Tuesday 19 January 2021
From ‘People First’ to ‘Ethics First’
He works on fascinating technology, but Nicola Strisciuglio, assistant professor in computer science, has concerns. 'The self-driving car, a great example of AI-technology, is a smart innovation. However, use that technology in a tank and you have an automatic weapon.' His call for a new motto, ethics first, resonates with Desirée van Dun. As assistant professor in change management and organisation behaviour, she urges her students to think about ethical issues. 'I returned to the university because I wanted to help train new leaders.'
Nicola: 'Nice to meet you, Desirée. I am so interested in your work - it's totally different from my field, computer technology. You mainly look at human behaviour, don't you?'
Desirée: 'Yes, we come from two different worlds. I study social interaction on the work floor. It's fascinated me ever since I was a student - a long time ago, here at the UT.'
Nicola: 'My younger sister is a psychologist and we often discuss social research. Your work depends on how someone feels, whether they are having a good day or not. How can you study that properly?
Desirée: 'Ah, that's a good question. The nice thing about social science at a technical university is that you can use technology. A lot of research into behaviour uses questionnaires about perceptions. We combine that with technology. We make video recordings on the work floor and observe people and teams from second to second. What do they do, what do they say, what is their facial expression? At the same time, we give them wristbands to measure their heart rate and arousal levels. This helps us measure fuzzy things like attitude and behaviour as objectively as possible.'
Geeks & Groupies
Nicola: 'How interesting! That sounds much more scientific than I thought. It makes your results more objective.'
Desirée: 'Exactly! We are not using tech because it's fancy but to make research more reliable. A few years ago, I was at the Geeks & Groupies conference for technical and social scientists. Fascinating, we can really complement each other. Computer scientists like you can help us code video images more efficiently. That's something I want to start experimenting with.'
Nicola: ‘Sounds brilliant, that means potential for collaboration! My work has always been very technical - extreme robotics, no human interaction at all. Even emotions are studied in technical terms: are the corners of the mouth turning up? That means someone is happy. I would love to incorporate more of the social side in my work. How do you do that?'
Desirée: 'We use video observation and questionnaires to study the effect of emotional intelligence on the effectiveness of the team. And we study whether people feel safe on the work floor, have the courage and opportunity to speak out - what we call psychological safety. My work helps improve cooperation within teams in a very direct way. I love that. So, could I ask you something? Did I see that your department also works with biometrics?'
Nicola: 'Yes, I have recently been involved with students who are doing soft-feature research: can you assess someone's emotions, gender or age group based on facial features? Marketing uses that a lot. For example, brands which want to know who passes their window displays - old men or are they young women?'
Desirée: 'What you just said reminds me of something. I live in The Hague and there are digital billboards all over the city. They scan everyone who walks past. I try to ignore them. I hate the idea of being watched. Our society is becoming increasingly high tech, but that worries me too. What about the ethical side? Technology is fascinating, but is this what we want to work on as the UT?'
Nicola: 'That's something I'd like to talk to you about! One of the slogans at the UT is People First. Why not: the environment first? If we don't protect that, we can't protect ourselves. So I suggest a new slogan: Ethics First. We have a great responsibility to consider the ethics of our work, and how inventions can be used.'
Desirée: 'I recognise what you say and it's something that concerns me too. I not only want to help businesses excel in operational efficiency and productivity; I want to ensure that the excellence is sustainable. The environment first, I totally agree. We should look after our environment so that we can thrive.'
Nicola: 'Yes, that's something I tell my students too. I often take the self-driving car as an example. Very smart invention, all those sensors working together, fantastic technology. But if you put the same technology in a tank, you have an automatic weapon.'
Desirée: 'That is so important, to get students thinking about the ethical questions! I also teach in the Change Leaders and Processes of Change Honours programmes. Students from all faculties attend our evening sessions to learn how you can become a good leader, how you can achieve the desired change. I often get asked why I came back to the university. I wanted to help train new leaders. Start young, so that they have a good springboard instead of repairing the false start among older leaders.'
Nicola: 'What does interest me though, Desirée: how do people regard your work? Computer technology is something that people either hate or find incredibly interesting.'
Desirée: 'The bestseller shelves in bookshops are filled with books on leadership and management. People want to possess that knowledge. And they are really intrigued by our high-tech approach. But not everybody is always keen on us videoing sessions. We take those concerns very seriously. I understand them.'
Nicola: 'I also have concerns about the use of technology, even though I work in the field.'
Desirée: 'Yes, we can really identify with them! For my PhD research, I shadowed people with a camcorder. I spent hours following employees in a truck factory to see how they behave in spontaneous work situations. Before I started, I took several days to win their trust and explain my intentions. That was really worthwhile - afterwards people were very open. In fact, they even had arguments in front of the camera.'
Nicola: ‘When I look at Shaping 2030, I mainly fit into the theme of science. I am trying to follow a path towards more social impact. I am currently writing a proposal with colleagues to develop a robotic arm that can be mounted on a wheelchair, which can make the disabled more independent. That fits the theme digitisation as well as inclusion. It's nice to be able to help people directly through research. I've never had that feeling before. Publishing a paper also feels good, but after two days you move on.'
Desirée: ‘Hahaha, I know the feeling. You can count citation scores, but that's not the same as having real impact…’
Nicola: 'I think that at the UT, we always need to be considering how we can improve the world, even if it's only slightly. I look for more human touch besides the high tech.’
Desirée: 'That's what I love about the theme - it triggers everyone!'