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“What if I Lived on the World Stage?”

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Grace Hopper Celebration
Women in Computing 2011
Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon

Friday, November 11, 2011


Good morning.

Dr. Fran Berman, Rensselaer Vice President for Research, said that this conference would be like no other, and I am not disappointed. Being among so many other women as excited and delighted by science and technology as I am is wonderful.

Today we celebrate science and technology (especially computing and computer science), each other, and, most especially, Dr. Grace Hopper. I think she would have been amused by a celebration in her honor being held on 11/11/11–the last binary day of this century. I do not doubt that Dr. Hopper would have used the occasion to teach us something. She was nothing if not an eloquent communicator and advocate for her field. I am sure that this brilliant woman, who contributed so much to the development—even creation—of our concepts of software and programming, would not have let a good teachable moment go by.

She might have started by explaining that we use binary rather than decimal coding because it can be represented by a switch being “on” or “off.” I suspect there are still many people–perhaps some of you—who would never part with the lengths of phone cable she used to hand out to illustrate what a nanosecond was.

Her cable, of course, was cut into 11.8 inch (30 cm) lengths to illustrate the distance (in a vacuum) that light could travel in one nanosecond. Now, her original cable was an obsolete Bell System 25-pair telephone cable. I am an alum of the Bell System, which, in the end, used fiber optic, or light-carrying, cables for optical communications.

So, in the spirit of communication, I have chosen my topic to be “what if I lived on the world stage?” Many might argue that I already live on the world stage through my leadership of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my participation in international organizations, my travel, my friendships, and the linkages Rensselaer has with global companies and other universities worldwide.

But, it is not a stretch to say that everyone in this room has a presence on the world stage. The Internet, the creation of more powerful software tools and information technologies, and the ubiquity of social media and social networks put us all on the world stage.

All of you live in a hyper-connected world – one you have helped, and continue to help, create. When one really considers this, two broad themes leap out. The first is the importance of cultural understanding and trust in a hyper-connected world. The second is complexity and the resultant technical challenges for those in the professions related to the development and use of the Internet, social media, and social/cognitive networks.

These themes require understanding how powerful social and cultural effects might be mediated in an interconnected world, recognizing the increasing complexity of data and data sources, and developing and using ever more powerful tools to help us navigate this world.

You also are part of a culture – science and technology – that has been international in scope for centuries. Science and technology work across language and culture in a special way. They are global disciplines that reach past nationalities and ethnicities.

I suspect that some of you have noticed that, at times, it is easier to establish good communications between computer scientists and engineers anywhere on the globe, than it is to get an engineer to work effectively with a salesperson or business person from her own country.

On a technological level, it might take some wrangling with protocols and cables, but your laptops and smartphones work here in Portland, even if you came here from halfway around the world. And the calculations and formulations you would do to understand scientific phenomena, or to engineer new software tools, or a new product, would be clear to almost anyone in this room. In addition, the work you do has a broad appeal. You solve problems, and that gives everyone a foot in the door for international cooperation.

As well, science diplomacy can be potent and far-reaching. We have advantages and invitations that can be harder to come by for those whose careers are rooted in literature or politics or religion, where specifics of language, traditions, values, and rivalries are intertwined with the work itself.

So you already have an advantage, when you are talking with peers, in working on a world stage. And that is a good thing because we face a world of amazing challenges and opportunities. The only way to meet them in a way that provides fair and lasting benefits is with a global perspective. This is why those who are our best hope -- people of talent, vision, and diligence -- need to think, interact, imagine, and create with a view toward what it means to all of us who share this planet.

We are fortunate to live in a time of interconnectedness, where communications and collective action are possible at an international level. We have seen the consequence of this in terms of social and structural change in a number of countries recently.

However, in thrusting people of different cultures together daily and rapidly, our smaller world also creates difficulties in achieving true understanding and consideration.

So, living on the world stage– even if one is a scientist or engineer—is not always easy. At any time, one can be brought together with people from radically different cultures and different disciplines. Yet, when I think of what we might do together to solve our shared challenges in energy, sustainability, food production, security, and so much more—I have high hopes of what we may be able to accomplish.

But before you leave here with credentials as diplomats, I will offer a few considerations, under the broad themes I have outlined, that might provide you with some guidance, and perhaps with some challenges to take on. These involve cultural listening, identifying genuine conflicts, building trust, understanding technological effects, and anticipating unintended consequences.

Listening, as you all know, is more than just hearing. It is even more than just capturing the explicit content of words. We know that body language, tone of voice, gestures, and more need to be appreciated if we are to truly listen to what is being said.

There are other considerations as well. “Yes” does not mean the same in every culture. And even within cultures, there may be differences. For instance, many men do not appreciate the range of colors the way most women do. Typically, where we see sage, teal, and aquamarine, men will see green.

Much can be lost in translation because much of what we intend to say is rooted in our cultures, and often is more poetic than denotative. This is why computer translation often can be painfully wrong. Even at the limits of natural language understanding, there can be difficulties. A Rensselaer graduate, Dr. David Ferucci, led a team of IBMers who developed the Watson computer that took on the popular Jeopardy! game. This was an amazing accomplishment. The computer was able to defeat the greatest human champions, but its stumbles were rooted in nuance, and the inability to discern certain cultural signals or human intent.

