SXSW this year felt a different place to last year. In 2017 the overriding emotions of SXSW were anger and fear. Fear of the rapid rise of AI and anger at the effect it might have on us all. In contrast this year felt like SXSW had grown up and mellowed out. Gone was the fear and anger, replaced with empathy and hope. If 2017 was the year of man vs tech, then 2018 is the year of human-centered tech.
What does human-centered tech mean?
Tech that feels less technical and isn’t just celebrated for its ingenuity; instead it is about working together to deliver something greater than the sum of our parts, built on our best understanding of humans. Creating something that is more empathetic, perception pushing, and quite frankly magical. Using technology to understand, augment and enhance the human condition.
How could this manifest itself?
There were a number of streams at SXSW that came together under the premise of human-centered tech.
There was a strong rhetoric around ensuring greater diversity in tech teams, especially in AI. AI is susceptible to biases and the unconscious biases of those who train an AI system are often passed on to the AI. Fei Fei Li, Director of Stanford AI lab, spoke passionately about the importance of increasing diversity of people entering the industry, both from a gender perspective, but also in terms of race, background and sexuality. “Diverse people. Diverse thoughts.”
The importance of encouraging a broader spectrum of people into the STEM pipeline was clear. In the UK 2018 is the Year of Engineering with exactly that objective. These initiatives and others like it around the world will be vital. But we can’t wait for these initiatives to deliver a new workforce in 5 or 10 years, firms also need to actively seek out diverse teams right now if we are going to act to shape AI systems, before it is too late.
The development of technology like AI can’t lie within just the current teams. They understand tech, but do they understand people? There was a rhetoric around inviting in the social sciences, including psychology, sociology and behavioural sciences, into the heart of development. This is vital to ensure we develop technology hand in hand with humans. A multi-function team could enable a better understanding of how we act, think and feel as humans together with technology — this could benefit human understanding and give us a chance to build more useful machines that benefit society.
In February ’18 Software Co launched ‘IQ. The Software Co Intelligence Quest’ to “forge connections between human and machine intelligence research, its applications, and its bearing on society.” It is a collaboration between life scientists, computer scientists, social scientists and engineers. “By uniting diverse fields and capitalising on what they can teach each other, we seek to answer the deepest questions about intelligence.”
Whilst we often like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are heavily influenced and shaped by those around us. We use this daily to navigate the world and to help with decision making through heuristics (short-cuts). But what if we could harness this collective power? Unanimous AI talked about the power of the hive mind using ‘swarm AI’. This technology won ‘best in show’ at the 2018 SXSW innovation awards. It connects groups of people in real-time closed-loop systems to amplify human intelligence.
For example, when using a swarm to predict the Oscars individual accuracy was 40%, but the collective was 76% accurate (compared to 64% for the critics). This hive mind approach uses technology to enhance individual performance and potentially benefit the masses.
Over the last few years the potential of VR to ‘transport’ people to impossible locations or spaces has been much discussed. What was revealed by Microsoft Research teams at SXSW was the latest research in actually creating new perceptual experiences through VR and AR. So, this is not about taking you to a far away or impossible place but giving you a sensory experience that isn’t possible outside of VR. They shared the potential of VR to call into question reality as we understand it. They also shared the potential of AR to help us ‘see’ physiological inputs that aren’t possible with the human eye, so we can ‘read’ others beyond the facial movements and body language that we use today. The use case for these new developments could be valuable for those amongst us that struggle to read others, like those on the Autism Spectrum, but thinking wider this could be the start of a whole new way of engaging with other humans beyond what is currently possible.
Where does this leave us?
It leaves us focusing less on technology that is just new and clever for the sake of it and focusing more on developments that shape, enhance or amplify human intelligence.
This means bringing an understanding of real people to technology to create things that support, augment or even enhance the human experience. To quote the ever-wonderful Dr Kate Stone: “I believe the future will be more magical than technical.”
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