For instructions on how to apply, please see: PhD Studentships: UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Socially Intelligent Artificial Agents.
- Cassandra Sampaio Batista: School of Psychology
- Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas: School of Computing Science
Many rats live in laboratory conditions residing in cages in small groups or alone (such as after surgery, dominance issues, safety, or research purposes). Yet, rats are highly social animals with complex social skills needing the company of others. Rats become attached and form solid bonds and large communities in the wild. Thus, while the research done on laboratory rats is vital to human and animal health, their social living conditions are not always ideal. The main aim of this project is to increase rats’ sociality by exploring how rats can use computers that have audio, visual and olfactory output to communicate with other rats. We will then use this output to develop an artificial rat agent to support lonely rats autonomously. While researchers have investigated how rats react to screen systems , dog-to-dog interfaces  and dog-to-human video interfaces , there is no research undertaken around rat-to-rat and rat-to-computer interaction.
Proposed Methods and Outputs
This research is at the intersection of animal-computer interaction and neuroscience, exploring rats’ behaviour, brain, vocal analysis, and computer usage. Using novel devices to enable rats to virtually calling, we will look at a) how connecting to other rats virtually can improve a rats life, b) how different modalities (audio, visual and olfactory) support rats’ social communication, and c) how rats interact virtually with known and unknown rats. To enable rat-to-rat communication, novel remote calling devices will be developed that facilitate rats to trigger and answer calls. The rats’ behaviour and vocal analysis (such as ) and brain neuroimaging  will be studied to assess the impact of these remote interactions. The results of these studies will inform on how to support rat communication virtually and with virtual agents, and on the impact of rat-computer interfaces on behaviour, social interactions, and brain function and structure. The student will need to apply for a Personal Home Office Licence (PIL) as part of their first year of study and will be working directly with laboratory rats, programming, building devices and encoding the rats’ behaviours. The project is of great industrial and academic interest in social behaviour, laboratory and domesticated rodent welfare as it will provide key insights and tools for supporting their social needs.