Human-Centered AI — an important new book by Ben Shneiderman

Ben Shneiderman is an Emeritus Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, and a much-honoured pioneer in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. His recent book, Human-Centered AI, is a valuable contribution to the literature discussing challenges for the appropriate use of artificial intelligence and proposing approaches and steps to achieve a safer and more humane future incorporating the likely increased use of AI. 

Although there is much that I could discuss, I shall focus primarily on Part 3, Design Metaphors, and Part 4, Governance Structures. 

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Technology and the Great Transition — to What?

Douglas Schuler has been thinking, writing, teaching, and agitating about — and developing — civic tech since the mid-1980s, as author of New Community Networks (1996) and Liberating Voices (2008), co-founder of the Seattle Community Network, and current chair of SIGCAS. 

This essay is adapted from “Fighting on All Fronts” a commentary in response to the “The Question of Technology” prompt as part of the Great Transition project. 

Emerging—and existing—technologies are bringing us closer to the brink. And even if they turn out to be more benign, envisioning some technological advance as our salvation will waste precious time as the ecosystems upon which we rely move closer to collapse and the violent forces of authoritarianism gain power. 

All technology, from hammers and hummers to routers and killer robots, is intended to increase power: to do something cheaper, easier, faster, with more entertainment value, with stronger impact, at greater distances, in more places, or with greater stealth. Technological power, like economic, political, cultural, institutional, or physical power, is distributed unevenly. It tends to be accumulated by people and organizations who already have too much. Algorithmic power has accelerated those differences; the computer has helped create today’s staggering economic divide. Many of the world’s richest people gained their fortunes through such algorithms, and it is their ideologies as well as the computer systems themselves that are taking us in dangerous directions. 

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Social credit

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

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Intelligent tutors

In this column, in my textbook, and in a speech “What Society Must Require from AI” I am currently giving around the world, I document some of the hype, exaggerated claims, and unrealistic predictions that workers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have been making for over 50 years.  Here are some examples.  Herb Simon, an AI pioneer at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), who later won a Novel Prize in Economics, predicted in 1958 that a program would be the world’s best champion by 1967.   Marvin Minsky of MIT, and Ray Kurzweil, both AI pioneers, made absurd predictions (in 1967 and 2005) that AI would achieve general human intelligence by 1980 and by 2045.  John Anderson, discussed below, made the absurd prediction in 1985 that it was already feasible to build computer systems “as effective as intelligent human tutors”.   IBM has recently made numerous false claims about the effectiveness of its Watson technology for domains as diverse as customer support, tax filing, and oncology.

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Sales Support No More

In a previous blog, I spoke about outsourcing, and the trade-offs for both companies and consumers, given the practise of many companies to outsource customer support globally. Here I shall speak about a related issue — the current tendency of most companies to skimp on or omit human customer support altogether. I shall illustrate this by describing three hours I spent yesterday and today trying to find a nearby store that had a USB-C to VGA converter for my Mac laptop.

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Unsafe software

Most of the recent attention about risks arising from the use of digital technologies has focused on security, including concerns over data breaches and Russian election hacking; privacy, as revelations about misuse of Facebook data have accelerated in number; and AI, because we have become aware of life-or-death decisions that are increasingly being placed in the hands of bots and robots, as, for example, in their roles in autonomous vehicles and weapons.

Yet there are risks with other technology that we regard as mature and benevolent.  Consider, for example, software that assists pilots in guiding, stabilizing, and landing airplanes.  Most recently, these risks have become apparent in the case of the Boeing 737 Max.  There were two crashes with many fatalities, one in Indonesia in October 2018, the other in Ethiopia in early March 2019.

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