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Distinguished lecture: Richard Harper – Lancaster University

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Dec 06

Date and time: 6 December 2022, 15:00-16:00 CET
Speaker: Richard Harper, Lancaster University, England
Title: Are We Made Smart by Smart Homes?

Where: Digital Futures hub, Osquars Backe 5, floor 2 at KTH main campus


Meeting ID: 695 6088 7455
Password: 755440

Moderator: Kia Höök

Watch the recorded presentation



Abstract: What is a smart home? Do they make us, the home occupier, smart? What is sure is that there are now technologies in home settings that seem ‘smart’, responding to our spoken word, converting our speech into the digital control of all sorts of things – domestic heating systems, room lights, and even searches of the web. But if speech interfaces are illustrative of intelligent machineries (AI ones), are we, those who use them at home, made intelligent by the way we command these same machines?  What about the purposes behind those interactions? Does our use of intelligent interfaces result in us behaving more intelligently (Harper, 2019)?

In this presentation, I will give a sketch of how we have come to a situation where we can ‘talk’ to our domestic appliances – or at least command them with words. I will ask whether, as we do so, we lose sight of what we want to do (or even be) when we interact with them. Do we want these technologies to let us, for example, be more ‘efficient’? Do we want them to help us organize our leisure to be more ‘optimal’? (See Balakrishna et al, 2018; Mare et al, 2019). The way AI smart home technologies interact with us, and not just voice-based ones, often suggests we do. Yet I will want to propose that we might not want these endpoints. Somehow, and as various commentators have begun to notice, we have allowed new AI technologies to dazzle us into thinking we do (Collins, 2018; Blackwell, 2019; 2021). Thereby, I will explain they come to deceive us. All too often, they allow intelligence other than ours to operate in our homes. The use of Amazon’s Echo, as a case in point, can encourage the purchase of recommended Amazon products and not products that are best from the homeowner’s point of view. The use of smart technology is smart for Amazon but not for people at home. The undoubted benefits of voice-based interaction are compromised by what the interaction in question leads to.  This is not always the case with voice-based systems nor for more general smart home technology. The point is that there is and can be smartness, but not in the way we might want it to be smart; others, technology vendors especially, want their smartness to be in charge.

So, what is the way forward for smart homes? How can we use technology (AI and otherwise) to make us smarter? Is smartness always what we want when going home? I will illustrate what technologies for home life might do and what kinds of motivations lead people to use them with some of my designs and those recently reported in the literature and/or in the smart home marketplace.

Richard Harper is a Scholar in residence September-December 2022 at Digital Futures.

Bio: Richard Harper is a professor at the Department of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University.  Richard is concerned with how new technologies shape us and how we, in turn, shape our technologies – in the space often known as Human-Computer Interaction or HCI. He has 28 patents, published over 220 papers and has written or edited 18 books. These include the IEEE award-winning “The Myth of the Paperless Office”; “Texture” (the A.o.I.R. book of the year 2011), “Choice” (2016) and “Skyping the Family” (2019). He is currently researching AI’s role in society, which will be reported in his book “The Shape of Thought” (McGill Press, forthcoming). He is currently a Digital Futures Scholar in residence at KTH, visiting the Division of Media Technology and Interaction Design.

Link to the profile of Richard Harper