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13 May 2014

“With Facebook and Twitter There is the Risk of Being Disconnected with the People that are Close to you”

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Federico Casalegno seeks “to radically reinvent and create connections between people, information, and places”. He is the Director of the MIT Mobile Experience Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using cutting-edge information technology, his lab uses personal mobile devices to unlock potential in the world around us, like a bracelet that includes a breath-analyzer that tells users when it is unsafe for them to drive and then, via the link to the mobile phone, allows users to find rides with drivers they trust.

How do you imagine connectivity between people, information and places in 10 years?

When you think connectivity between information, people and technology we see that there is an increasing connectivity between objects, that communicate among objects and with us, as well there is an invasion of hardware in our bodies. So we are probing now the last frontier, where we still have the emerging of digital tattoos or other technologies that we can stick in our body before having probably technology inside our body itself. And this of course can create challenging questions and, eventually, opportunities.

Maybe some people will be cyborgs in the future.

There are a lot of works that are happening in that space, but in the medical sphere. Prosthetics legs, for example, where you merge software, bioengineers, to help people that have been injured. It is definitively something that is increasing and expanding. It’s an area more and more interesting to keep in mind.

Do you think that, like in the movie Her, we will fall in love with operating systems?

For sure humankind are already in love with technology. Somehow we are fascinated by technology. We like and empathize with these magical objects. The explosion of smart systems, artificial intelligence systems, that can talk, understand and respond to us is definitely something that is happening right now. So voice recognition software, artificial intelligence, or for example what we call semantic web, a system that understands words in context, is something that is somehow happening.

Psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle warns that humans are falling prey to the “illusion of companionship” as we amass Facebook and Twitter “friends”. What do you think about it?

We see the spread of social networks, so basically 25% of the world population belongs to some type of social network. The fact that we are connected to each others doesn’t mean that we establish durable, intense, social human relationship. This is the point. Being connected doesn’t mean to have human relationship that require the richness of social interactions, discussions, conversations, body language. There are a lot of opportunities for increasing connectivity at the large scale, but in the same time the risk of being disconnected with the people that is close. We need to discover how to manage these new technologies.

Do you think that we have less direct human contact that 15 years ago?

I’m not sure, actually. It’s true that we can accomplish lot of tasks remotely, isolated, answer to e-mails, work. But at the same time we are starting to develop opportunities for us to travel, to meet people face to face. I don’t have quantified data to answer to this question but there are risks of course of isolation. There are risks of disconnecting from the real world. But in the same time being able to be connected with people that have the same type of interests.

In 2012 you said that the next frontier of technology is the ‘internet of things’ of inter-device communication, and wearable computing. Two years later, do you agree?

The next frontier of innovation is definitely the internet of things. I think that in 2008 the number of connected objects was higher than the worldwide population. And we expect by 2020 to have 50 billions objects connected. We don’t know what all this connectivity will bring us. So we don’t know when your table can communicate with your glass and your refrigerator what happens. But the point is that there is an increase in connectivity. Wearable, we start to see a lot of products right now. I don’t know if the actual products are the right ones. The fact is that the technology is going slimmer, faster and you can have different shapes and forms and it is progressively invading our body. There is an opportunity to build the rights experiences for us as humans. We try to design technologies around humans, and not design humans around technologies. This is the challenge. The speed of technology innovation it is not always the same than the speed of how we can integrate and contextualize in our culture what’s happening.

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