Introducing his students to the study of the human brain Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, once asked: “If understanding everything you need to know about the brain was a mile, how far have we walked?”. He received answers like ‘three-quarters of a mile’, ‘half a mile’, and ‘a quarter of a mile’.
The professor’s response?: “I think about three inches.”
Last month, Lichtman’s quip made it into the pages of a new report by the Royal Society which examines the prospects for neural (or “brain-computer”) interfaces, a hot research area that has seen billions of dollars of funding plunged into it over the last few years, and not without cause. It is projected that the worldwide market for neurotech products – defined as “the application of electronics and engineering to the human nervous system” – will reach as much as $13.3 billion by 2022.
Last month, Oscar Schwartz wrote a byline for OneZero with a familiarly provocative headline: “What If an Algorithm Could Predict Your Unborn Child’s Intelligence?”. The piece described the work of Genomic Prediction, a US company using machine learning to pick through the genetic data of embryos to establish the risk of health conditions. Given the title of the article, the upshot won’t surprise you. Prospective parents can now use this technology to expand their domain over the “design” of new offspring – and “cognitive ability” is among the features up for selection.
Setting aside the contention over whether intelligence is even inheritable, the ethical debate around this sort of pre-screening is hardly new. Gender selection has been a live issue for years now. Way back in 2001, Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu caused controversy by proposing a principle of “Procreative Beneficence” stating that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” (Opponents to procreative beneficence vociferously pointed out that – regrettably – Savulescu’s principle would likely lead to populations dominated by tall, pale males…).
There is strong evidence to show that subject-specific experts frequently fall short on their informed judgments. Particularly when it comes to forecasting.
In fact, in 2005 the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Philip E. Tetlock devised a test for seasoned and respected commentators that found as their level of expertise rose, their confidence also rose – but not their accuracy. Repeatedly, Tetlock’s experts attached high probability to low frequency events in error, relying upon intuitive casual reasoning rather than probabilistic reasoning. Their assertions were often no more reliable than, to quote the experimenter, “a dart throwing chimp.”
I was reminded of Tetlock’s ensuing book and other similar experiments at the Future Trends Forum in Madrid last month; an event that (valiantly) attempts to convene a room full of thought leaders and task them with predicting our future. Specifically, in this case, our AI future.
The #AIShowBiz Summit 3.0 – which took place last month – sits apart from the often dizzying array of conferences vying for the attention of Bay Area tech natives. Omnipresent AI themes like “applications for deep learning”, “algorithmic fairness”, and “the future of work” are set aside in preference for rather more dazzling conversations on topics like “digital humans”, “AI and creativity”, and “our augmented intelligence digital future.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the big reoccuring AI themes. On the contrary, they are front-and-center for very good reason. It’s that there’s something just a little beguiling about this raft of rather more spacey, futuristic conversations delivered by presenters who are unflinchingly “big picture”, while still preserving necessary practical and technical detail.
YouTheData.com is delighted to feature a two-part guest post by Andrew Sears. Andrew is passionate about emerging technologies and the future we’re building with them. He’s driven innovation at companies like IBM, IDEO, and Genesis Mining with a focus on AI, cloud, and blockchain products. He serves as an Advisor at All Tech is Human and will complete his MBA at Duke University in 2020. You can keep up with his work at andrew-sears.com.
In Part 1 of this series, we explored the paradox of human-centered design as it is commonly practiced today: well-intentioned product teams start with the goal of empathizing deeply with humanneeds and desires, only to end up with a product that is just plain bad for humans.
In many cases, this outcome represents a failure to appreciate the complex web of values, commitments, and needs that define human experience. By understanding their users in reductively economic terms, teams build products that deliver convenience and efficiency at the cost of privacy, intimacy, and emotional wellbeing. But times are changing. The growing popularity of companies like Light, Purism, Brave, and Duck Duck Go signifies a shift in consumer preferences towards tech products that respect their users’ time, attention, privacy, and values.
Product teams now face both a social and an economic imperative to think more critically about the products they put into the world. To change their outcomes, they should start by changing their processes. Fortunately, existing design methodologies can be adapted and augmented to build products that appreciate more fully the human complexity of their users. Here are three changes that product teams should make to put the “human” in human centered design: