After 18 years in Silicon Valley, Australian anthropologist and Intel senior fellow Dr Genevieve Bell is back home, advocating for the human side of the digital economy and speaking a few hard truths about the home of technology.
Bell left the chipmaker in January, after a high-profile career as vice president and Intel’s first female senior fellow, to become a professor in the computer science faculty of Canberra’s Australian National University (ANU).
She opened this month’s AIIA digital government summit in Canberra by dispelling some of the myths about technology and its future application, arguing that we can never take humans out of the equation.
When it comes to the digital world, “there are actually some really fierce problems we need to solve that haven’t been solved”.
“We keep kicking them down the road and hoping they’ll get fixed somewhere along the way. But it turns out they haven’t," she said.
Technology cannot save us from ourselves
Bell has spent her career talking to everyday consumers about what they want from technology, how they actually use ir, and how it makes them feel.
Far from the utopian outlook flogged by Silicon Valley, she says technology stirs up a degree of anxiety in people that is "not irrational and it is not just about science fiction. It is about our own history”.
The IT industry has a chequered past of replicating social prejudices in what it produces, and many of the consequences have not been positive.
“Whether it is camera algorithms that couldn’t process black faces because they were only trained on white faces. Or the first speech recognition algorithms that were trained only with male voices and literally could not hear women," Bell said.
"Or even the SDK of a fairly large American tech company designed for health and wellness that did not include menstruation because it considered that a ‘niche usage’,” she said.
She warned developers “if we're not asking the critical questions we tend to reproduce our own lived experiences - and those in turn shape technology”.
Life isn’t meant to be seamless
Dr Bell calls the way we organise our digital lives “seamful”.
There are 32 million phones in Australia and only 24 million citizens. Nearly all web users have at least two - if not more - email addresses.
“There are reasons we choose to segment our lives,” she said.
“Certain sets of data, certain devices, and certain algorithms may not want to touch other devices and data and algorithms. This is actually the way that humans have organised their lives."
Her challenge has been convincing engineers that our fragmented world does not necessarily work better when it is bundled into one place.
“The distinction is between seamlessness and an engineering solution and seamfulness as a human practice," she said.
Silicon Valley doesn’t always get it right
We tend to look to Silicon Valley as a barometer of what the future will bring.
But after nearly two decades in the home of technology, Bell warned against seeing it as "an early adopter as opposed to an outlier”.
“Where the money is spent does not always tell you what the future will be. It frequently just tells you where the money is being spent," she said.
The graveyard of technology has-beens suggests she’s right.
“Friendster, Napster, PDAs, Alta Vista, Yahoo. I sat in on many meetings where these things have been discussed and you might think they’re going to be everything. Do you remember Second Life? That seemed to be pretty big for a long time but now nothing but crickets," Bell said.
“I can tell you that venture capital is one way of thinking about what is really going on - what people are actually doing is often a better proxy."
Technology will never live up to the movies
Bell believes one of the reasons consumers are slow to adopt voice recognition technology is that it has never lived up to the expectations set by Star Trek.
“At no point in Star Trek did the system say ‘I don’t understand your accent Scott’.”
She says pretty much everything that comes out of the technology industry has appeared on our screens or pages before in some sort of utopian and dystopian fashion. But reality doesn’t always live up to Hollywood, and consumers are often left disappointed.
“We had been told how this technology would work for decades before it arrived,” she said.
“You still can’t talk about robots in a technical forum without someone asking you about Skynet."