Category Archives: Human-Computer Interface

The Future Does Not Compute

Screenshot 2018-04-17 16.44.49

I bought a copy of the Toronto Star this morning, and came across this article:  Rogers Centre becomes 5G test hub.  It describes in some detail a “vision” of how the future of our industries and our daily lives will be impacted by 5G, and hints at vast new profit-making opportunities.

Shortly after reading the article, I found myself contemplating a small bust of Alexander at the Royal Ontario Museum.  Here I experienced a very different kind of vision – that of a great leader who understood civilization in human terms.

Why is it that I find the sculpture more inspiring – and useful – than yet another generation of data processing?  Perhaps it’s because I recognize forces at work in civilization that never become visible – and therefore escape the notice of digital machines.  I’ll close this post with a quote from Peter Senge:

System thinking teaches that there are two types of complexity – the “detail complexity” of many variables, and the “dynamic complexity” when “cause and effect” are not close in time and space and obvious interventions do not produce desired outcomes.


Dementia and the User Interface

Open Lab at Toronto General Hospital

Open Lab at Toronto General Hospital

At some point in the 1980s, I heard a talk by Bill Buxton about “user interface design.”  Dr. Buxton was one of those unusual folks who actually seemed to understand this topic.  For him, user interfaces were all about designing human environments.  Computer system efficiency was only a secondary consideration.

As I recall, he spoke at some length about  artificial limbs and other prosthetic devices.  He stressed that their primary purpose is to support  a recovery process.  They should only be used to replace a body part or function when recovery is simply not possible.

By analogy, he said that computer systems can support us in finding ways to improve our natural human environments – our lives in other words.   However, it’s easy to get carried away, and lose touch with the joys and challenges of everyday life.

I would like to add that these questions become more urgent for people with dementia –  and for their friends and caregivers.  What can we do help these people connect with each other in meaningful ways?  Here are two contrasting examples:

Open Lab at Toronto General Hospital

Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy

Empathy In Medical Training: Two Stories

atlantic-empathy-articleHow do you make a young doctor really understand what it’s like being 74?  Virtual reality.

This is the theme of We Are Alfred.  (See the full story and video here.)  Young doctors experience a simulation  of everyday events in the life of Alfred, a hypothetical older person with several sensory deficits. For instance, in the birthday party shown above, the participant experiences the effects of macular degeneration – and feels the disturbing emotional disconnections that come with it.

This project is a promising first step in developing empathy.   Doctors become more sensitive to what is actually happening, and are in a much better position to help.  Rather than jumping to conclusions about cognitive deficits or psychiatric disorders, they can begin to have real dialogue.

Still, much of medical education is designed to suppress empathy, so that doctors will be clinical and “objective.”  Leading medical schools are slowly changing this attitude and ensuring that young doctors understand the need to engage with people.  Our second story,  an article in The Atlantic , describes a project at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.  Before dissecting a cadaver, first-year med students  are invited to meet the surviving  family members.  The story concludes:

Lunch was served sometime during the story and empty plates were cleared before the family finished their biography. When the story caught up with the present—ending with the donor willing her body to OU College of Medicine—the students sat for a moment in silence. “It was humbling,” Thurman recalled, “to think she was our first teacher.”

Neuroscience and Cultural Conformity

brain2My mind has such wonderful qualities, and I am just beginning to feel its potential. Yet when I reflect on the images given to us by neuroscience, I am perplexed.  The language of neuroscience seems totally inadequate to describe what I actually experience.  I realize that the images are generated using actual data, and yet they do not co-relate in any obvious way with my own internal experiences.

The difficulty becomes even more pronounced when I experience poetry or art.  The gestures and forms of my mental activity in no way relate to the spidery motifs that propagate in neuroscience imagery.  Anyone who pays even cursory attention to to their own inner life will readily make the same observation.

Or will they?  Are people beginning to believe that the images generated by neuroscientists are actually pictures of the brain and its activity?  Will they lose interest in the unique qualities of their own thinking, and focus instead on the optimization of synapses and neural pathways?

The late Ursula Franklin, writing about cultural conformity, put it this way:

The technology of an activity defines the activity itself, and in so doing excludes the emergence of alternatives.

