Intelligent and smart, but meaningful? / by Christoffer Andersson

Engraving of the original mechanical turk, the 18th century “automaton” chess player.

Engraving of the original mechanical turk, the 18th century “automaton” chess player.

Digitalisation is often described as leading to a smart world and to intelligent optimisation. But what about the meaningfulness of technological solutions?

Many digital tools and systems are characterised as either intelligent or smart: artificial intelligence, intelligent personal assistant, smartphones, smart factories, smart cities, smart speakers, etc. Intelligent mainly means that these systems and tools can make rational calculations and optimise their responses, while smart mostly means that these systems and tools are connected to other tools and systems, enabling to perform and coordinate actions in new ways, at times without human intervention.

 To be acknowledged is that such a rational and systemic approach to technology is also complemented by increased attention to human and societal aspects of living with technology: artificial intelligence is being developed to include, for instance, emotional intelligence and smart cities are, at least partly, embedding normative values of sustainability. Increasingly ethical issues are being discussed too.

 Although promising, this is however not the same as asking critical questions regarding the meaningfulness of the technological solutions being developed.

 How comes we do not talk so much about meaningfulness? I suggest that this may be partly due to much of the debate being centred around the role of intelligent and smart tools and systems, often described as robots, when performing the same kind of activities humans do today. Will the robots replace human workers on the shop floor? Will the robots replace human managers? Will the robots make strategic decisions instead of CEOs? More seldom we hear discussions about what work is needed in order for the “robots” to be intelligent and smart. As Antonio Casilli in detail described in a keynote speech at the 16th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in June, artificial intelligence needs to be trained, supported and sometimes replaced by human work. This is often done through micro-work performed in countries with weak labour rights legislations thanks to platforms as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Micro-work is about allocating small and repetitive tasks to non-specialised providers, when needed, at the very low remuneration and without any long-term commitment. Examples of such tasks are clicking on signs in a picture to train self-driving systems to recognise signs, or classifying pictures as pornographic or not. Even in more traditional industrial settings, as we have seen in a project on digitalisation in the Swedish steel industry, human workers are performing a lot of tasks that are about serving the machines: keeping an eye on screens of different kinds to make sure that the reality based on which the machine is working is really what is happening in the production line, or taking information from one machine and loading it into another machine. Rather than asking whether the robots will take our jobs we could therefore ask whether we really want humans to become servants for the robots. Would that be meaningful technology?

 Another issue related to the development and introduction of meaningful technology is that those developing technology often do not understand the everyday practices of those using the technology. Technology is always built around some sort of logics related to, among others, expectations about how the user would perform and experience a certain activity. But those designing the technology have often no first-hand experience of the users’ practices. We see, therefore, that logics built in the technology clashes with the user’s needs and habits. Whereas we all have experienced frustration in trying to fill in a digital form that does not make sense to us, such a clash may have more dramatic consequences when using the technology may save a life, as for instance in the case of gps-alarms for older people –  these tools are in fact at times not used because of their stigmatising effect and poor aesthetic appeal.  

 Striving for the development and introduction of meaningful digital technology should be a priority. In our research we want to foreground meaningfulness as an open question to be addressed. As our previous projects show, there are examples of meaningful use of technology that for instance results in shop floor workers collaborating in taking responsibility for part of the production system and rather autonomously handling its operations. To further advance our understanding of how to make technology meaningful I think we need to develop our vocabulary for taking into consideration how work practices and technology are related. But we can also already start to ask: is this meaningful? And for whom?

Lucia Crevani