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Episode 03

Shane O’Mara is a noted neuroscientist and author who explores brain systems supporting learning, memory and cognition, and brain systems affected by stress and depression. On this episode of the PFF Podcast, Shane and Jeffrey delve into the cognitive, social, and cultural benefits of walking, walking's role in human evolution, and its fundamental association with mental processes from high level thinking to creativity.

Transcript

Welcome to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast. Join the conversation by subscribing to the PFF podcast at https://www.piaggiofastforward.com/podcast.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Welcome to the PFF Podcast. I’m Jeffrey Schnapp, Chief Visionary Officer for Piaggio Fast Forward, and I have the pleasure of conversing today with Professor Shane O’Mara, who is professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College in Dublin. He is also the principal investigator and director of the Trinity Institute of Neuroscience, a leading center for neuroscientific research. He is also a Welcome Trust Senior Investigator and a Science Foundation Ireland principal investigator. Shane came to my attention because he has written a wonderful book entitled In Praise of Walking. Shane, I’d like to start our conversation today by inviting you to tell us about what neuroscience brings to the question of walking. Some of us will be familiar with the ways in which in evolutionary biology views the bipedal nature of humans as a key factor in understanding the development of distinctly human forms of intelligence and behavior. What does neuroscience add to that account?

Shane O’Mara

It’s great to be here Jeffrey and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. So neuroscience brings a very different perspective to walking than evolutionary biology does. The two views are complimentary. You could characterize the neuroscientific view as an inside-out kind of view. We get to understand the mechanisms which drive walking from a neurophysiological point of view. The kind of command mechanisms that are in the brain, that allow you to make the decision to pick up your feet and get up and get out there into the world. Because neuroscience is a contemporary science and not a science concerned with historical data, we can ask questions about what happens in the brain in the real world when people are navigating the complex spaces we live in today.

Jeffrey Schnapp

What kind of methods does neuroscience use when it studies these kinds of factors?

Shane O’Mara

There are loads of different methods and some of them are very straightforward. You investigate, for instance, what happens in patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or acquired a traumatic brain injury of some description. In so doing, you try to infer what happened to them in terms of gait, in terms of posture, or in terms of more complex information with regards to their cognitive map of the world. There are many other methods though. There are combinations of behavioral methods and imaging methods for example where we get people to wear mobile imaging equipment that provide a picture of the dynamics of the brain while the person is interacting with the world. There are methods in brain imaging where people get to navigate complicated three-dimensional spaces while lying in a brain scanner so we can see how they learn three dimensional spaces. Ironically and interestingly three-dimensional shoot-‘em-up games have turned out to be a great boon to this kind of research because the spaces you have to navigate are difficult, ambiguous, and they have predators in them. In other words, they are not unlike the spaces that we first evolved in all those millennia ago in Africa.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That's fascinating. How do you reconcile laboratory-based research with the fact that walking is a movement-based activity and is, therefore, inherently in tension with fixed locations?

Shane O’Mara

So there’s a work horse for doing this, which is the treadmill. You can put people on treadmills, get them to walk at different speeds, impose virtual reality environments on them. You can add complexities like perturbations on one side of the treadmill versus the other because you can split the belt that people walk on. You can do all those kinds of things, or you can do something which the recent generation of computers has allowed us to do. You can attach mobile computers to people while they’re walking around in the world and you can sample what they are doing. The mobile computer that is the easiest to use is, of course, the smartphone.

Jeffrey Schnapp

So smartphones have been a boon to the kind of research that you do?

Shane O’Mara

They have been an enormous boon to this area of research. There has been great recent work in the US looking at how much walking people actually engage in on a daily basis; people’s estimates regarding how much they walk and how much they actually walk tend to diverge. You cannot rely on individuals' self-reports. We know now, for example, thanks to sampling representative numbers of individuals from different countries across the planet, that the Japanese walk the most. And they don’t walk very much: about five and a half thousand steps every day. Typically, in high income western countries we walk about four, four and a half thousand steps a day, which is not very much. Saudi Arabians walk the least: about three thousand steps a day. Given the temperatures, it's not terribly surprising. So these kinds of devices are wonderful because you can ping people during the course of their day, sample their moods at particular moments, get them to take a picture of what they are looking at a given moment, and get a sense of where they are in their environment and how that affects their sense of wellbeing. And you can do all of this at scale. Whereas before you were relying on paper and pencil instruments; you didn’t know if people were filling the forms in reliably, all the more so because people’s recall is very poor regarding what they’ve done over the course of a day.

