Sally Applin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Her work has focused on technology’s impact on culture and she recently co-authored the paper “Cooperation Between Humans and Robots: Applied Agency in Autonomous Processes,“ with Michael D. Fischer. This is the first post of a two part interview with Sally.
Tell us about your career and how you ended up at the University of Kent.
I’ve always been interested in how humans interact with technology and have spent most of my career working on these issues through various forms. From Interactive Science Museum exhibits, to User Experience Design and research at Apple and other companies, I’ve spent a lot of time conducting research on how people interact with technology and what the barriers to adoption are – and what the successful adoptions to technology look like. Much of what I’ve seen in my career in start-ups as well as larger companies as an employee as well as a consultant, have been internal issues that affect the product in profound ways. The best designers and engineers, marketing, and end-user efforts are diminished when they are dependent upon business strategy decisions or corporate processes that are brittle and unyielding. Much of what happens in product development emerges from the processes and systems of the companies creating those products, and many companies are unaware of how their management structure is impacting what they are making and building.
As an interaction designer and researcher, I felt that my tools were limited in assessing where the real issues were that impacted users beyond product design contributions. I started business school, hoping to learn there what might be structurally malleable, but found the thinking a bit outdated and siloed. No offense to the MBAs out there, but in my experience, business schools didn’t address how their roles impact product development at a broader level.
It seemed to me that social science, in particular, anthropology, which deals with groups of people and interrelated systems, would be a better fit for me. In addition, after years of making things, I wanted to learn how knowledge was constructed. An anthropologist colleague of mine from my days at GVO, a product definition and design firm (pre-IDEO but in the same business), attended a workshop at Kent, and while she was there, met my (now) advisor, Michael D. Fischer. Simultaneously, and unbeknownst to her, I was looking for Ph.D. programs. She told me that she thought Mike would be an excellent person for me to work with should I want to get a Ph.D. She was right. Mike has a great background in physics, computer science and anthropology. Since I work in technology and am writing a lot about space and time, and groups of people, he was the right choice. Mike is the Director of the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing at Kent.
How did you get into human robot interaction?
I look at all forms of human interaction with technology. In 2011, Mike and I wrote, “A Cultural Perspective on Mixed, Dual, and Blended Reality,” where we introduced PolySocial Reality (PoSR). PoSR is a theoretical model of all communication. We know that everyone is sending messages to each other all the time, and that some of those messages are multiple, multiplexed messages. We also know that messages can be synchronous (real time) or asynchronous (delayed time). Because PoSR looks at all messages, we include messages from humans/humans, humans/machines, and machines/machines. We are also pondering human/animal and machine/animal communications within PoSR, although they are naturally hard to decode, they are still happening and a part of the overall message structure.
As a tool, PoSR enables us to look at outcomes. For example, we can infer that if there are multiple, multiplexed synchronous and asynchronous messages going out and returning to people via various mediated devices, and both analog and digital means, we know there will be overload, and fragmentation and distraction as a matter of course. We also know that there will be connection and collaboration over distance. Ultimately, we are interested in successful human collaboration and cooperation, for without it, we will die. I hate to be gloomy, but it is true. As humans, we require cooperation to live and lately, we have built a world that requires successful cooperation not only between humans/humans and humans/machines, but also between machines/machines.
In looking at human/machine, machine/machine messages within PoSR, we started exploring various systems structures of automation. This resulted in understanding how corporate processes are becoming more automated. The paper, “Watching Me, Watching You. (Process Surveillance and Agency in the Workplace)” examined how corporate processes remove human agency (our ability to make decisions from free will) and what humans are doing (a concept we call “covert agency”) to go around restrictive processes. The result of that paper is that much of what humans currently do is support automation so that it, and cooperation can be successful.
While we also examine autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things (IoT). when considering automation, Robotics is a good way to examine human/machine and machine/machine messaging and cooperation through the PoSR and human agency lenses.
If all goes your way, what will you be doing a year or three years from now?
I want to continue to promote human agency and our critical need to partner with ongoing and future facing technologies. A year from now I hope to have expanded on the work in the dissertation, which Mike and I have already started to do in a few submitted papers, and I want to have finished at least one of the planned books from the dissertation material. There is enough for two, one more academic and one more business oriented. The business one is probably more critical, so that will come first. Three years from now I hope to have made a difference in the planning of how automation in all its forms (automotive, manufacturing, IoT, etc) can cooperate better with humans, rather than simply try to replace their input. I also want to be contributing in both research and applied contexts in ways that inform governance and policy to protect humans from misguided automation and algorithmic processes, while still enabling those processes and machines to continue development.
About the Author
I'm Jeff Green, senior content and social media strategist at Rethink Robotics. When I'm not socializing Sawyer and Baxter, our smart, collaborative robots, I'm usually caught up in the home tornado, also known as my three kids. Love them, my wife, old-school Chinese food, movies, and of course game-changing technology.