Protecting human values from Human-Computer Interaction

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Protecting human values from Human-Computer Interaction

These days, it is nigh on impossible to stop the infiltration of technology into our lives. Business communications are conducted via phone or e-mail. Information is searched for and obtained online. Even our kitchens are getting smarter, with Internet-enabled fridges opening doors to food for both the body and mind.

It seems the technologically-driven world envisioned by so many science fiction authors is fast becoming a reality, but to what end? For fear of losing sight of basic human values such as identity and privacy, institutions and technology vendors now are investing in a new research area with an aim to protect the hazy margins that separate man from machine.

A recently-released research report from Microsoft and the University of Nottingham investigates how advances in interfaces may affect human society in the year 2020. Titled “Being human: human-computer interaction in the year 2020”, the report details the findings of a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) conference that was hosted by Microsoft in March 2007.

Highlighting advances in display technologies, digital storage, connectivity and artificial intelligence, the report warns that without proper monitoring and assessment, humans may lose control of key decision-making processes, thus surrendering basic human values and concepts such as personal space, society, identity, independence, perception, intelligence and privacy.

And as machine learning technology develops, humans may become increasingly reliant on artificially intelligent computers to make decisions on our behalf.

“New computing technology is tremendously exciting, but the interaction between humans and computers is evolving into a complex ecosystem where small changes can have far-reaching consequences,” said Tom Rodden, Professor of Interactive Systems at the University of Nottingham who worked with Microsoft on the report.

“It is imperative that we combine technological innovations with an understanding of their impact on people,” Rodden said.

Rodden’s cautions resound with those of Noel Sharkey, a Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics from the University of Sheffield who this week addressed the U.K. House of Commons on potential ethical pitfalls of near-future robots.

While robots may be beneficial to mankind in a range of applications including domestic cleaning and more effective, efficient surgery, Sharkey warned against the current lack of government guidelines in place in the U.K. for the rapidly increasing use of robots.

The increasing use of robots may also neglect human needs for companionship in areas such as healthcare where robot carers are designed to look after children and the elderly. While mechanical caregivers may yield economic benefits, they may also come with negative effects such as social exclusion.

“Much of this work is very useful in keeping old people out of care homes and hospitals for longer, but my worry is that economic consideration could see us all spending our last year socially excluded in the company of dumb machines,” Sharkey said.

Meanwhile, machines in Microsoft’s future-facing vision of 2020 will be far from dumb. While Human-Computer interactions of today are easily recognisable by the conventional keyboard, mouse and monitor set-up, futuristic devices may be controlled by bodily movements, such as two hands touching multiple, textured surfaces, and may be stored within our bodies.

A 2007 report on “The Hype Cycle for Human-Computer Interaction” by technology-focussed analyst firm Gartner similarly expects a radical shift towards a world of ambient intelligence after the year 2015.

Ambient intelligence will extend the human-computer interface past the desk and into office appliances and the walls around the user so non-trivial devices will be expected to contain some degree of embedded processing and communications capability.

Of course, the benefits of understanding the more subtle, pervasive nature of human interactions with future devices extend past the lofty goals of protecting human values, to the more mercenary aim of gaining a commercial advantage in the technology marketplace.

“Technology, and our relationship with it, is changing fast and encompassing every aspect of our existence,” said Richard Harper, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. “We need to comprehend and manage key aspects of this change if we are to ensure that technology adds to human experience, rather than detract from it.”

“At Microsoft we are interested in this topic because we want to develop technologies that improve people’s lives, and it is impossible to do so without thinking carefully about human values and how humans want to interact with technology,” he said.

Highlighting current research and development efforts at IBM that centre around translating consumer technologies to the corporate space, IBM researcher John Tang, described HCI as a means of developing technologies that have efficiently and effectively match human abilities.

“HCI is an important research topic because it is important to understand how our technologies will be usable or useful so that we can build products that will be successful in the commercial marketplace,” said Tang, a researcher in the USER group of IBM’s Almaden Research Center.

With a focus on what Tang called “understanding the why” of usage patterns to determine the context in which particular technologies are used, IBM’s HCI research group is conducting a mix of quantitative and qualitative studies in efforts to translate the popular consumer applications Facebook and to the corporate setting.

Cross-cultural collaboration has been another focus of IBM’s research team, Tang said, as certain social networking tools have been observed to be more readily adopted by some cultures and not others.

Noting a higher uptake of social networking in Western cultures when compared with the Eastern world, Tang explained that the technology has drawn attention to human values of friendship and the information that interpersonal connections may reveal to other people.

“There are subtle but important differences between things that are successful in the commercial space compared to that in the enterprise and business space,” he said. “They [researchers] really study how people are using these [social networking] tools to figure out underlying human needs that drive that use and how to translate that to an enterprise setting.”

Given the social nature of HCI research, IBM has broadened its focus and is bringing more academic disciplines into the research team, said Tang, who is a mechanical engineer and has also been trained in design and anthropology.

IBM currently employs a group of social scientists and anthropologists that are involved in researching how people are interacting with technology, especially in emerging tools such as Second Life and other virtual environments.

“I think in general, we have to include more of these kind of [social science] disciplines to get a holistic view of how people are using technology,” Tang said. “Involving those disciplines as part of our corporate collection of skills is one area that we’re moving towards.”

Tang agreed with Microsoft's 2020 research report, which urges the HCI community to educate young people about the impact of technological advancements, engage policy-makers in the implications of new computing ecosystems, and involve specialists from disciplines such as psychology, sociology and the arts in the development of HCI technologies.

While he noted that most companies currently are quite early in the process of adopting value-sensitive design strategies, Tang described numerous conversations between IBM and academics from the University of Maryland and University of Washington, where the concept of value-sensitive design is beginning to be expressed.

"We need to be better at predicting, anticipating and understanding how our technology interacts with human values", he said. "I think that's an area that HCI developers need to pay more attention to and make more investment in."

"It's an area where there aren't that many answers, but where more conscious-raising, awareness questions are being asked," he said.

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