2 April 2008

Microsoft Research and the future of human computer interaction

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Being Human
“By 2020 the terms ‘interface’ and ‘user’ will be obsolete as computers merge ever closer with humans,” is the first sentence of a short article on the BBC News site.

According to the BBC, “it is one of the predictions in a Microsoft-backed report drawn from the discussions of 45 academics from the fields of computing, science, sociology and psychology.”

It predicts fundamental changes in the field of so-called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). By 2020 humans will increasingly interrogate machines, the report said. In turn computers will be able to anticipate what we want from them, which will require new rules about our relationship with machines.” […]

Our “digital footprint” – the sharing of more and more aspects of our lives through digital photography, podcasting , blogging and video – is set to get bigger and this will raise key questions about how much information we should store about ourselves.

The ever-present network will channel mass market information directly to us while disseminating our own intimate information.

The report dubs this the era of so-called hyper-connectivity and predicts it will mean a growth in “techno-dependency”.

This ever more intimate relationship between humans and computers will be a double-edged sword, it suggests.

The report compares the widespread introduction of the calculator – widely blamed for a fall in the standard of mental arithmetic – with what may happen as computers become more intelligent and take on new responsibilities.
“Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we – both individually and collectively – may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us,” the report warns.

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(The video is not too impressive though, as all examples are technology-driven rather than people-driven).

The report the BBC refers to are the proceedings of HCI 2020, a forum organised by Microsoft Research, that brought together leading lights in computing, design, philosophy of science, sociology, anthropology and psychology to debate, contribute to, and help formulate the agenda for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in the next decade and beyond. It can be downloaded here (pdf, 3 mb, 100 pages).

Moving into the 21st century, there are murmurings in the research and design communities signalling the need for a change: a change that puts more emphasis on placing users –people—front and centre in that agenda; a change that is less about pervasive, “smart” computing and more about technology that enables and recognizes human values.

This new agenda raises all kinds of key questions: What is the role of technology in the 21st century, or what would we like it to be? How as researchers, designers and practitioners should we orient to this role? What are the key questions for Human-Computer Interaction as we move forward? What are the new paradigms and research agendas that emerge as a result? What are the human values we are designing for, and what does this mean for the evaluation of technology?

Speakers at this invitation-only event that took place in Seville, Spain, were Barry Brown (Glasgow University), Matthew Chalmers (University of Glasgow), Thomas Erickson (IBM, T.J Watson Research Centre), David Frohlich (Digital World Research Centre), Bill Gaver (Goldsmiths College), Adam Greenfield (New York University, Interactive Telecommunication Program), Lars Erik Holmquist (Swedish Institute of Computer Science), Kristina Höök (Stockholm University), Steve Howard (Melbourne University), Scott Jenson (Google), Matt Jones (Swansea University), Sergi Jorda (University of Barcelona), Rui José (University of Minho), Joseph Kaye (Cornell University), Wendy Kellogg (IBM, T.J Watson Research Centre), Boriana Koleva (University of Nottingham), Steven Kyffin (Philips), Paul Luff (Kings College), Gary Marsden (University of Cape Town), Tom Moher (University of Illinois), Kenton O’Hara (HP Labs), Jun Rekimoto (Sony, Interaction Lab), Tom Rodden (University of Nottingham), Yvonne Rogers (Open University), Mark Rouncefield (Lancaster University), Wes Sharrock (University of Manchester), John Thomas (IBM, T.J Watson Research Centre), Michael Twidale (University of Illinois), Alessandro Valli (iO), Geoff Walsham (Judge Business School, University of Cambridge), Steve Whittaker (Sheffield University), Adrian Woolard (BBC Future Media & Technology), Peter Wright (Sheffield Hallam University), and Oren Zuckerman (MIT), as well as Christopher Bishop, A.J. Brush, Jonathan Grudin, Richard Harper, Andrew Herbert, Shahram Izadi, Abigail Sellen, Alex Taylor, Jian Wang, and Ken Wood of Microsoft Research.

On the website of Microsoft Research Cambridge you can read a really good interview with Richard Harper, the conference organiser. Here are a few quotes:

About the conference: “We were surprised how both excited and apprehensive participants were about the prospects of designing for human values. That’s good and bad news. It means the burden of doing things well and properly is greater than it used to be. But part of the problem we have in designing for values is that we need to make our preferences and values clearer, and in some cases, differences between values are not clear-cut and can’t necessarily be objectively ascertained. Sometimes, there are profound differences in peoples’ values, and both sides have good reasons for those differences. As we move forward in HCI research, accounting for differences of opinion and differences of desire requires bigger shoulders for the researchers to lift the arguments—and the design possibilities—all the way to solutions.”

About developing technology: “For many years, technology has been developed, and then society shapes it and polishes it. Now, society’s hopes and goals and people need to be involved in the process of developing technology from the outset, because it makes a big difference to what the technologies end up becoming. There’s no longer a line between technology and invention and development and society, no longer a line between what the technology might do and what the user can do. What human endeavor might be and what social endeavor might be must be considered from the very bottom of the firmware in devices and in the infrastructures that link different devices right through to the GUI on the outside.”

(also via Adam Greenfield)

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