Interview with Tom Hewett

Por Karla Yee Amézaga

Profesor de Psicología y Ciencias de la Computación en la Universidad de Drexel, Filadelfia. Profesor e investigador visitante en diversas Universidades. Algunos de sus proyectos más recientes han implicado colaborar con equipos de investigadores para capacitar y facilitar la resolución de problemas matemáticos con dispositivos móviles.

Karla Yee: Why did you choose to combine a human-based Science like Psychology with the apparently inhuman Computer Sciences?

Tom Hewett: "Well, that's got several levels of an answer. You may recall that in North America we have a comic strip called Peanuts. I'm a big fan of Charles M. Schulz and his work, and I can still remember one time reading one of the daily comic strips, and Linus and Charlie Brown are standing by the wall where they do their philosophical talk, and Linus has just said that he wants to become a psychologist when he grows up. And Charlie Brown says: "Oh, you want to become a psychologist so you can help people." And Linus says: "No, I'm just nosy."

In some senses thats why the basis of psychology was curiosity about the human condition. But I do want to disagree with your assumption in the question; I wouldn't say that the computer is inhuman, as much as that the people  working with computers tend to leave out the concern for the human.

I got started with this, in part, by accident, really.  I was working in a project with a colleague, we were trying to design a computing system to help people to do something. And that's when I began to discover how many computing system designs , not only computers, but also technology in general, are actually designed by people who mean well, who have a lot of technical knowledge about the technology they are working with, but who don't seem to understand that  people are different than the technology they are working with. And that you have to work with both: the technology and the person. The technology will have certain limitations, the person will have certain limitations and you need to deal with that. And  so I just found that all cluster of problems associated with that to be quite fascinating. I started out and I went to a major university that educated me to think that the highest calling for a research psychologist was to do research. And after about 6 or 7 years I realized that I wasn't a researcher at all, I'm basically an engineer. I do what you could call cognitive engineering, which is to take a count of things like memory and it's limitations and it's strengths when you actually start designing the technology.

So I just find all of these things quite fascinating; that leads me to spend most of my time working with people who are experts at something. I've spent time observing emergency first responders at work, to see how the software that was being developed for their use could contribute to their job or not. If you give the police a piece of technology that they don't think will help them do their job, it'a amazing how many accidents happen to that technology, or it gets lost in some way. Experts or high performance individuals are very challenging to work with, because you have to understand and know some of what they know, and be able to take account of that in the material you are designing for them. All of these cases have helped me get a better understanding of experts and their expertise and have been fascinating projects to work on.

So, basically, thats a very long answer for saying: I'm just nosy."

K.Y.: In your experience with development and evaluation of interactive computing projects, how does the evolution of consumer needs influence the design of new technologies? 

T.H.: "It's a reciprocal effect, I think. First of all, the new technology creates a need sometimes where none existed before. My wife spotted a perfectly good example of this. You may remember that Steve Jobs passed away a few moths back, and in our local newspaper, one of the things they wrote about was: "Steve Jobs knew what I wanted before I did myself. I didn't know I wanted an electronic device that I could use writing in the subway to read the newspaper with. I didn't know I wanted to browse the web while I was sitting at the restaurant." What you've got with some of Apple's  devices is a new technology that's actually creating a  need. it's not just computing. There's a famous story about "Post it" notes or "sticky notes". I remember when sticky notes were introduced, an interesting thing is, that that was an invention that illustrates quite nicely, there were hundreds, thousands of people who suddenly discovered they needed sticky notes when they never needed them before. When we didn't have them , we didn't know we needed them.

Sometimes a new technology creates a brand new need, but it's not really a need that is created: it was there before, but we just didn't have a way of satisfy it. And I think that kind of technology is the kind that becomes most successful. The least successful technology is where somebody sitting in a lab says: " Wow, I can build this, and if I build it, people will come". Well, not necessarily . Building something just because you can doesn't guarantee that it will serve people's needs or give them something they want. What it gets you is the satisfaction of building something that didn't exist before. Now, if you're lucky or  in the right place, you can also get to be rich and famous from building something new, as people like Steve Jobs did, or as the company in the U.S. that first trademarked and developed Post It notes, because it was a use we didn't know we needed. I think where we run into problems is that people who want to build technology just for the sake of building technology, I don't want to say: "Oh, no. Don't do that", but rather that we can't expect that that technology will resonate with people and that there will be a need just because I built it. And sometimes we can't predict this in advance, there are technologies in use now that were developed long before they became popular, like fax machines or television, things were built many years before anyone knew really what the potentials of these technologies really were.

It's always a complex interaction and I think you can't categorize it as a single way. New uses are emerging as people begin to understand what's involved in the new technologies."

K.Y.: How will new technologies affect personal and social relations in the future?

