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Intuition and Technology: Out of Sync

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BMW engineers were so successful in creating a silent automotive interior that customers complained. They missed engine roar and road noise. So BMW spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an audio algorithm to generate engine noises to be played through the car's stereo system. BMW claimed its system accurately replicated engine sounds over the full range of RPMs, operating conditions and speed.

 

David Pizarro, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, cites BMW's expensive reversal of its initial engineering achievement as an example of what happens when our intuition and our technology are out of sync. In fact, Pizarro argues that our social and moral intuitions increasingly fail us as we are confronted with fast-paced changes in science and technological innovation. In a lecture at Edge.org, Pizarro describes how subjects in an experiment on trustworthiness quickly engaged with a robot called Nexi that had very limited facial features and movements and visible wires. The robot, with its unmistakable mechanical appearance, had been programmed with nonverbal cues experimentally associated with trustworthiness.

 

"Within 30 seconds people were actually talking to Nexi as though she were a human being, in fact saying things that were quite private," Pizarro said. He added that some participants even thought Nexi was a technologically advanced talking robot, "when in reality there was a graduate student behind the curtain, so to speak." Pizarro quoted early psychological research indicating our social intuitions build in intentionality and agency, even when they're not there. During a discussion after the lecture, economist Sendhil Mullainathan, recalled stories in Everett Rogers' book Diffusion of Innovation, describing how people adopt new technologies in ways that are congruent with older intuitions. When Indian farmers started using tractors, for example, they went to the tractor every night and put a blanket over it.

 

We want to kick the vending machine that doesn't deliver the candy bar and bellow at the computer when Windows delivers the blue screen of death. We feel bad if a computer game stops playing with us. When we get those pop-up ads based on an earlier purchase or search, we get a creepy feeling that someone has been watching us and reading our email. And that's even when we know about algorithms that generate personalized ads.

 

"We don't have intuitions for algorithms," Pizarro said. "As technology advances, there is no way in which we can rapidly generate new intuitions. So...when we hear about self-driving cars, we get nervous, even though we're certain that percentage-wise this would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It just doesn't feel right." Pizarro fears some new technologies may be stifled by old intuitions that have evolved from earlier eras. We could end up making erroneous moral judgments about technological advances with the potential to cure diseases and improve lives. By the way, a Car and Driver story by K.W. Colwell explains BMW is not the only auto manufacturer to pipe fake sounds to the drivers.

 

Pizarro believes we have yet to define what constitutes an error in judgment in many areas of emerging technology. For instance, he asks, does the impersonal nature of drones and robots in war constitute an immoral action? Is the problem the lack of human agency? How does one figure out acts of omission vs. acts of commission when technical tools are involved?

 

What about genetically modified humans? The New York Times reports that with mitrochondrial manipulation technology, the nuclear material can be removed from an egg or an embryo of a woman who has an inheritable mitrochondrial disease and inserted into the healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. The resulting child would have the genetic material of three people. The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering the issue.  

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  technology 

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