Embracing the Artificial

Why everyone should be able to empathize with elusive technologies.


Self-Driving Car
View through the eyes of a self-driving car

Back in 1990, Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, cosmologist, and astrophysicist, said that "we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology".

Since then, technology has advanced tremendously. Indeed, nearly everyone is confronted with artificial intelligence nowadays, whether through music or movie recommendation services, purchase predictions, or virtual assistants. The technology is everywhere and pervades our lives.

The fear of the new and unknown

Throughout history, humans have always been scared of the new and unknown. When Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer, navigator, and colonist, started sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, people were afraid he would sail right off the end of the earth. This anxiety came about for an obvious reason: humans usually like to be able to foresee potential dangers and consequences. Because of this fear, it’s not surprising that the rapid development of emerging technologies is terrifying to most people. In fact, artificial intelligence and automation are often seen as public enemy number one.

The "in-between process"

The rapid growth of emerging technologies is leading to a lack of technological literacy, and as technology becomes more and more complex, our ability to understand it is fading more and more. Imagine you open Google’s image search, you type "bird" into the search field, then something happens and you get images of birds. Totally normal! But, in actual fact, for most of us, something magically happens between typing "bird" and seeing images of birds. It is this "in-between process" that is so confusing, because we understand neither the algorithms nor the system behind it.

But it’s artificial intelligence in self-driving cars that really scares us. After all, we are entrusting our lives to these "in-between processes". MIT’s "Moral Machine" project opened up an interesting discussion in the wider public with regard to the challenges of artificial intelligence in the self-driving car. A variety of complex scenarios allows you to empathize with the brain of the car by experiencing the moral dilemmas with which self-driving cars might be faced on our streets.

Technological concerns

Clearly, technology is continuing to advance at an unforeseen pace. Futuristic ideas that were once inconceivable are now part of our everyday lives. If you compare the state of development just 15 years ago with today’s access to and usage of information technology, it’s insane and even ridiculous to think of everything that has happened in the past decade and how digitalization has influenced our lives.

It’s quite clear that this transformation isn’t over and we will be confronted with huge challenges regarding the rapid growth of the knowledge gap between those who are technologically literate and those who aren’t. Even today, it’s becoming more and more difficult for most people to keep following the latest technological trends and releases. How can we make sure that people across all social layers, ages, and areas of interest don’t lose access to fundamental services and products only available digitally?

We need more empathetic experiences and educational platforms

One way to deal with the technological concern could be the inclusion of empathetic experiences in existing and emerging digital products. For example, when we design autonomous systems, we need to design experiences where users feel comfortable, have control over the system, and get inside knowledge through transparency while using it. This would guarantee a better understanding, as well as foster trust in autonomous machines, which would in turn improve the user’s well-being.

Another approach could be to educate and inspire debates through the creation of educational platforms. These platforms can be used as a basis for encouraging discussion, like the moovel lab’s "Who Wants to Be a Self-Driving Car?" project. This project is an unconventional driving machine that uses augmented reality to help people empathize with self-driving vehicle systems – a trust exercise that aims to open up new perspectives through the creation of a platform that inspires debates about increasingly complex and more intelligent transportation systems. Of particular interest is the technical feasibility and viability and questions around how the many layers of our lives will be affected by artificial intelligence.

Empathy is a tool

Empathetic experiences can be used to build trust between humans and technology, especially for people who often have no access to domain-specific contexts. With this in mind, empathy could be seen as a tool for decreasing the increasing knowledge gap and therefore guaranteeing access to fundamental services and products. Designers need to design for everyone, be aware of the knowledge gap, and build the most comfortable, controlled, and transparent user experiences, especially in times when we are entrusting our lives to "in-between processes".

If artificial intelligence is going to play an ever-greater role in our lives, everyone should have the chance to establish an empathetic relationship with the technologies they’re using. Because once we can embrace the artificial, we can start trusting the systems we live with, create technological literacy, tackle the technological concerns, and start discussing ethical questions.

This text was published in the magazine "Our Urban Futures" in 2019.