29 March 2012

Author Richard Lyall

It remains perhaps one of our greatest fears as a race. The thought that machines we have created somehow outgrow their design, and take over. Much early science fiction, especially at the dawn of robotics, is dominated by this theme: humans and machines locked in mortal combat to become the master race.

Let's come out of interplanetary orbit and bring this down to earth. How many machines will you directly interact with today? Around the house? At work? And indirectly, how many more? If you stop to think about it, do you ever wonder who's in control of your affairs? Sociologist Jurgen Habermas spoke of the "colonisation" of our lives by systems. With such a high level of infiltration, who's really in control?

This question presented itself as I explored the Robots and Avatars exhibition at FACT. The exhibition works on multiple levels and provokes many questions, but I found myself reflecting on my relationship with the exhibits, and the wider issues this raised. For example: 

  • Karina Smigla-Bobinski's ADA- a large helium-filled plastic ball with pieces of charcoal fixed to it, which scribbled on the walls when pushed around. Here, I'm in control of the device.
  • Matthieu Cherubini's rep.licants.org - a Facebook\Twitter plugin that manages your online presence for you. This made me nervous because I don't like the idea of trusting a computer program to represent me in public. Here, the machine (albeit programmed by a human) is acting autonomously.
  • Lawrence Malstaf's Compass - a device worn round the waist which directs you as you navigate a virtual maze. It seemed that two wills were conflicting - my choice of path, and the machine allowing or obstructing my choices.
  • Eilbeck & Bailey's MeYouandUs - three interactive video installations. The installation waited for my input, processed and displayed it. The relationship here seemed more like a creative partnership.

I began to reflect on the place of these human-machine relationships in everyday life, for example:

  • We control household appliances (though they often have automatic controls too).
  • The stock market uses automated trading systems like BATS (which had a hiccup last week, knocking 9% off Apple shares for a few minutes), and eBay buyers use bots to sneak in last minute winning bids.
  • Safety control systems stop an operator performing a dangerous action e.g. in public transport or a nuclear power station.

So how do we design systems with human-machine relationships in mind? Let's say I want to design a digital painting tool. An able-bodied user would be offered complete manual control. But what about a user with severe challenges? What human-machine relationship should we design? Could the machine be given a measure of control, to help make best use of the user's limited faculties? Could it extrapolate from limited inputs what the user wanted to do, based on usage patterns, for example? Could the user intervene if the machine "got it wrong'? I look forward to seeing many more imaginative applications of technology to release the creative voice of those with various challenges. Please leave a comment if you know of any creative examples of this.

All of this raises perhaps the key question for control system and interface design: how do we get machines to do what we want? How can we create constructive relationships between the world of human and machine? In relationships, it can help to think of "roles" - what role does each take up in a particular human-machine relationship?

Our lives are colonised by machines and systems, and this isn't going to change any time soon. While Planet Earth is not facing intergalactic takeover just yet, we do well to stand back and take stock of our relationship with the technologies around us, to make sure they are serving us, and not the other way round.