Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Marsia Barbera

Date of news: 31 December 2017


What’s your name, nationality, current function, and department?

Marsia Barbera, Italian, third year PhD student in Cognitive Science, Cospecs Department of University of Messina (Italy), AI Department, Faculty of Social sciences, Radboud University of Nijmegen (The Netherlands).

What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your work look like in practice?

My project is about the philosophical implications of human-robots interaction (HRI), on human-human interaction, and human self-perception. Indeed, the research question is the following: How can a non-human agent affect the human-human interaction and the human self-perception, through the changing of human habits?

I started my project in Italy, by focusing my attention on the process of habit formation and its linkage to the Embodied-Embedded Cognition. I questioned in which way human beings, in terms of social and embodied animals, develop their habits (both individually and socially speaking) and how the mental representations of such behaviors automatically performed works. Since human habits formation involves the tight relation with artificial systems as well as robotic devices, now I’m working on HRI and its influence on HHI, by taking into consideration aspects like trust or the sense of trustworthiness. In order to bridge the gap between technological science and philosophy I’m trying to connect habits, self-perception, H-R and H-H trust to the phenomenological approach.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

When I was a child I wished I was a singer. Although it’s not my real job, this dream has partly come true, because singing is and will always be my biggest passion. I have been part of a pop-soul band and as soon as I arrived here in Nijmegen I immediately looked for a choir in order to join it and keep singing. Although the modality is a little bit different, I’m glad for being part of it.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?

I got a Master’s degree in Contemporary Philosophy and a teacher’s diploma for higher education (Philosophy and history for high school education). I’m a doing a PhD because I felt the need to acquire new skills and increase my philosophical knowledge. I moved here in Nijmegen, because I really wanted to spend a period abroad. I was very motivated and also curious to figure out how researchers working in the AI department connect philosophy, especially phenomenology, to technology. Put in other words, how philosophical aspects might be treated in a practical manner. In a nutshell, I thought that Radboud University could be the right place for me, other than a great opportunity.

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?

I’m working with Pim Haselager whose research is focused on the implications of Cognitive neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence for human self-understanding. He is investigating the ethical and societal implications of research in, and the ensuing technologies of, CNS and AI, such as Robotics, Brain-Computer Interfacing, and Deep Brain Stimulation. I contacted him because of his interesting on the integration of empirical work (i.e. experimentation, computational modeling, and robotics) with many philosophical issues. I’m more than grateful to him for the opportunity he gave to me and also honored to be guided by him in finding the most productive way for caring out my research. I consider Pim an example of leader especially because he does not tell me what to do, but he shows me how it should be done.

What does the Donders Institute mean to you?

Since I’m a philosopher not very familiar with this environment, I’m afraid I would not totally able to give you a satisfactory answer. I’m not currently working in the Donders Institute, but I’ve already had the possibility to visit it, especially because a took part in an experiment about the linguistic process in the learning of new English words by native Italians. Anyway, I hope to get in contact with some researcher there sooner or later.

Who inspires you the most and why?

Every single person I have encountered in my life with a dream! I’m referring to people who are still making many efforts in order to reach their dreams, both in their academic and private life. People who moved away from their countries to realize their dreams, despite the hardship of these experiences, loneliness feelings and being far from home, family and friends. My first source of inspiration is actually represented by every foreign PhD student I met in Nijmegen.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

Since I started to study philosophy I spent a lot of weekend by reading and reading books. I don’t mind if it’s Friday or Sunday, if I have to finish a book, I will finish it even on Saturday night. That’s the reality. Anyway, if you are really curious to know what my perfect weekend looks like, I might say that I’d like to have a concert with my band every Friday night.

What’s your favorite book and why?

My favorite book is ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte, a clear example of how brave and strong a woman can be, even if life often gets tough and love is not enough.

What is an important life lesson you have learned in the past?

In October 2009 a flood hit my little village. It was one of the worst moment in my life. Several people died and other lost everything: house, car, family. I was either grateful to God for surviving or upset with him for the immanent change in my daily life. I had lots of difficulties, they were hard times. Albeit it was an awful experience, it helped me to understand better the meaning of our own existence as an unique selfhood and, among the other things, that we should appreciate whatever we have.

What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?

My suggestion is keeping in contact each other, by sharing bad and good impressions/thoughts about your own job as PhD candidate. Having funny and socio-cultural moments. And the last, but not the least, “Don’t be late at the appointment!”