Perhaps, we will come to have automated translation and natural language understanding that will assist us in our attempts to live on the world stage. And it may be that an augmented or immersive reality tool, providing real-time context and visual cues, while essentially whispering advice in our ears, as we plunge into international relationships, will save us from the most embarrassing misunderstandings.

In the meantime, the best advice on listening to those outside one’s own culture is to learn as much as possible, to respect the people we are dealing with, and to actually care about what their views are.

I am sure that the people in this room have extraordinary opportunities to socialize with colleagues from other cultures. Do not let the tasks of the day get in the way of these chances to share ideas, stories, and perspectives. Our cultures, interests, and perspectives often are not just apparently different, but essentially different. Relationships at all levels require understanding, give-and-take, and the willingness to negotiate and compromise. Your experiences here will provide you with untold benefits later on when mutual understanding becomes crucial, especially digitally-mediated understanding.

While many conflicts across cultures result from misunderstanding, we should admit that we do, in fact, have conflicting interests at times. But finding the real conflicts versus the apparent conflicts when living on a world stage, in a digitally-connected way, gets more complicated.

There also may be some circumstances where creating apparent conflicts can be considered a good tactical move. But sorting out conflicts is essential for understanding. Those of you involved in artificial intelligence and cognitive science may be able to help us in resolving this. New tools to arrive at facts and to develop objectivity – with the means to measure veracity and impact – would improve discussion and enhance communications.

Help also may be on the way through the identification of cognitive biases that can lead to errors. In some ways, machines do a better job at handling information. We are prone, by nature of being human, to illusions of control, to attentional bias, and dozens of other errors of observation and processing. These can have critical impacts in how we interact. A Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Daniel Kahneman for prospect theory, which included identifying the cognitive bias of overconfidence, for instance. This is critical to economics, but it is also critical to everyday cooperation and collaboration.

Of course, the more we become aware of these cognitive biases, the greater the probability that we can avoid them. But, awareness alone does not seem to protect everyone. In fact, theory says that in some cases, even faced with the facts and the knowledge of how we fail in processing information, we will not necessarily avoid the problems. Dr. Kahneman says bias often persists even when people know about the danger.

Still, if we were informed when, with no malice intended whatsoever, our global colleagues make such very human errors, it might reduce the number of unnecessary conflicts.

But, until and unless we get our hands on an “automated arbiter of truth,” we will have to rely on our goodwill, and we will have to work to cultivate an inclination toward assuming that people are acting in good faith rather than malice.

This raises another key barrier to acting globally — trust. We all have experienced trust and betrayal. And we understand how essential trust is to our ability to cooperate and collaborate. We understand—particularly in this audience—the role of authentication and credentialing and trust. The greater the trust between parties, the more can be accomplished. The more mistrust there is, the more time and resources must be dedicated to creating rules and regulations that are complete, acceptable, monitored, and enforced.

To collaborate, cooperate, or just get along in a global environment, we need to find ways to increase trust. We need to trust the information we receive—that it is accurate, complete, and in context. We need to evolve better means of trusting that those from other cultures will keep their commitments, and act in ways that are in line with what they say, are timely, and are of sufficient quality.

We all know that within our own culture, there can be circumstances where someone does what is required, but does so in a way that works against our common aims. Problems such as this multiply when we are working on the world stage in mediated environments. Suspicions can erode our ability to work together and raise costs in time and resources. Trust does not cost much; verification does.

But how do we increase trust? More fundamentally, how well do we understand what trust is? A better understanding of trust will help us to have more success on the world stage.

I will come back to trust, which is very important, but let us look more deeply on the technical side. I am speaking as a scientist, but non-expert, here, and as one who needs and uses data for insight and for decision-making – in the scientific, leadership, and policymaking realms.

Thanks to the work of computer scientists, working with others, ever more powerful trending, analytical, and intelligence tools are being developed and deployed to help decision-makers derive new insight from data acquired in specific situations. But “inference-based” analytical and intelligence tools are missing.

Moreover, as the world becomes even more connected, observed, probed, recorded, and communicated via sensors, sensor networks, and inputs that include images, sound, and even tactile input, there are massive unstructured data sets to make sense of. Data that is in multiple formats, data at rest and data in motion – data that must be rationalized and displayed in new ways in order to be meaningful for those who would use it.

With the advent of the Semantic Web, researchers are developing new tools to merge or, as some of you might say, mash up unstructured data from multiple sources through the use of semantic technologies and the development of new Web ontologies.

And, in fact, we have work going on today at Rensselaer in this arena, which is being carried out by faculty and students in our Tetherless World Constellation. They have been helping the Federal government use semantic technology to make sense of, and to make more accessible, the massive amounts of data the Federal government has, and wants to put into a more user-friendly form through data.gov.