T.H.: "I think most of the predictions are based on very limited view of technology and social interaction. In my university, back in the 1980's, we were, I think, one of the first in the U.S. to have the requirement in place, that all entering students had to have access to a personal computer. Some of the people on campus were very worried about this, because the stereotype was the geek stereotype, all the students were going to be isolated in their rooms.  The interesting thins is that those predictions were proven wrong, we had a member of our sociology faculty who actually did a study on what were the impacts of these computers on social relations. And it turned out that having a computer for every student had a beneficial impact for social relations, in the sense that the students were getting to know each other sooner and interacting more, because there was an object there that was a focus for the discussion, and if you had a question, you could always find somebody on your hall who could help you answer it. So you were motivated to go looking for them. Where we are going to see some negative effects, probably one of my own personal biases, with cellphones and instant messaging. We all know or have seen lots of cases, where having the cellphone and the instant messaging have disrupted social relations. I think some technologies are damaging to social relationships, but that's not new, it's been happening all along and I think it will continue to happen, but I don't see a society that ends where everybody ends up only interacting with their artificial reality.Technology has changed us in a variety of ways and we will have to deal with it, just the same as we have done in the past.

Nowadays people don't worry about privacy using their cellphones. The danger is that people aren't protecting their privacy in the same level as they should."

K.Y.: What is the perception abroad regarding Mexican engineers? What advice would you give to young people who wish to study Engineering programs in Mexico?

T.H.: "Mexico has, as every other country does now, a collection of infrastructure problems, bridges that need repair, roads that need repair, water supply systems that need to be improved or rebuilt... That's not going to happen without engineers. There's not a lot of new computing technology, but the people I know who work here are making some serious contributions to artificial intelligence, to designing new computer systems in a variety of ways.

I would say that if you are mexican and you are considering engineering, the real issue is not in which country you do it in, but which institution you do it at, and does that give you the quality education you need to be as good as you can get in your profession.

Quality is up to you as an individual, if you can get into one of the best schools, that's great, because you get better education faster, or you get a higher set of standards faster, but that doesn't give you the guarantee that you will be successful. Some of the most successful engineers I know in North America actually graduated from institutions that are not known for engineering programs.

Civil engineers, for example, their failures are public knowledge. Their mistakes just happen to be bridges that collapse or buildings that fall down. In Mexico City you have a real problem with potential earthquake damage. The people who built the buildings that collapsed in the earthquake didn't do it because they were incompetent. They did because the people didn't understand the forces of an earthquake. Those things were not well understood, but who's going to solve those problems? Who's going to build the new buildings and fix the old ones? It's going to be engineers. Who's going to build the new computer systems? Computer engineers.

So, I would say, it's a question of what you want to do, and where you are want to do it."

Entrevista con Tom Hewett

Karla Yee: ¿Por qué escogió combinar una ciencia social como Psicología con la aparente inhumana computación?

Tom Hewett: “Bueno, eso tiene muchas respuestas. En Estados Unidos tenemos una tira cómica de Peanuts. Soy un gran fan de Charles M. Schulz y su trabajo; todavía recuerdo que un día estaba leyendo las caricaturas, el personaje Linus le decía a Charlie Brown que quería ser un psicólogo cuando creciera. Charlie le pregunta: “¿Entonces quieres ser psicólogo para ayudar a la gente?” A los que Linus le respondió: “No, sólo soy curioso.”

Y es por eso que las bases de la psicología fue curiosidad de la condición humana. Pero no estoy de acuerdo con el supuesto de la pregunta; yo no diría que la computadora es inhumana, más bien diría que las personas que trabajan con computadoras tienden a dejar de lado las preocupaciones por el ser humano.

Yo inicié en esto por accidente. Estaba trabajando en un proyecto con un colega, intentábamos diseñar un sistema de computación para ayudar a la gente. Y fue entonces que me di cuenta cómo muchos sistemas de computación, la tecnología en general, están diseñados por gente que tienen buenas intenciones e ideas, pero que al parecer no entienden que las personas son diferentes a la tecnología con la que trabajan.

Y tienes que trabajar con ambas: la tecnología y la persona. La tecnología y la persona tendrán ciertas limitaciones. Y todos los problemas asociados a eso me resultaron fascinantes. Fui a una universidad que me educó a pensar que la mayor aspiración para un psicólogo era hacer investigación. Después de 6 o 7 años me di cuenta que realmente no soy investigador: soy ingeniero. Hago lo que se podría llamar ingeniería cognitiva, que toma en cuenta cosas, como por ejemplo las limitaciones y fortalezas de la memoria, para diseñar algún tipo de tecnología.

Como ya dije, todas estas cosas me parecen fascinantes, lo que me lleva a pasar la mayoría de mi tiempo trabajando con gente experta. He pasado tiempo observando como trabajan bomberos, para  averiguar si un sistema que estaba siendo diseñado les ayudaría en su trabajo.