Jeffrey Schnapp

I’m curious also about the acquisition of such a distinctive and foundational skill for human beings as walking: how much do we know of how that skill is acquired in the course of our passage from essentially being crawling quadrupeds to bipedal subjects in the course of our early youth?

Shane O’Mara

This a question that has been studied intensively by Karen Adolf at New York University. Surprisingly, it was a question that hadn’t really been studied very carefully. So, if you look at the developmental textbooks, what they do is offer milestones for walking. You should be walking on two feet by such and such an age; you should be sitting at such and such an age; you should be making a transition at such and such an age. But the question of how it is that you make that transition from being helpless to starting to crawl, the effects of crawling on how you navigate the world, when you first make that flop back onto your bum to stand up… that hadn't been terribly well explored. Adolph has done wonderful work with video tracking of infants in laboratory situations and what she’s shown is that, first of all, we have no individual memory of how we learned to walk; our parents have forgotten this as well; and we have omitted from our memories the amount of practice that children and infants engage in (which is astonishing). They make something like two thousand steps per hour during the phase when they are learning to walk. And they fall a lot: about seventeen times an hour, on average, but usually without consequence. It's just a rearward flop onto a nappy and they go for it again. But this kind of intensive training happens over a seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-month period from maybe about the age of ten months to about the age of seventeen to eighteen months. At the end of that the kids have undergone a remarkable transition. They are no longer in a stable position on four limbs; they are in an unstable position on two limbs. But the way they interact with the world changes completely. Head position is different. The way they pay attention to their environment is different. They can do something that they couldn't do before, which is to point to objects and cast a joint gaze towards the near-at-hand and something on the distant horizon which was not really something feasible for them to do before down on the floor.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That was my next question, which is about the mental consequences of that shift in perspective from the ground level to an upright position. I know this is an area that has interested you in your own research. What is the consequence of having such a different horizon?

Shane O’Mara

I think it marks the first major stage in human autonomy because previously the range that you could get around over was quite limited. And you would have been under an awful lot of adult supervision during that time. Or the supervision of a sibling. When you’re standing up, your position in the world changes. You’re still a small person, but your ability to interact with that world changes. Your hands are now free. So what's the consequence of that? Now you can gesture, you can point. You can engage in forms of communication that were difficult for you previously. And it's not surprising that the first steps you make are an occasion of great joy on the part of the parents. There is always great enjoyment, parents are sorry if they didn’t see their kid take its first step. The interaction that the child has with its caregivers at that stage changes very fundamentally. And, as I’ve said, it allows them to engage in gestures. There has been a longstanding theory in psychology and neuroscience that the roots of language are in motor coordination. Gesture is part of how we learn to speak and it may be the case that the freeing of the hands facilitates linguistic expression. Now kids would of course be using language at this stage, but the fluency of that language may undergo an acceleration due to the fact that their hands are now available to communicate as well.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That implies an intimate connection between gesture and language as well. It's implicit in the narrative you just unfolded.

Shane O’Mara

Absolutely. We know from studies of neuropsychological patients that the parts of the brain that are concerned with language comprehension are different from the parts of the brain that are dedicated to language communication or language expression. Those parts of the brain are the motor parts of the brain, concerned in large part with movement. And, of course, to speak you have to shape the position of the tongue in the mouth, you have to open your mouth repetitively, you have to pace the exhalation of air, all of those kinds of things. There should be a close association between these things and, indeed, there is.

Jeffrey Schnapp

In your book, you mention the connection to poetry which was very striking to me as someone who was originally trained as a literary scholar. No doubt the metrical patterns in poetry are somehow associated with other fundamental patterns of behavior. But the association with walking seems particularly powerful given that much early poetic expression is devoted to travel. Is that something you have thought about in your research?

