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WebSummit: AI and Ethical Design

WebSummit: AI and Ethical Design

All Blog Posts
WebSummit: AI and Ethical Design

WebSummit: AI and Ethical Design

Experience Futures Founder Howard Pyle and Board Member Amit Sen recently took the stage at WebSummit to discuss the intersection of digital equity, front-end experience design, and the impact of machine learning and AI tools. Drawing from their diverse backgrounds in design, coding, and human rights law, Pyle and Sen explored the challenges and opportunities in creating inclusive digital experiences for refugees and other underserved communities.

Full Transcript

Howard Pyle  0:03  

All right. Hi, everyone. Thanks for being here. Today is a great session.  I'm Howard Pyle, this is Amit Sen, we're going to talk a little bit about what we see coming in terms of the intersection of digital equity, front end experience design on how machine learning and AI tools are going to impact that. Just by way of background, I spent 20 years as a digital product designer and startups - I ran a network of design studios at IBM. Most recently, I ran design UX, front end platforms for MetLife and I resigned to start this organization, experience And we're focused on how to shift digital front end experiences to be more equitable through new design methods and through new technologies, and Amit, you want to introduce yourself?

Amit Sen 0:57  

Sure, yeah. So I'm Amit Sen. And I work in a very different field, probably with some different experiences coming into it. I'm a human rights lawyer. I currently work at the UN Refugee Agency. But I'm not speaking on behalf of the UN today, because what I want to say, in a way is much more personal. It's much closer to home. And it comes a little bit from my family's own story. So I'm from India, but I'm also from Bangladesh. And as many people will know, when India became independent, something like 12 million people were displaced from their homes, and what was their country and that included my family. And then in 1971, when Bangladesh went through the same process, and it became independent, another 6 million were displaced. And again, that included my family. And then when my parents got married, instead of having arranged and in fact, forced marriages, they eloped and ran away and fell in love. They too needed to flee for their own safety. So for me working on refugee issues has never been about fixing something out there. It's been the story of my own family, my own community and my own life, so it’s deeply personal. I've worked in it in a couple different capacities. And what I'm really inspired by now is how refugees are engaging with digital environments, and digital platforms to solve, in a way the same sets of problems that my family was looking at for the last four to five decades, but in new ways, with new opportunities, and also some new risks. And I'm really excited about the entry point that experience futures has opened up to take a closer look at that.

Howard Pyle  2:25  

Yeah. So the thing I think we want to touch on today's is talking about, “How do you think about the future of experience?” And when we think about the term experience in a digital or creative capacity, we're really talking about front end design. We're talking about the content, the UX, the visual design, but also the front end coding that makes up the websites, the mobile apps that you use. And when you talk to academics, about the digital divide, which is a term that's been around for quite some time, a lot of what we end up talking about is the, you know, bandwidth. Do you have a computer physical infrastructure, but the academics talk about a second and a third layer of the digital divide, which is really about access. Do you understand the designs that have been given to you? Do you understand the content? Do you have the cognitive abilities to understand what's being presented to you? And the insight that we started this organization around is basically that all websites, all mobile apps; all front end design you interact with is fundamentally designed for digitally privileged users - people already know how to use those tools. And if you look at a lot of the tools that we create, especially in a COVID era, where everything's going into digital spaces, people are being left behind. So if I'm an older person, and I don't understand how digital tools work, but yet mobile healthcare is accelerating, I don't just have a digital problem, I actually lose access to healthcare. And this plays out in an ageing population. It plays out in terms of racial justice, gender, gender, ethics, etc. And a lot of the things that we're working on together, and part of what Amit and I are here to talk about is, how does that impact refugees and stateless individuals. So there has to be a fundamental change in the way that front end experience is created. We have to have new methods, we have to think about the audiences, we have to link those methods to our diversity and impact and inclusion goals, to our purposes, to our social statements and our social sentiments within every organization. And what I've witnessed as a professional and I'm therefore a contributor to this problem, is that every design I've participated in, has never really linked to the diverse audiences that the organization claims to support. And so that's why we started this organization as an effort to try to change that, and some of that it's about method and process of design., and some of that is about the tools, the wave of machine learning and AI tools that are going to hit the front-end experiences. And Amit and I have actually known each other for quite a long time - we actually used to live in a punk rock group house together in Washington, DC. Amit  was a bike messenger and I played in a punk band. And so now here we are all fancy on stage for you. But,  the thing that's we've talked about for years and years and years is how do our different disciplines you know, I'm a lawyer, I'm a designer and a coder. How do these things overlap? And so I think that the thing that's been very interesting in our conversations on it is you've talked a lot about how does the front end experience hit the world of refugees, stateless individuals in your work in terms of human rights advocacy?

