By far, the most interesting talk I’ve heard at work was by Deborah Forster, a cognitive scientist from UCSD. Broadly interested in social engagement, she is currently working with a robot called RUBI (Robot Using Bayesian Inference), which she and her colleagues bring to the Early Childhood Education Center at UCSD as a tool for studying what makes social engagement work—for learning, for play, and for special needs.
Earlier in her career, Forster studied the social dynamics of baboons by observing a certain troop for several months in their natural habitat of Kenya. (Think Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey.) There, she got to know the identity and personality of each baboon in the troop as well as the social relationships between each pair (mother-daughter, brother-sister, mate-mate, etc.). After a while, watching the baboon dramas unfold through their behavior and body language became strikingly similar to watching the drama of a (human) reality TV show!
The LA-based artist Rachel Mayeri, herself interested in the “intersection of science and art,” brings out this point in her art movie Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends (2007). The movie features a split screen: The left side, featuring actual footage from Forster’s research, shows a complex social interaction between an eligible female and several potential mail suitors. The right side simultaneously shows a film-noir-style dramatization of the equivalent social interaction acted out by humans, using only body language and eye contact. The movie plays twice, the first time in its original and unaltered form, and the second time narrated by Forster to provide more of an explicit explanation for what is happening in the scene.
(Warning: This video features some adult-monkey situations.)