Shane O’Mara

Maybe not enough. I suppose my own reading of poetry has been shaped by a particular love of the moderns. I started to read T.S. Eliot at a young and impressionable age and I’ve never lost my love for Eliot. But what I have particularly enjoyed over the years is poetry that is kind of poetics on foot. The kind of poetry that is where people are describing a journey. I quote Elliot in this book with lines from Prufrock where to me it's very obvious that a way of framing your understanding of that poem is that it's a journey on foot and also a journey in the mind. Where Prufrock is engaged in a continual kind of dialogue with himself, not with others, where he’s enjoining himself to engage in particular actions. And, of course, what he does is walk. Many other poets that have done this kind of thing over the years. Some have written elegantly about walking at night. Others have written baudily of strolling through London and having chamber pots thrown on their heads. Being able to look at these non-scientific sources is the kind of thing that can enrich research like mine.

Jeffrey Schnapp

One point of overlap that comes to mind is the question of synchronization and rhythm, which is so fundamental to the act of walking. Of course, we sometimes walk in solitary fashion. But we also walk as a social act. How do neuroscientists think about the complex forms of coordination involved in social walking?

Shane O’Mara

There is a huge body of work going on in this area. The idea that rhythm is core to biological systems is a central idea. When you reflect on the idea that we all have a rhythm of sleeping and waking, one that happens at a more or less set time every day, we wake up at a more or less set time every day. Many of the organs in our body obey similar kinds of rules. So that kind of rhythm is core to biological processes, kind of clocklike processes where things are setback to zero, for want of a better expression, as a result of sleep. In terms of synchronization, walking involves rhythms within the body. You have to send a command signal from the brain to initiate getting going, but once you’re walking, walking largely becomes an unconscious process. You have rhythms in the spinal cord generated by the specialized group of neurons known as central pattern generators. If you unpack that name for a moment, they are “central” because they are part of the central nervous system, but their job is to generate a pattern. That pattern is a sequence of movement in time. Now I make the argument in the book that walking evolved in a social context in humans because this is how we walked out of Africa. We didn’t conquer the world as one guy with a spear in the wilderness. It was small tribal family groups walking together with purpose. And to do that, we had to be exquisitely attuned to each other. Humans are exquisitely attuned to each other, but we don’t know it unless we pay careful attention. When you’re walking with a group, for example, along a footpath, with two or three of you walking abreast, just watch how you navigate obstacles on your path. You will drift laterally left or right without realizing what you have done, and you largely keep the distance between your shoulders to avoid contact with one another even as you continue the conversation. This is because we have mechanisms in the brain that are engaged in the continual monitoring of what it is that other people are doing as well as readying ourselves in order to mimic their behavior when it is appropriate.

Jeffrey Schnapp

You mentioned that family units in particular coordinate their walking. What happens when there are asymmetries in size between the collaborating partners, like a child walking with a tall adult?

Shane O’Mara

Yes, this provides a nice illustration of family dynamics at work. So, what should happen when you’re walking is that everybody falls into pace with each other. The long limbed person slows down a little and the short limbed person speeds up a little, and if one person walks persistently too fast or, as kids like to do when they are annoyed, they walk too slowly, this becomes a matter of great aggravation for everybody, because you’re sending the signal I am not willing to synchronize my behavior with yours. If you watch families in parks or have a child yourself, you’ll have experienced the phenomenon with ease. What's happening there is a breach of a rule, and the rule is we should all walk at approximately the same pace. We can do that easily in small numbers, but it's really difficult to do in large numbers. If you go out rambling with a group of ten or twenty, you will likely split into a number of groups of two or three and the entire group will string out. You have this phenomenon where most gravitate to the back, the fastest gravitate to the front, and there is little you can do about it unless you impose a rule or some way of imposing a rhythm on a group of people. We humans have done this as long we’ve been around. We’ve chanted together, we’ve sung songs together, we’ve made music together because we can pace our footfalls according to the beat. Of course, armies have known this and integrated it into their marching practices for years.

