AIF Blog

The Human Side of Technology

Apr 27, 2015
CATEGORY: Society, Technology
Drones, Phones, and Robotic Friends
If a driverless car came upon a bus stuck in the middle of the road, would it plow into the bus, possibly killing all the occupants, or drive off the road, killing the driver? During the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival session Drones, Phones, and Robotic Friends, a panel of experts considered this and other ethical and social questions surrounding technologies that are poised to become more and more a part of our daily lives. 
How humans relate to emergent technologies is at the core of the issue. Alex Reben, an artist and roboticist who created a self-propelled robotic camera that asks people a set of fun and personal questions, discovered that "people find it easier to talk to a machine” than a human pointing a camera at them. Perhaps that’s in part due to the design of his BlabDroid, Reben suggested — the innocent-looking diminutive cardboard box on wheels has a cute smiley face and a child’s voice. But what’s interesting is how this robot is able to “eke out better stories from people,” he added — which might prove useful with, for example, people with autism or PTSD.   
On the other hand, Google Glass is a technology that makes people very uncomfortable and even evokes a visceral reaction, the panel agreed. UC Berkeley new media professor Ken Goldberg theorized that’s because it’s both something uncanny — that which is familiar, yet strange, like a corpse or a robot — and something that makes you wonder if you’re being watched. “So it’s an uncanny double whammy,” Goldberg said, adding that Freud and others have studied both phenomenons. “It hits at the core of our psychology, and that’s why it’s met resistance.”
Whether perceived as good or bad, people generally adjust as their world changes around them, said Missy Cummings, an engineering professor who specializes in human-computer interaction. Cummings spoke of her work with Google on a driverless car, trying to figure out the right balance between automation and human control. Because if an automated system like that works too well, she explained, it could make the driver complacent enough to get distracted, by texting or being on the computer, for example, and become an even worse driver. 
It’s also a matter of figuring out the benefits of the technology we’re uncomfortable with at first, said Ryan Calo, a law professor who directs the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab. Calo wondered whether people would feel better about Google Glass if one of its uses was to help people with vision or perception problems.
When asked if humans will eventually become completely isolated due to technological advances that allow just about everything to become automated, the panel disagreed with the notion.
“There are ways robotics can both augment and separate people from one another,” said Reben. “But we’re very adaptable as humans in social ways, and that’s not going to be erased. Technology is inherently human; it’s inherently us. Technology and humanity are intertwined.”
In this clip, the panel discusses how technology, as a human creation, comes with both human expectations and human faults — and thus will never be perfect. And they discuss the aforementioned question of the driverless car encountering a stalled bus.
Posted by Catherine Lutz