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  • Writer's pictureJessie G Taft

DL Seminar | Optimizing Technology for Human Beings

By Zhengqi Li | MS Student, Cornell Tech

Based on the April 25 Digital Life Seminar talk by Douglas Rushkoff

In the current digital age, people use digital technology to make their life much easier. For example, we can use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to know what happen everyday for our friends and our world; we can use mobile devices with virtual reality and augmented reality to play a lot of video games and see every corner of the world. However, when humans are addicted to these digital technologies, are we really using these technologies or those technologies are using us?

If we think seriously about current status of digital market, it seems that the digital technology is gradually repressing novelty and creativity instead of encouraging them. For instance, we were told that social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter are used to help people connect and communicate with each other around the world. Nevertheless, if you are familiar with the technology and algorithms behind social media, they indeed use a large amount of data collected from the users in the past. They use this data to train machine learning models that predict peoples' future behaviour, or even to influence their behaviour. The end result is that we act more and more similar to the distribution learned from our past.

Therefore, the current digital technology, to some extent, is essentially anti-human in the core instead of promoting or uniting humans. Another example is blockchains, which is one of the most popular topics in the tech ecosystem. However, essentially blockchains do not help people have a more humanized economy: they do not create trust between people. Instead, people are using blockchains to substitute for trust in a less transparent way: we always trust blockchain itself instead of people behind the blockchain.

On the other hand, when we talk about code movement, we have seen millions of people, even the previous president Obama, encourage people to study coding when they are children. Although coding skills are important in the current digital economy, we find people start to learn coding or other technological skills in order to get high salary jobs instead of compensating for the jobs well done, which actually is the original goal of education. For example, undergraduate students always ask their advisors or mentors what majors they should choose so that they could get a lot of money in the digital future; students only take courses that might be helpful for their jobs in the future instead of taking the courses they are really interested in and might help them become better citizens.

I found similar phenomena in my research areas in the recent few years. As most people know, deep learning has swept almost the AI areas in recent five years, especially computer vision, natural language processing and robotics. We have seen they are using such algorithms for autonomous driving, virtual reality, and augmented reality. More and more people crowd into this area because they find that doing research on deep learning can make them much more money in much simpler and easier ways. I have heard students asking: I have a problem and can I use deep learning to solve this problem and sell this idea to stakeholders?

This is actually a very dangerous signal. First, we are trying to adapt such technology to any problem blindly regardless of whether the method is suitable for this problem. Second, we are trying to change ourselves to adapt to this digital society instead of making use of digital technology to promote ourselves. In other other words, it seems that we are using technology to optimize human beings for the market instead of optimizing technology for our future.

Therefore, we have to think about ourselves as a team instead of individuals. We should treat digital technology as a means to promote and collaborate between people instead of as tools to earn money. We should build digital platforms that promote creativity and emotions instead of suppressing novelty, identities and feelings. And that’s the things that make our human different from robots or other animals.


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