Jeffrey Schnapp

I’m curious about non-human objects. As you know, Piaggio Fast Forward is involved in experimentation with human-robot interaction and we do a lot of observational work of walking with humans. We’re also curious about how people navigate the world when they are pulling something, pushing something, or walking with their pet dog.

Shane O’Mara

That's actually a great question and I think it's one that's not been properly explored. We don’t know much about the dynamics of walking with suitcases, for example, or prams for transporting your child, or little suitcases with wheels. We know little enough about how people carry weights. We do know, of course, that humans evolved to carry children. We’re very good at carrying a child or even two as we walk along, and we can walk enormous distances so long as the kid isn’t too heavy. This is actually a really good open question and one we don’t have a really good sense of. There Is a small literature on the carrying of backpacks. This has been particular interest to sports people, endurance athletes, and the military. It is really focused on the issue of physiologic response, oxygen uptake response, anaerobic response, when you impose a load of thirty to forty kilos on a person's back. The change of how you move in an airport when you just got your suitcase of the belt, I don’t think that's been properly studied at all.

Jeffrey Schnapp

We were surprised with how little literature there was. We ran across concerns in the field of ergonomics regarding the impact on childhood development and skeletal structure of bearing asymmetrical burdens, but when it came to the actual mechanics there wasn’t that much.

Shane O’Mara

I read something remarkable recently which has to do with suitcase design. The first personalized wheels that you could attach to a suitcase only appeared in the early 1970s, and production lines weren’t modified to produce suitcases with wheels en masse until the 1990s. If you take out an old suitcase with wheels that you might have in your attic and compare it with a new one which is just ten years apart, the ergonomics are completely different. My wife has two very large suitcases for carrying stuff. One is a beautiful suitcase. It's a Gucci leather one, but it's quite heavy. You carry it at an angle and you have to drag the thing. And she has a lovely Samsonite that she purchased recently. It's got four wheels and you put your hand on the top and it just glides along. So even in short periods of time when manufacturers have been ahead of the game, I don’t think scientists have studied this properly at all.

Jeffrey Schnapp

It’s fascinating how recent a phenomenon that is. That seems like such a simple solution.

Shane O’Mara

Yes. It's an obvious thing. I think that reveals a class bias as well. When you were traveling fifty to one hundred years ago by jet liner, you might have had people there to pick up your stuff and manage it, but now we’re all traveling. The flunky that might have been there to help you is no longer around.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Indeed, the democratization of the burden of carrying has ensured just that. Porters are rare in today’s airports. I’m wondering, based on the kind of research that you do, do you think about how we might redesign the built environment to promote behaviors that are aligned with cognitive affordances that are distinctive to the bipedal creatures that we are.

Shane O’Mara

That's a really important question with deep implications, one that we’re going to be stuck arguing about for hundreds of years. The example I like to use is, in the building I work in at Trinity in Dublin, when you come in the door, the elevator is right in front of you. If you want to get to the stairs to walk up to my office on the third floor, you have to go through three fire doors. The architect did not design the building; as a member of the architect committee that designed that building all those years ago, looking back, I realized that we made some fundamental errors. We thought about the building in terms of the activities it was supposed to support and it does that brilliantly. But we did not think about the mobility of individuals as part of the functions the building should support. I think the conversation that architects and planners need to have around mobility is something that really needs to get going. The idea that there is an aesthetic approach and that a building is an aesthetic statement is fine. But people will be making use of that building, so it is essential to build mobility into buildings.

Jeffrey Schnapp

In your book you make some telling remarks about the interconnections between walking, thinking, and creativity. What would a workplace look like that would leverage the power of the walking mind, rather than depending on the notion of the desk, or the workstation that fixes you to a single place?