He tenido el privilegio de trabajar con gente expertos en sus áreas, y esto me ha llevado a tener un mejor entendimiento de todos los proyectos en los que he trabajado. Y esto es realmente una forma muy extensa de decir: Soy curioso.”

K.Y.: En su experiencia con desarrollo y evaluación de proyectos interactivos, ¿De qué forma influencian las necesidades del consumidor el desarrollo de nuevas tecnologías?

T.H.: “Es un efecto recíproco. A veces una nueva tecnología crea una necesidad que antes era inexistente. Un gran ejemplo es algo que leí en un artículo acerca de Steve Jobs: “Jobs sabía lo que quería antes que yo mismo lo supiera”. Lo que tenemos con varios productos de Apple es una nueva tecnología que está creando una necesidad. ¨Pero no sólo en el rango de la computación. Otro ejemplo son las notas adhesivas (“Post it”), es una invención que ilustra como cientos de miles de personas descubrieron que necesitaban de ellas cuando antes no sabían de que les hacía falta.

A veces una nueva tecnología crea una nueva necesidad, pero que no es realmente creada: ya existía pero no había manera de satisfacerla. Y es justo esa tecnología la que se vuelve un éxito. Si eres afortunado, o te encuentras en el momento y en el lugar adecuados, te puedes convertir en alguien rico y famoso, así como Steve Jobs y muchos otros. La cosa no es construir tecnología por crear algo nuevo. Lo necesario es crear algo útil. Aunque también hay casos donde de varias tecnologías que fueron creadas mucho antes de volverse populares y de que se descubriera su potencial, como las máquinas de fax o la televisión."

K.Y.: ¿Cómo va a afectar la tecnología las relaciones personales y sociales en el futuro?

T.H.: “Esto ha sido tema de discusión desde hace varios años. Creo que la mayoría de las predicciones están basadas en una limitada percepción de la tecnología y la interacción social. En mi universidad se tenía el requerimiento de que todos los alumnos tuvieran acceso a una computadora personal. Algunos profesores estaban preocupados de que esto afectara las relaciones de los estudiantes, tenían miedo que nos convirtiéramos en los típicos geeks que se encierran con su computadora. Resultó que el hecho de que cada alumno tuviera una computadora tuvo un efecto positivo en las relaciones entre los alumnos; estaban interactuando más y se estaban conociendo mejor.

Pero hacia donde nos dirigimos parece que vamos a ver algunos efectos negativos. Hemos visto ya muchos casos en los que los celulares o los mensajes instantáneos han interrumpido las relaciones sociales. Creo que hay algunas tecnologías que están perjudicando las relaciones sociales, pero no es algo nuevo, ha estado sucediendo todo el tiempo y creo que va a continuar sucediendo, pero no creo que se llegue a una sociedad donde todos sólo interactúen con su realidad artificial.

La tecnología nos ha cambiado en varios aspectos y tendremos que lidiar con eso, de la misma forma que lo hemos hecho en el pasado. Pero hoy en día la gente no se preocupa de la privacidad cuando están usando sus celulares; hay un peligro inminente en que las personas no protegen su privacidad al nivel que deberían.”

K.Y.: ¿Cuál es la idea en el exterior acerca de los ingenieros mexicanos? ¿Qué consejo le daría a jóvenes que desean estudiar programas de ingeniería en México?

T.H.: “México tiene, como cualquier otro país, una colección de problemas de infraestructura: calles que necesitan ser repavimentadas, puentes que necesitan mantenimiento, acueductos que necesitan construirse de nuevo… Esto no va a suceder sin ingenieros. No hay mucha gente creando nuevas tecnologías en computación, pero la gente que he conocido aquí están haciendo muchas contribuciones a la inteligencia artificial, diseñando nuevos sistemas de computación en una variedad de formas.

Diría que si eres mexicano y estás considerando alguna ingeniería, la pregunta que deberías hacerte no es en qué país estudiar, si no en cuál institución, y si eso satisface la educación de calidad que necesitas para ser el mejor en tu profesión. La calidad depende de ti como individuo, si puedes ingresar a una escuela de excelencia, es algo excelente, pues obtienes mejor educación más rápido, pero esto no te asegura que serás exitoso.

Una cosa de los ingenieros civiles es que sus fracasos son de conocimiento público. En México se enfrentan al problema de los movimientos sísmicos. Los ingenieros que construyeron los edificios que se derrumbaron en el terremoto del 85 no conocían las fuerzas de los sismos. Esas cosas no eran entendidas pero, ¿quién resolverá esos problemas? ¿Quién va a construir los nuevos edificios y reparar los viejos? Lo harán los ingenieros.

Entonces, se resume a que es una pregunta de qué quieres hacer, y dónde lo vas a hacer.”