Amit Sen  5:38  

I mean, for me, it's eye opening to talk to you about these things. Because it makes me realize just before we even get to digital space, how critical design is. And when we think about humanitarian practice, the fact that we need a lens on design. So one of the things we did recently is we talked to women and girls in conflict affected countries. So those are countries affected by active armed conflict. And we just asked them about how they get their necessities met. And the whole thing is premised on this idea. So there are 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world right now. There's a huge pressure and impetus to be fair, to be non-discriminatory, to help everyone. But it's Rutan, this assumption that if we provide the same experience that's somehow going to be equal and inclusive and non-discriminatory. So when we talk to women and girls in these countries, what they say is, well, there's just one line. And you know, looking at it from the outside, well, it's the same for everybody. It's, you know, to one queue, you wait your turn, it's the same process. It's the same line. But what happens in that line, right, so women didn't feel safe. They're being sexually harassed, girls don't feel safe. They're being sexually harassed. They had to congregate at the back of the queue, which means they might get less; they're waiting longer. They get home later at night, they might face accusations well why are you coming home late at night, maybe they'll face additional violence. And what for me though, the wake up moment there is that it's an unintentional, but very serious form of design bias and inadequacy that has cascading problems. And what I think is so exciting about the work that Experience Futures is doing is that line is moving rapidly into digital space with COVID because of lockdowns and quarantines, we as humanitarians couldn't get to people in crisis, and they couldn't get to us. So increasingly, that queue as such, had to move into digital space. And it's really long overdue that we have a critical conversation, I think, with your community of design experts, technology experts to think through the human dimensions of what access means and what - it's not binary, you know, who's online, who isn't - but what's the experience once we are online? And I don't know if we have time, but I wanted to share maybe a couple reflections about what's going on with people in crisis and how they use technology. So I've covered the Middle East for about 10 years, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, what's really interesting is that refugees in those places are using technology to solve problems in more efficient and effective ways than I think we as professional humanitarians could. One of the big problems is tracking and tracing family members from whom you become separated because of a war. And what we found is that using products that were really never intended for that purpose, like SMS, WhatsApp text, people were able to trace their children, trace their families, find out when it might be safe to cross a border, to reunite and in a way more effectively than we could. But at the same time, there was a problem, because those tools were really never designed with that audience at the table as a stakeholder, right? So what we found were also serious problems: an enormous gap around gender. Women didn't have mobile devices at the same rate at all as men. And when we just look at it from that same kind of queue, well, let's just make it all the same. Let's give more women mobile devices, what happened, we created in fact, new vulnerabilities. Because there were unforeseen costs, with keeping them charged, having access to electricity and having access to data, right. And if you factor in all these other issues like age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, we say it's not just one issue. It's multiple axes of the complexity of who people are, and how we need to do a much better job thinking about that interface. One of the other things that refugees are doing a lot of you know how it is they're using mobile money to survive. Yeah. But one of the problems, perhaps again, it wasn't thought through is that being a refugee is this, it's defined by this experience of very often just fleeing with the bare necessities. You don't necessarily have your documents, you're not coming from a country where everything has been digitized, you may have no way of proving who you are. A lot of refugees can't sign up for mobile money, they can't sign up for digital services. So yeah, these platforms are critical, and in a way that can be harnessed to solve really important problems, but they were never designed with that community at the table. And I think that's where I think hopefully we can go

Howard Pyle  9:46  

I think that's a really important question. I think that there is like, so there's a there's this whole transition of design, where you're talking about inclusive design, human centered design, bringing the user to the table - you know, the thing that I challenged my community with, like, if there's any designer design leaders or experienced leaders in the audience like I, there's a moment at which you as a professional are given a design target, by a business, by a client by a customer. My experience is that they're typically very limited. And when I talk about designing for digital privilege, that starts at the business, it starts at the design objective layer. And I think one of the things that I see missing is that organizations, often, let's just be very generous for a second and say that most organizations have a desire to make the world a better place. Let's assume that for a second. And what happens is that they say, these are the people that we want to design for. And they will pick the most profitable users, they'll pick users that they understand, they'll pick users that think like them, this is part of the diversity problem in design and dev teams. But what ends up happening is that there's this idea of a single interface is supposed to work for everyone. And that's fundamentally limited, what we have to change to is this is this model, where a particular service or application can be customized based on the needs, or the cognitive abilities, or the language abilities, or the context, or the gender or the race of the individual, right? A great example in the US is that, um, you know, when you look at education, right, and healthcare: in the US, for students that live in households that are under the age, or sorry, the households make less than $35,000 a year, those students - those 17% of us students don't have access to laptop or desktop computers, which means that because most applications for college most admissions forms, most financial aid forms, most distance learning tools require a laptop and desktop computer. That means that they're literally missing out on the education opportunities, right. So that's a design issue. So what we have to do is we have to start thinking about designing different modalities, for different needs, different abilities. And we have to be able to launch new types of designs to support that and variations of design. But that starts at the business, it starts at the objective and saying we have to prioritize these different types of users. And going all the way down through the way we make design, to creating design variation. And then the platforms that we use, and that's where the AI and machine learning part of it comes in. Because AI and machine learning tools allow for variation of experience, we talk a lot about it from the perspective of backend data and back end data management. But the truth of the matter is, is that it hits the front end, in a very, very, very real way. And more and more it will over the next several years, content tools for content generation UX tools, all the design machine learning tools that are coming online, that stuff needs to be applied for creating design variation to deal with equity.