Shane O’Mara

There is a great debate going on regarding the design of workspaces. We have all these ideas about shared workspaces. Accountants and architects love them because you can fit lots of bodies into a small space. But the effect that they have on individuals in these small spaces is actually quite remarkable. There are loads of photographs and surveys that show that when you put people in rooms where they have to work by the hundreds together, they all wear headphones so that they can drown the noise out. So, what we have is a clash between accountants and an architect's view of how we can squeeze people in versus the demands of a knowledge economy that wants people to be working creatively and optimally. The kind of optimal things that we require are low ambient noise. We need circulation spaces, we need not to be packed in with others. Social interactions in these spaces goes down rather than goes up. People communicate not by talking to each other, but by DM or by email or by other methods. Despite the fact that people are sitting together, their interaction becomes mediated rather than direct. We need to think about things other than standing desks. We need to have meeting rooms that have appropriately designed bar height tables instead of ones where people flop down. Corridors need to be designed so that people can easily walk around the fire doors in a corridor, which can often be a problem. No reason why these can’t be held open by a magnetic strip, for example. Putting smart boards for people to write on. Why not? Why not have little alcoves? There are lots and lots of things that can make a workspace informal in the way that can facilitate productivity, but I don’t think architects are particularly aware of these things. They are more concerned with other constraints.

Jeffrey Schnapp

What if we extended that same question to the design of cities and urban spaces? As I’m sure you’re aware, even sidewalks were rather a novel feature in city environments well into the nineteenth century. The notion of the walkable city is one we hear a lot. The reality of most of today’s cities is that automobility prevails over walkability.

Shane O’Mara

We’ve been engaged in a hundred-year-long experiment. Cars became widespread in the 1920s. We’ve remodeled our cities to a greater or lesser extent. The old medieval cities of Europe, particularly in Italy, haven’t done that in their historical cores, but they have at the periphery. Because bringing cars into the core would require demolishing that core. That's where you can experience the great contrast between the wonderfully walkable portions of the city versus the parts of the city that are car-oriented. I wonder whether we will look back in another one hundred years and think that this past century’s long experiment was a disaster. We’ve got embedded costs in the environment. We face opportunity costs, people grapple with restrictions on their own pedestrian flow. We have the actual costs--I would guess in the trillions worldwide--of facilitating cars that occupy I guess fifteen square meters of space with a single occupant or maybe two, versus public transport that for similar quantities of space can move many more people around with far greater frequency. And then a second point really is that the majority of the planet now lives in urban centers--either towns, cities or villages--rather than the countryside. So, by definition, most walking will happen within our towns and cities. But our towns and cities are not addressing this. We have another related problem which is that the population of the planet is ageing. Everywhere you look, people are getting older. Africa is probably the youngest continent. Europe and Japan probably have the oldest age profiles, with North and South America somewhere close to Asia. By the end of the century, we will have a population that is substantially older than it is now. Simple things like crossing the road for older people is difficult. The road traffic engineers typically design crosswalks in a way that is appropriate for someone is twenty-two or twenty-one years without any mobility problems. Someone who has a visual impairment, because this comes with age, or somebody who is in a wheelchair, somebody on crutches, or just somebody who is old and struggle with the problems that accompany aging. They might be walking much more slowly. We have to start thinking about how we are going to treat those populations with the dignity and the respect that they deserve. We are all going to become them.

Jeffrey Schnapp

I suspect that some of us already are.

Shane O’Mara

We already are. [Laughter]

Jeffrey Schnapp

At least I sometimes have that feeling. I’m curious to hear your take on “smart phone zombieism”: this rather recent and distinctive way that many of us move around the world accompanied by smart devices, which connect us to the world and disconnect us at the same time. How does that affect the neuroscience of walking?

Shane O’Mara

I don’t think we know terribly much. We know a few things. We know for example that people’s peripheral vision gets a little bit better when they are focused on a device in their hands. And while you will see hilarious YouTubes of people bumping into things, they are the exception, not the norm. If you spend some time observing people walking out of train stations, people who take a train into work every day, and people are navigating complex spaces with these things in their hands, they are still able to do it. I suspect the way we sample the environment in terms of our visual interaction changes. We walk and rely on peripheral vision and we will flick up every couple of seconds to make sure we are not going to bump into something terrible. How it will affect us overall? I really don't know. People have sought to isolate themselves on journeys for years. People used to hide behind newspapers, hide their heads in books. When the Sony Walkman came along, people started wearing headphones to listen to music. I don't know the honest answer. I suspect we could make arguments that they are a bad thing, we can make arguments that they are a good thing. I don't have a good take. Paradoxically, when we are talking about this, one of the podcasts I love to listen to is a physical activity podcast, and I've learned lots from the conversations with the physiological researchers who are interested in exercise.

