March 21, 2017 | Written by: Marie Glenn
Categorized: Innovation | Pacesetters
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Professor Pattie Maes founded the Fluid Interfaces research group at MIT’s Media Lab, where she has worked for over 25 years. Maes’s passion has long been to make technology easier to use by making its capabilities more natural, intuitive and mobile. Her 2009 TED talk, “Sixth Sense,” which describes what those innovations might look like, is among the most-watched TED talks ever. An internationally-recognized thinker and innovator, Fast Company named Maes one of its “50 most influential designers.” Newsweek called her one of the “100 Americans to watch for” and the World Economic Forum describes her as a “Global Leader for Tomorrow.” We caught up with Maes to ask her what’s next in the area of human-to-computer interaction.
Why did you start the Fluid Interfaces group and what do you hope to do?
Our phones and tablets are like our secondary brains. We can hardly function without them. Yet, in many respects our relationship with our devices hasn’t really evolved all that much. Most of the time the way we interact with them is with two thumbs and a tiny screen. We still have to punch in information and tell our devices what to do. Our devices are not aware of our context, what our interests are and what we are trying to do. We can be looking at a box of cereal, but our devices can’t tell us whether it lines up with our dietary interests, if it has the right amount of fiber or too much sugar. We have to find that information out for ourselves. I started the Fluid Interfaces group to explore how we can create a more seamless relationship between our biological brains and our digital brains, through our devices and the services they run. If I get an email from someone, the system should tell me about other emails that are about the same topic or task. We’re looking at ways to help systems become more adept at intuiting the context and goals of our interactions and offer relevant information and assistance proactively.
Why is that seamlessness so important?
Right now we are living in two worlds, the physical and the digital, and it’s clunky and inefficient, both in terms of time lost and in the ability to sustain concentration without having to stop and start to find needed information, notate a finding or other interruption. Such constant task-switching is costly, especially if you consider how many times we do it over the course of a day. We want to design and develop computer interfaces that are a more natural extension of our minds, bodies and behaviors. To that end, we’re studying ways to make digital devices work in greater symbiosis with the user and to better integrate our two worlds.
What research are you personally most excited about?
I think smart, wearable technologies have the potential to reshape learning. If you think about it, our phones and personal devices are with us all the time—and increasingly over the entire span of our lives. Given all the data and interactions these devices manage, they are in a unique position to know what we know and what we don’t know. Those interactions can provide a basis for building really personalized learning systems. For example, one that we’re working on right now is a device-based second language learning system called WordSense that recognizes objects as the user moves about their day and labels those objects in the language the student is trying to learn. The device can also track and test the user’s language acquisition, skipping over words and phrases they’ve already mastered and reinforcing other concepts depending on their progress. By fusing together the process of acquiring knowledge and applying it—by having it occur in the field and experientially, we think learning and training can become more relevant, fun and effective.
What are some of the novel form factors that you’re developing?
One of my students is working on a system that monitors physiological information, from heart rate to EEG data, to allow people to recognize when they’re becoming anxious and to discover what types of behaviors have a calming effect on them. Another student has developed a type of tattoo ink that changes color depending on an individual’s glucose level. It’s wild to imagine that a tattoo—and not a device—could become a visual display, and this one is literally part of your body. My colleague, Neri Oxman, is fashioning materials that are inspired by biology to create clothing that better conforms to our bodies, designs that look to the natural world for how best to accommodate things like our bony knees and elbows, for instance, and for insights on when to use harder materials versus softer ones.
Most innovation labs are dominated by traditional computer science disciplines. Not so yours. Why the focus on interdisciplinarity?
I would say that we are not so much interdisciplinary as we are anti-disciplinary. It’s easier to come up with truly new ideas when you have many different perspectives in the mix. We have people at the lab who are trained as musicians and composers. Other labs might wonder why you need a composer and musician if the goal is to come up with breakthrough technologies. But one of MIT’s most valuable research patents came out of a project that our composer Tod Machover led. He was exploring how a live performer could magically conduct instruments just waving their arms around. That meant figuring out a way for instruments to sense when a conductor’s arm was in a certain area, for instance. The result was a gesture recognition technology which today is used by a whole host of different industries. So you never know where a good idea will come from!
The Media Lab is a pretty playful place. Is that intentional?
It is. The whole lab is a big playground with very different people and very cool, emerging technologies. We often have a specific question or problem in mind, but we experiment and tinker and often just see what comes out of that without knowing if what we’re creating or experimenting with is going to be useful. I don’t believe in top-down planning. There is still this conventional idea of scientists as people who have a hypothesis and they plan everything out in advance. But in my experience, the reality is a lot less planned and a lot more messy and unpredictable. I think innovation requires a playful, open-minded spirit to flourish. Then, once you have an invention that you like and that has potential, you can sit down and plan more formally how to evaluate it and find its limits.
What got you interested in this field?
I’ve always been interested in making computers easier and more useful. That may be because—truth to tell—I’m not in love with gadgets and technology. As a result, the bar for how easy and intuitive I want things to be is higher. Many technologies are still cumbersome and difficult and I want to make them more natural and seamless.