Amit Sen 13:01  

I just wanted to ask you a question about that, because I was just reading the main un document on digital equity, which is the roadmap for digital cooperation. And one of the priority concerns that it's flagged as this lack of digital literacy. But listening to you I want to ask you, you know,  in kind of a provocative way, is the problem a lack of digital literacy among vulnerable people? Or is it a lack of ecosystem simplicity and legibility on the design side? And what can experience futures do in that space, including with other organizations?

Howard Pyle  13:33  

I love this question, because it gets me so riled up. I think the problem with a focus on digital literacy is that the human is the problem. The human is supposed to learn. I have a, you know, I have a UX background. But when I talk to a lot of UX people, there's this emphasis on if you just use the right patterns, it'll work for everybody. And the emphasis is the user is supposed to learn,  the user needs to learn. So that's where digital literacy is. It's not unimportant. But the emphasis there is that the humans have to learn how the technology works, what we have to evolve to is a place where the technology is flexible enough that the individuals can understand it based on their abilities, and based on their needs. And that's just a totally different mindset. A totally different mindset

Amit Sen 14:17  

Can ask you something building on that, because I think it's an exciting process. And if there Forgive me as a non literate person, but it sounds like almost like the computers learning about the user, rather than putting the onus on the user to learn about, to surmount, yeah, knowledge, a knowledge gap. What are some of the spheres and what are some of the spaces, including some of the social movements that are, you know, we've seen present here at Web Summit, where we can make linkages or make an impact or add value along the lines that you've been describing?

Howard Pyle  14:43  

So my take is, um, I think that, you know, actually, a lot of the work that we're doing together in terms of looking at spaces were impacted individuals have design needs, that institutions can begin to prioritize against, right? So one of them is socially Economic right? If you have socio-economic gap, a lot of times what that means, especially in the US is that mobile interfaces become essential. If your organization prioritizes mobile interfaces as secondary, then you are creating a socio-economic gap. So that's the kind of thing that you can begin to do is begin to partner with community organizations that understand the digital needs of those individuals.

Amit Sen 15:23  

Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, because I, you know, just referencing an earlier conversation, you know, I, I'm so old school, I was trained as a litigator. And that just means going to court, appearing before a judge. But shortly before we came here, we talked to people that were talking about the migration of litigation to virtual space, and you know, are people's rights secure in that environment? And is the digital interface itself? A hospitable one, a diverse one? I don't know. Are there some other spaces where you feel like we can kind of maybe engage more?

Howard Pyle  15:50  

Yeah, I think I think that the key here is making links between is making links between the technology community that's looking at machine learning tools, machine learning platforms, and ethics and the front end design tools. The truth is, this is a new journey, we're at a place where we have to evolve the way front end experiences are created, and the way that front end experiences meet the needs of those individuals. It's a long road. So I think the thing that we should we should close with probably is just simply the idea that having a vision of the future as a design community around how machine learning and automation can work, not only in the tool sets, but also with need is one of the most important things for us to look at. So if you're interested in communicating or participating with us, please find us after this session,

Amit Sen 16:35  

Well just add one thing, Howard, I think one thing I've learned, honestly from our conversations is that before we started talking about this, I just thought of digital platforms as a tool through which you could access services, you know, that refugees might need. And more and more I see that digital and online, it's an environment in which human rights need to be protected as fiercely as we do in the real world. Because that barrier between digital and physical, it's really more tenuous, and we need to securitize human rights in both places. So thanks for starting that conversation. And thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of yeah, thank you.

Howard Pyle  17:05  

Thank you. Thank you, everyone.


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