Jeffrey Schnapp

So, when you walk, do you listen to things often, in addition to thinking?

Shane O’Mara

It depends. I hate headphones. I hate earbuds, because I get a pounding in my ear from them and I’ve experimented with many of them. What I do when I go for a walk at night is something terrible. I engage in what is called “Sodcasting.” I turn the podcast on and listen to it via the speaker. Thankfully where I live, at night, not many people are out. Then when I see someone, I just turn the volume down. I would only do that for half of the walking that I do by myself. I do a lot of walking with friends, so with them I would never. I think having a podcast or something like that when you’re walking can really augment the walk. There are times when you don't want to be thinking about anything, you just want to listen to something else. And you are perfectly allowed to listen to the radio when you’re driving, so why can't you listen to a podcast when you’re walking. I can’t see the problem.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Indeed. I’m both a walker and a cyclist. Do we know a lot about the differences between the paces of movement in the landscape? I mean walking is the most primordial sense of human autonomy and human mobility. Of course, over the course of human civilization we’ve augmented that in many ways. Some of them, like cycling, are relatively close to walking, to the degree that, even if the mechanics are different, they involve us motoring ourselves, driving ourselves, being the source of locomotion.

Shane O’Mara

The dynamics of how the brain sees cycling and walking are actually quite different. When you’re walking, your feet are regularly making contact with the substrate and you’re sampling that substrate, and your position is an upright one. When you’re cycling, your feet are in a very different position and you’re having to sample the road linearly through the tires. The position of stability you’re in is quite different. What we know is when you’re walking, there is a particular rhythm in the brain known as theta which preferentially activates the part of the brain that's involved in learning and memory, and this is particularly active when you’re walking. We know from experiments in a variety of domains that when you’re engaging in what's called whole body motion, you’re moving, you’re being moved passively, theta is damped down. This is at the core of the paradox that you can drive for three hours somewhere and not remember any of the journey. You might remember some of the conversation in the car but you don't remember the journey itself. Where cycling is concerned, you’re probably in a slightly intermediate position. You are not of course able to play close attention to the environment and sample it in the same way as you are when you’re walking, and your ability to engage in mobility of the head when you’re cycling is quite different. I suspect you’re a little bit closer to cycling when you’re a crawling child, but you’re doing it at speed given your posture compared to somebody who's walking.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That's fascinating. As you know, at Piaggio Fast Forward we’re very much working on the notion of augmented walking. Walking that's supported by smart robotic vehicles. I’m curious what advice you would give to a research and development group that's trying to grapple with the complexities of walking and trying to create intelligent machines that adapt to human walking patterns. What are the things that one is most likely to underestimate or to miss in trying to design an ideal and highly intuitive human-robot interaction.

Shane O’Mara

One of the things that humans do all the time is attribute agency to things. We believe in things that don’t exist. We have animated conversations about cartoon characters that do not exist except in our imagination. As kids, we go through a phase of animacy where we attribute feelings to rocks and trees and clouds. We have this phenomenon of paradellia where we look at things and see faces and things. We’re pattern seekers, we’re pattern matchers, and we like to attribute agency and we like to personalize. So, when you’re thinking about robotics, there is an interesting set of questions around how it is that people attribute agency to the robotic device. Do they see it as something that is just a useful thing for working with? If you’re a forklift driver, do you really care about the forklift? Or will you in some way like or love the object? If it has personalized responses that are specific to you, then your connection to that object will be quite different. The examples that you showed yesterday of the robot following people around, if it behaved more like a dog, it came close to you, it ignored people that you stopped to talk with, those kinds of things, thinking about agency, or simulations of agency, and how we attribute agency automatically. People will say to the robot, isn't that clever! Well it's only clever to the extent that the roboticist has designed cleverness into it. Isn’t it a beautiful thing to look at! Again, these are things that you’ve designed into it. And if you can reflect features of the kind of natural entities that we’re used to interacting with, I think that these objects can become something that people will become too attached to. But that's okay.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That raises an interesting question that we struggled with, which is the human tendency to think of the whole world of robotics as reducible to the creation of doubles of humans. In the case of gita, we deliberately chose to create a non-humanoid object and one that doesn't use a voice to express itself but instead has its own sound library. In the taxonomy of creatures, we wanted gita to be closer to a pet than a human double.

