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Computer as Partner: Who is the Hero?

When humans and technology work well together, the synergy becomes a super hero.

Article Apr 15, 2017

Rob Keefer

The Wright brothers invented the airplane in 1903. Just 11 years later, Lawrence Sperry was in an air show in Paris, France. During the routine, Sperry few his biplane past the crowd, while his copilot, Emil Cachin, stood on one wing. Sperry made a second pass in front of the crowd, and this time Sperry and Cachin were both standing on separate wings. No one was in the cockpit. The crowd cheered and Sperry went down in history as the first person to invent autopilot. In that moment, as Sperry flew past the crowd, who's the hero? Lawrence Sperry is the hero. He's the one who has the technical knowledge and courage to stand on the wing of a flying plane without a pilot.

Contrast this story with another autopilot milestone. On September 23, 1947, the front page of The New York Times carried this headline: “Robot-Piloted Plane Makes Safe Crossing of Atlantic.” The plane took off, flew from Newfoundland, NJ to Oxfordshire, England, and landed without human intervention, completely automated. On the plane were the pilots, engineers, and a few observers, 14 in all. The only person mentioned in the article was the pilot, Col. James Gillespie. When the plane landed, who was the hero? The technology was the hero. The Douglas C-54 Skymaster and the autopilot system that controlled it - they were the hero.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where all too often the technology is the hero. We all suffer the consequences dealing with websites and mobile apps that don’t work quite right and too many people “feel stupid” when interacting with technology.

What if we consider a third scenario. One in which neither the human nor the technology are the hero independently. I’m reminded of a scene from Iron Man 3 in which Tony Stark has a conversation with JARVIS, his artificially intelligent companion.

In this scene Tony and JARVIS are analyzing crime scenes where an explosion may be related to a criminal named Mandarin. The very first phrase JARVIS speaks in this scene is “I’ve compiled a Mandarin database for you sir.”

Wouldn’t you like to have an assistant or advisor that helps with tasks before you need them?

Near the end of their conversation, Tony notices a crime scene that seems out of place due to the heat signature similarity with others they are interested in. While this crime scene isn’t known to be a terrorist attack, he asks JARVIS to present more detail and becomes suspicious of the event.

The key indicator of this event is that the heat signature is 3000 degrees, but notice something interesting about the interaction. JARVIS lets Tony discover this himself. The two of them are having a conversation as peers. Tony knows what he is trying to do, and JARVIS is there as his trusted advisor giving him time to think and process the situation at his one pace.

All too often the tech jumps in like a first grader excitedly trying to answer a teachers question rather than waiting to be called upon. Developers want to bring attention to a piece of information that they believe is important, and implement interaction elements that may be supportive, but may also be distracting. This scene is a good illustration of the tech moving at the human pace.

In the design of AI systems that support human decision making, let’s try to develop a cooperative system. Ideally, we can provide a system is a trusted peer and not a know it all.

Consider this. Tony Stark by himself is not Iron Man; he is just a smart rich dude. JARVIS by itself is not Iron Man; it is really advanced technology. However, when you put them together, the sum is greater than the parts in the persona of Iron Man. Tony and JARVIS individually are not a hero, but when the human and the tech work together, the synergy becomes a super hero.

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