And, in fact, the IBM-developed Watson computer was based, in part, on artificial intelligence and semantic technology. But Watson cannot accept visual or auditory input. It cannot see or hear. So an immense challenge and a great opportunity for many of you in the audience today is how to structure data from multiple sources in ways that are more machine-readable, or how to have the computer itself take in multi-modal input.

Moreover, how to take data and display it in ways that touch the multiple human senses, in order to allow people to interact more directly with data, perhaps in immersive environments, is an intriguing challenge.

But, let us go back to trust. For context, let me say that one of our faculty members, Computer Science Professor Bolek Symanski, leads a multi-institutional center – based at Rensselaer, called the Social/Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center. This Center is focused on the technology of such networks, but also on how trust is developed in these networks, how rumors propagate, how constituency groups -- including friends and adversaries – form, etc.

One member of the Center, Professor Sibel Adali of the Rensselaer Department of Computer Science has been looking specifically at the parameters and characteristics of trust in the online world. A new wrinkle in that research is analyzing the ability we have to pull together groups of volunteers to create value and collect and confirm information. Crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, the creation and use of open source software, and the recent DARPA experiment which used competing ad hoc teams to find balloons, provide just a few examples of activities that have new dimensions of trust. They illustrate how, thanks to social networks and new capabilities for working together, large numbers of people can participate in endeavors that would otherwise be impossible. And they can do so with a measure of trust that is surprising.

Dr. Adali also found that cultural differences—such as the persistence of an oral tradition—can have important effects on trust. She also found that cultural differences play a definitive role in which signals we pay attention to (e.g., relationships vs. categories); signaling can be very different, e.g., the role of time/place in determining the role of individuals.

In digitally mediated environments, cultural cognition is a challenge that can be played out both locally and globally. This creates risk no matter how we choose to operate on the world stage, and no matter what technologies we use to connect with.

Another aspect of trust brought out by the work of Dr. Adali is the value of timeliness. Having an activity occur -- before its value is degraded or lost–is key to maintaining trust between parties. Certainly we can see at this frontier the emerging impact of artificial intelligence and of algorithms as agents, for example, in financial systems, as part of an arena for study. If this sounds a bit like science fiction, one only need recall that last year the New York Stock Exchange lost 10% of its value in one day thanks to algorithmic agent-based trading. Consider what might happen if the algorithms as agents were more sentient than they are today.

New technologies themselves, as they multiply, combine, and mutate, create risks as well as opportunities. Blogging, for instance, may be used to explore differences and similarities, or it may be used to create an echo chamber of rumors, complaints, and misunderstandings. How new technologies impact trust is not well understood, and we do not yet have a common set of principles that might help us to anticipate, and to identify, emerging concerns that might undermine mutual confidence.

Real research needs to be done on how we might add dimensions to how we attend to the full communications of others, particularly through the use of social media, and social and cognitive networks. This becomes even more urgent as our identities include our online personas, and as we are profiled aggressively by governments and businesses.

The area for exploration is vast. The new technologies (some of which I have discussed) that are becoming part of our lives and bringing us together include:

  • Those that provide more modes – such as text, voice, and video,
  • Those that provide explanation and commentary, including sophisticated technologies, such as augmented reality,
  • Those that deliver facts and opinions,
  • Those that increase presence, such as avatars,
  • Those that provide input under real-time circumstances,
  • Those that provide real-time confirmation, credentialing or validation,
  • Those that illustrate in nonverbal ways: charts, sound effects, and animations.

We also have rich possibilities in simulations, gaming, and storytelling. It is hard not to imagine that many of these, especially in novel combinations, will create friction, as well as understanding.

At Rensselaer we have built the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), where built-in technologies give us the ability to create interactive, human-scale, immersive environments that reach out to our multiple senses, and help us to present and interact with data, and to interact with intelligent agents – including sentient avatars, for cognition and learning – including language acquisition, and for recognition of visual cultural cues. This work requires massive computational capabilities, art and visualization, game engines, cognitive science, acoustics, haptics, linguistics, and more – all capabilities that we have, or are developing, at Rensselaer.

We also need to develop a deeper appreciation of unintended consequences. Today, comments, decisions, and actions move into new contexts at the speed of photons. We need better tools for anticipating impacts, assessing risks, and mitigating problems. Etiquette is a classic way to handle situations that go awry. In fact, it may work better than any technologies we will come up with to deal with the unexpected. Is there an etiquette that would work for the Internet or social media?

Imagine if we could have anticipated some of the negative effects of technologies that bring us onto a world stage. This may have helped those who were designing these ideas—with all their positive benefits—in a way that would have reduced the negative consequences. Perhaps we now have enough examples of bringing new capability to the Internet so that we can create models that will help us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Such models also might provide us with opportunities to gain more benefits from some of the technologies that are already in use.

But, thanks to new technologies, we have the opportunity to work in a coordinated way, as we face challenges that affect everyone on this planet. We can hear from everyone who is impacted by key decisions. We can find answers in unlikely places, and respond with compassion to others who live on the other side of the world. This means coming to grips with the full set of tools we have for discussion and sharing of insights, the capabilities we have for equal participation, and the imperatives we have for security and freedom. This represents important work ahead for all of us.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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