Shane O’Mara

I think that's a great approach because when you’re talking about a little me or a mini-me, people could become overly invested. The reality is that people have pets, they know their goldfish is going to die after a year, they know the dog is going to be around for ten or fifteen years at the very most. Of course, people become emotionally attached to them but they are perfectly capable of replacing them. Whereas the loss of a child that you love or a partner or a parent is something that lives with you for all your life. So, going for this intermediate position in my mind is really clever. The dog in particular as a kind of model is a really good one. Humans and dogs have been co-evolving and co-selecting each other for, what, I guess five, ten thousand years, since the first wolves were tamed, I think, on the Russian steppes, you know, all those years ago. You can see that humans have intervened very forcefully in the way that dogs have been selected, because we have all these astonishing dog breeds. Look at the difference between a bulldog and poodle. That's artificial selection over two hundred years has given us this and you can jump ahead of this a little bit more or you can morph these things in a computer and printed off or whatever it happens to be.

Jeffrey Schnapp

One point of reference was the special kind of relationship we have to intelligent agents such as dogs. The other issue for us as designers and engineers was to establish the right set of expectations. Typically, humanoid robots fail at almost every task, and when they do succeed, we enter the so-called “uncanny valley”, where humans feel uncomfortable. So, the question was how to thread the needle, how to get the balance right.

Shane O’Mara

You said something yesterday which really struck me. When you think about patterns of car use, when I think about how I use my own car. I’m lucky because I live in a very walkable area in which the shops are just a short distance away. If what I’m going to purchase can be contained within a single bag, then I will walk. But if it's two bags, I take the car because I have to walk uphill. You said, I think correctly, that a lot of the patterns of car use are driven by the need to transporting stuff, and ten thousand years ago on the African plains we had very little stuff. We would have had a spear, we would have had bags to carry a little bit of food, a little bit of water, and we would have carried children. And that would have been quite a bit in those days. But now we carry much more. If you have kids, you’re carrying hockey sticks and tennis racquets and all sorts of things. I think having a device that creatively tackles the need to transport things is really important. Think about what happened with planes over the last twenty or so years and the case of Ryanair, possibly the biggest airline in Europe. One of the things that Ryanair did was to pioneer forcing people to stop putting bags in the hold by charging you a lot: something like forty or fifty euros a bag. This meant that people started bringing smaller bags with less stuff. I can imagine a time when you or your family have a device like gita. You head off to a shop that might be terribly far away and buy less stuff but go for more frequent walks to buy that what you really require. Modifications of behavior and the new opportunities that devices like gita will offer are at a beginning. A walk will become comfortable because you’re not being dragged by the bags of groceries or whatever it happens that you’re toting around.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Naturally we would be delighted if we were able to be catalysts for such change! Shane O’Mara thank you for this delightful conversation and maybe we can go for a walk a little bit later.

Shane O’Mara

I would love to do that. Thank you.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Thanks again.

Thank you for listening to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast and come back soon for further lively conversations about walking, light mobility, robots and the design of neighborhoods, cities, and towns. The PFF podcast is hosted by Jeffrey Schnapp, sound engineering by Robert Allen, narration by Ryan Harms, produced by Elizabeth Murphy, web designed by Jerry Ding. Intro music is Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod. End music is Your Call by Kevin MacLeod. Special thanks to Tory Leeming. To learn more about PFF and gita, please visit piaggiofastforward.com.