The Sanctity Of Consciousness

ideas-from-the-trenches-open-mindIs she there?  Who can say where there is?  What are the consequences if we get it wrong?

A recent CBC Ideas podcast – Open Minds explores these questions,  and challenges widely-held assumptions about the nature of consciousness.  Even if a person with a traumatic brain injury does not respond to an MRI scan, she may in fact be conscious on another level.  The researchers have found that intensive behavioural assessments at the bedside, actively involving family and friends, reveal activity not detected by the machines.

Unfortunately, the results of MRI scans are often used to justify critical decisions.  For instance, the person is labeled “vegetative,” and shuttled off to a long-term care facility, where there is little or no chance of recovery.  In the worst case, there can be pressure to harvest the organs, as a gift to people who still have the possibility of a “useful” life before them.  So it’s really important to make the best possible diagnosis before making any decisions, especially irreversible ones!

One surprising aspect of the research is the development of 2-way MRI processes that enable the subject to respond to simple questions with MRI signals.  This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for communicating and building relationships with people who were previously thought to be “brain dead.”

The podcast concludes with a discussion about the “philosophy of disability” – the practice of thinking through issues without giving privilege to able-minded or able-bodied perspective. Lots of breakthrough possibilities!

The Palantir: Losing Sight Of J.R.R. Tolkien

pippin-palantirThe Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies were beautifully produced and set new standards for cinematic art.  I recently watched them again (on a small screen!) and thoroughly enjoyed  the experience.

Having said that, there are many aspects of Jackson’s treatment of the story  that are not supported by the Tolkien text.  And to some extent, this is fine.  Of course it’s necessary to make adjustments when translating a book into a movie.  However, it’s  unfortunate when key elements of Tolkien’s ethos get distorted, or lost altogether.  Some examples:

  • The omission of Tom Bombadil.  These scenes are critical for understanding  the resilience and ingenuity of the hobbits as they face the subsequent challenges of the quest.
  • Protracted battle scenes.  In the book, the battle for Helm’s Deep is a short episode (13 pages or 3% of the text) while in the movie, it seems to go on forever.
  • Hobbits as (anti-) heroes.  In the book, the hobbits influence others through a kind of moral persuasion, but they aren’t actually expected to DO much.  In the movies, Jackson makes them heroes.  (e,g. Pippin drawing Treebeard into the conflict.)
  • The Palantir, the Seeing Stone, that which looks far away.  In the book, Pippin’s experience of the Palantir is a warning, a test for Gandalf, who quickly gives it to Aragorn for safekeeping.  In the movie, Gandalf uses it to learn Sauron’s intentions, which really seems like something that Saruman would do!

Are we losing sight of Tolkien’s message? Reading the books again I am struck by the gentle quality of the text.  The magic deeds are understated, with none of the flashy devices featured in the movies.  Of course there is violence in the book, but the majority of the text is devoted to describing the web of activities – physical and transcendent – that made it possible to penetrate the darkness and transform it.

Conclusion:  if you want to see like Tolkien, you have to read his books.

Fossils ‘R’ Us!


Waptia fossil with eggs – Evidence of a brooding mother 500 million years ago

If you watch this Dawn of Life trailer, you will see why ROM curators are so excited about the forthcoming permanent exhibit.  (The stirring soundtrack from the movie ‘300’ is very appropriate!)  The unfolding drama of the Cambrian Explosion is engaging and relevant for a general audience, but the fossil specimens cannot tell the story all by themselves.

Over the decades, ROM paleontology curators have used a variety of story-telling methods:

  • Original. Exhibiting a wide selection of specimens with large background illustrations to provide context.
  • McLuhanesque…winding, low corridors with sounds and buttons and little windows, behind which you could look into tiny dioramas…The shoreline of wonder had been reduced to a few buttons and tape loops (from a report by C. Dewdney)
  • Crystal.  Displaying specimens as stand-alone objects in a modern, austere gallery.
  • Augmented reality.  Superimposing interpretive analysis on physical specimens, using mobile computing devices

The Dawn of Life gallery will feature 3D animated descriptions of specimens, based on state-of-the-art paleontological data – a “re-boot” of the original galleries, incorporating some of the lessons learned since the early days.  If the story-tellers are successful, visitors will get more than a science lesson – they will sense the meaning of life.