Using technology to help humans flourish

Opinion: Prioritizing purpose and values over moving fast and breaking things when it comes to new technology

Edith Law is a professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, where she co-directs the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. Her research delves into social computing technology, machine intelligence interactions and the design and user experience of technology that upholds important human values.

We asked Law how we can ethically harness the power of new technologies for the betterment of humanity.

Opinion by Dr. Law

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) goes beyond technology development to critically assess how technology impacts people's lives. It shapes the future of computer science by making us question when and how technology advances society and the economy amidst our rush for rapid innovation.

In my work in HCI, I've developed projects exploring technology’s role in well-being and how technology-mediated coordination can have an impact on realizing our values and steering society's future. My research leads me to appreciate the importance of blending human and machine intelligence to achieve results neither can attain independently.

In collaboration with a neurologist at Sunnybrook Hospital, we designed a platform for sleep pattern analysis. This study revealed the nuanced nature of human categorization and how vital human intervention can be to collecting research data. It uncovered the pressing need for AI systems to handle ambiguity, especially in health-related tasks.

One ongoing project, in collaboration with Ontario Health, aims to develop a health navigation platform that connects newcomers with organizations. This app addresses social determinants of health, including employment, transportation and social connections, to improve the newcomer's well-being and belonging.

There are many opportunities to use technology in education. We developed a platform that enables children to teach a robot how to classify objects while learning through teaching. Having a less knowledgeable robot helped children feel more engaged in teaching a robot that knew less than they did.

Technology also enables collaboration. 

Another project focuses on decentralizing the process of classical music production. Traditional orchestras and choirs operate under centralized direction, but this platform aims to empower musicians, directors and even audiences to collaboratively shape concert programs to reflect their ideas and values.

Incorporating human values into technology is a complex but a worthwhile endeavour. Values are deeply personal and shaped by cultural, philosophical and societal influences. The ethical dimensions of technology development and deployment demand thoughtful consideration. It's crucial to assess when technology should be used and when it may be better to abstain, always putting human welfare first.

Furthermore, addressing biases in machine learning and data labelling is a pressing concern. My team is actively developing tools that help people who label machine learning data to recognize and reflect on their own biases. Our premise is that we should address the problem at the human level first, before the data even reaches the machine learning pipeline. This promotes awareness and enhances the quality of labeled data, contributing to more ethical and unbiased datasets.

I envision a future where collaborative systems prompt people to reflect on their values. I'm convinced that technology, when harnessed thoughtfully and ethically, can bridge divides and ultimately foster human flourishing.

Hear more about how Dr. Law is using technology to help humans flourish at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab