New study: Different ways of thinking about new relations between humans and technology

January 28, 2015

Whether driver assistance systems, smart floors or game-based interactions in the internet: Technological systems increasingly permeate everyday life – and their degree of autonomy is growing. In this context the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzed in the project WAK-MTI the change of autonomy and control which goes hand in hand with new human-technology-interactions. The resulting definitions and research questions can help to conduct an interdisciplinary dialog about the form and role of interactive technologies in everyday life. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) selected within their research priority "Human-Technology-Interactions for Demographic Change" the project WAK-MTI as their project of the month.

Commissioned by the BMBF, the Fraunhofer ISI structured this topic in the project “Transforming Autonomy and Control through new Human-Technology-Interactions (WAK-MTI)“ to facilitate a shared understanding of key terminology and research needs. This is not often the case as many people define technological autonomy differently: For some it is an autonomous technological process such as the auto pilot in an aircraft, for others it is that new robots are able to engage in computer generated learning and find innovative solutions to problems in unknown surroundings. The spaces for action, what is done by humans and what is delegated to technology, differ from case to case – and new technological and political decisions continually move the boundaries. Also the normative, ethical and legal frameworks differ – as do the opinions whether something technically feasible makes sense.

Project leader Dr. Bruno Gransche says, “The definitions and concepts resulting from the project WAK-MTI allow for a shared vocabulary which autonomous technical system or which form of human autonomy is discussed. This is important for every exchange as this is the only way to make the interdisciplinary dialog necessary for humane solutions possible. The operational, development and governance level are closely interconnected: whereas the users tend to see whether something is practical and how they can organize their individual relationship with the new autonomous systems between comfort and control, the normative discourse has to continually negotiate between the operators as well as policy makers, society and the law what should be permitted, required or forbidden. After all, the developers are responsible for finding a technical design which covers all aspects. Another contribution to this interconnectivity is that most people need to engage on several of these levels at the same time“.

The heuristic developed in the project consists of questions which should be addressed when developing new forms of interaction with autonomous systems and which could provide food for thought – for example: “Have you ever thought about ...“

One example are so-called intelligent floors in the care sector which can alert the emergency services when somebody has fallen. They can make it possible for people in need of care to live at home longer – but it can also restrict their independence if they raise the alarm too early and too often or record personal everyday data. At the same time it also has to be clarified which exit options the system must, should and may offer and when assistance should be given. In order to find the balance between the autonomy of the person and the autonomy of the system depending on the particular situation, for example individual definitions of what constitutes an emergency have to be able to be implemented with technical solutions.

The structuring of the complex topic area made several research needs in the context humans-technology-interactions and demographic change visible which are listed in an extensive catalogue of questions. Bruno Gransche summarizes: “These are primarily questions which have to be researched empirically, for example human autonomy and how intelligent systems transform communication. A theoretical project such as WAK-MTI cannot do that – but the questions asked in the report can give important guidance and provide food for thought.“

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.