. So, we probably wouldn't notice or later remember a lot of details about the place and similarly we would lose track of time.
The project's goal is to change time perception while people are doing whatever they are doing. So, what we can do is manipulate the unconscious attention. And for doing so, we are going to use diminished reality (to remove subconscious details from the environment), as well as augmented reality (to add subconscious details to the environment).
How does the use of technologies in our daily lives change our perception of time?
We are working on this answer. Because we want to use technology to modulate time perception; we are going to conduct experiments and we are going to apply stimuli, and then we want to 'observe' subjects' time perception to know whether our methods were successful in altering the perception of time or not. But we also speculate that the tech devices and gadgets that we are using in the project could affect time perception themselves.
We are aware of these possible effects. And we test the potential time perception interruption that our devices could cause in controlled experiments before using them for modulating time perception. And in fact, one of the five teams working on the ChronoPilot project is actively and parallelly involved in research on how we can alleviate the negative effects of technology in the workplace.
How does ChronoPilot measure perception?
We are using self-report questionnaires, i.e. people explaining their feelings about the passage of time in simple words or by estimating a duration in time units, e.g., how long did event X take during the experiment?. We also have a method known as 'time reproduction'; for example, you watch a bright dot on the screen appearing for n seconds and then you would be asked to press a button for the same duration.
Furthermore, especially in the VR/AR Lab at the University of Luxembourg, we have plans to find more objective and intelligent measurements of time perception. For example, pupil dilation; the more you are focused and engaged with a task, the wider your pupils get. On the other hand, we know that cognitive load is correlated with time perception. So, we hypothesize that pupil dilation could also indicate time perception.
There is only one complexity here: these signals influence each other. To solve this problem, we are going to use AI or, more specifically, neural networks and hopefully, the network will be able to find the complicated relations and map them to the way that a person is perceiving time.
Before coming here, I studied at four universities on three continents, and I'd never been happier than now.
How will the results of this project impact society?
ChronoPilot wants to provide people with a device so whenever they feel stressed by time pressure, they can slow down their perception of time and reduce the stress so they can use the time they have optimally. If the task is not very challenging, that makes you bored. And when you are bored, you get distracted easily, and you may fail at what you are doing. ChronoPilot wants to give people the control to speed up their perception of time in such cases to stay focused on what they are doing.
All this is on an individual level, but we can think of other benefits of active control over time perception. For example, when some people need to work with each other (or with robots, for that matter) and they have different paces, altering their time perception makes collaboration more comfortable.
Why is the University of Luxembourg part of this project?
My supervisor Dr. Jean Botev is the head of the VR/AR Lab here and initiated this multidisciplinary project with some fellow researchers in Germany and Belgium, which developed into a sizeable EU-funded FET-Open project. This stands for Future and Emerging Technologies Open, which is a program under the Horizon 2020 framework aiming to support cutting-edge research and innovation. Despite its small size, Luxembourg attracts high-profile research, and the ChronoPilot project now involves partnering institutions from a total of six different European countries, including our research group.
Can you tell us a little bit about your career before coming here?
I got a BSc degree in robotics engineering in Iran, then I enrolled in an MSc programme in philosophy of science and fell in love with topics in philosophy of mind and AI. When I was writing my thesis on the possibility of 'real' AI, I got annoyed by baseless philosophical arguments against it made by people with no knowledge in computer science or neuroscience. So, I decided that instead of arguing with these people, I'm going to build a real AI and present it to them.
I spent a couple of years researching creativity because I believed (and still do) it is the only weakness of the machine depriving it of authenticity. Then I heard about good and free education in Germany, and I ended up in cognitive science. It was a wonderful MSc program that gave me more than I hoped for; I studied not only the basics of neuroscience, but I could bridge my background to computer science and AI. That made it possible for me to finally get into an actual computer science program for my PhD at the University of Luxembourg.
Which arguments in favour of Luxembourg did influence your decision to come here?
Honestly, I had no clue how Luxembourg was, and I did not care much. I found the ChronoPilot project very interesting, and the university gave me admission, and I am here now.
But to be fair, after living in Germany, I did not want to leave the Eurozone, because it is almost the intersection of all those beautiful unions and agreements which make borders irrelevant cosmetics on a map. Now some younger Europeans may not feel it because it is a norm for them, but as a citizen of a country with one of the least powerful passport(s) who can't even travel to all its neighboring countries without asking and paying for a visa, this is something that I fully appreciate as an honorable and majestic achievement for humanity.
Did you find these arguments confirmed?
Very much so! The intercultural dialogue and multilingualism which I perceived in Germany had a sharp contrast with what I'd experienced in Iran or even in the US city I was living in and made me fascinated with the idea of the European Union, I'm feeling it here in Luxembourg as well, only intensified.
How does the research environment in Luxembourg support you?
Ah, that's even more wonderful! Fully equipped labs with a supporting atmosphere that gives you the space for developing and testing your ideas. Before coming here, I studied at four universities on three continents, and I'd never been happier than now. However, to be completely fair, I owe a big part of my happiness here to Dr. Jean Botev, my supervisor. He gives his students the freedom to explore different research trends within their project framework and lets us work on what suits us better while keeping his support.
Sahar Niknam hails from Iran. After a degree in Robotics Engineering and an MSc in Philosophy of Science, she decided to continue her studies in the USA for an MSc in Creativity and then moved to Germany for an MSc in Cognitive Science. Her pursuit as an 'AI rights activist' is to create a conscious and fully functional AI and to debunk arguments against such a development. Sahar Niknam is currently enrolled in a PhD programme in Computer Science at the University of Luxembourg. In that context, she integrated the ChronoPilot team.
You describe yourself as an 'AI rights activist'. Which AI rights are you fighting for?
The AI's right to grow, to actualize their full potential, and when the time comes to be recognised as a conscious being. We are alarmist about AI becoming 'sentient' or gaining some levels of autonomy and prefer to have it developed just enough to be able to serve us. But why? Does a teacher sabotage their genius student's education because they are afraid that the student could become too powerful and use their power maliciously? No, the teacher makes some extra effort to work on the student's morals. So, what is different in the AI case if we know that it can thrive as a new, fully functioning species on our planet and even beyond?
Complete these sentences:
- Luxembourgers are … very nice and very tolerant when you don't speak the official language.
- I was really amazed to find out that … such a diverse population in such a small country. Before moving here, I thought the job market was tight, so it couldn't attract immigration, and I'm going to face a closed and conservative community; it turns out I could not be more wrong.
- The first thing I show visitors is … the blast furnaces; I personally adore large-scale structures and monuments.
- The thing that I like most about Luxembourg is … that if you go for a walk and you get lost, you may end up in another country!
Sahar Niknam, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us!
This interview was edited for the purposes of this article.