How ‘mindful AI’ is about designing for human behaviour and aspirations - Ovetta Sampson, Principal Creative Director, Microsoft

In this expert interview, we shed light on the growing importance of ethics in AI design. Increasingly, AI will not just execute tasks for humans, but also convince or prevent humans from doing certain activities.

Ovetta Sampson is the Principal Creative Director at Microsoft and was earlier the Design Research Lead at IDEO. She is also an Adjunct Faculty at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media in Chicago.


Her research has covered artificial intelligence (AI) projects in autonomous vehicles, augmented customer service products, and AR/VR applications. Ovetta regards design research as the 'unique special sauce' that can combine with the 'rocket fuel' of data science and machine learning. She also helps codify ethical guidelines to develop human-centred AI.

Ovetta is a speaker at the upcoming DesignUp 2019 conference in Bengaluru, for which YourStory is the media partner. See our earlier coverage of DesignUp 2018 and 2017 and our d.Zen (‘Design Zen’) section for more resources on design.

Ovetta joins us in this interview on design practices in emerging economies, the transformation of human-AI ecosystems, and respect for the aspirations and needs of users.

YourStory: In a world of information overload and unending distractions, what do you see as the key role of designers?

Ovetta Sampson:  I love Victor Papnek’s definition of design as the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order. Taking this definition to heart means that designers are priority actors in this world. This definition gives designers a higher charge than just taking orders and producing outputs. It’s a call to arms to ensure that what we’re producing transforms current structures while bringing much-needed order.

Add a human-centred design to this and the role of a designer is clear: to willfully stand on the frontlines protecting, shielding and stopping technology from interacting with people in a way that would do them harm by designing experiences, devices, and platforms with which humans can efficiently and safely interact.

We’re the gatekeepers between technology and people and it’s our role to build experiences that lean toward more wellness than harm.

YS: As concerns over privacy and accountability grow, how can a design 'humanise' AI and make it more explainable or transparent?

OS: I summed up my answer to this in a Medium piece: “So I’d like to go beyond the term human-centred AI. Instead, I prefer to talk about 'Mindful AI.' Mindful AI is less concerned about what people do and more concerned about why they do it. Mindful AI is designed not just with human behaviour in mind but also with human values and aspirations.

Increasingly designers are going to have to be concerned not just with human behaviour and decision-making, but also more about fundamental human needs and values. That’s because AI products and services won’t just have the ability to do human tasks, but also convince, cajole, and even prevent humans from doing activities.

When you design products and services that interrupt a person’s free will, say for example an autonomous vehicle (AV) car door that refuses to open because its camera can see a cyclist in the door’s pathway better than the driver, then designers better have a fundamental understanding of how to create such gestures without violating abstract notions such as trust, and the need for freedom.

I believe we must move away from a Western framework of “slave/master,” where we are treating AI as some sort of supped-up automatic slave to our whims and advance toward a more cooperative relationship with automated machines and programs. We must go beyond human-centred to Human-Machine Cooperation AI Design, where both the human and the machine and their ecosystem are equal agents in the interaction.

For more ethical, unbiased AI design we must challenge the current task-oriented AI Design framework, develop better and more inclusive data training sets, and adopt more communal principles that take into account the ecosystems we’re designing for – it is no longer human and device interaction anymore. AI design is human, machine, other AI and machine, and ecosystem interactions.

YS: How should techie founders deepen their understanding of design so as to offer better products/services?

OS: Get a design research expert, evangelise your team on what design research is, and then put it into practice as an integral part of your product design process. Getting as close as possible to the people who will use your product is a necessity.

We don’t just know users by their demographics but understand their motivations and behaviour. The art and science of design research is where this lives.

YS: What design lessons do you think 'emerging economies' like India can share with the rest of the world?

OS: I first heard the term ‘reverse innovation’ years ago but I saw it in practice when I traveled all over the world visiting children and families struggling with war, sickness, poverty, and the general lack of resources, and I saw such amazing ingenuity.

From paying for a cab ride in Kenya with my phone – long before I did it in New York, to fuel briquettes in Uganda made from old banana peels rather than charcoal, to wind-powered electricity farms in Peru; burgeoning countries are creating some of the most forward-thinking innovations. There are three areas where I see emerging economies such as India, Nigeria, and Brazil leading the rest of the world.

1. Innovating new technologies to tackle climate change: With half of its billion-plus population less than 25 years old, India is a forward-thinking nation that is installing policies to tackle the impending hurt of climate change. Its participation in the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce CO2 emissions, nationwide policies enacted to provide solar-powered stoves and other innovations to its rural areas, stopping the spread of climate-hurting gas practices – India is showing a political and innovative will to tackle climate change. At least they are not denying it, as many politicians in the US are still woefully doing.

2. Leapfrogging technology for innovation: This is a classic principle of emerging economies.  But I predict, we in the West can learn a lot about building technology that will be adaptable and flexible to a fast-changing future. Skipping the resource-heavy and expensive landline infrastructure of old telecommunications, Thailand is betting it all on satellites and it’s an amazing gamble to wholesale bring their nation into the 21st century.

I already mentioned the leapfrog to mobile that’s occurring in African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. And, while the US fumbles around trying to make blockchain technology work better than just another stock exchange, countries like Kenya and India are finding real use of the trusted technology. From reimagining land title and real estate deals that are free from corruption in Chandigarh city to airtight paperless micro-loans for food stall owners in Nairobi, emerging economies are quickly putting this newest technology to use.

3. Walk Like an Estonian: There are countries some may never have heard of but, are making it seem as if Americans are living like Philistines as they embrace the digital revolution by eliminating any digital divide. With 99 percent of all national services accessible online, to Internet voting and e-citizenry status, Estonia, deemed the most digital city in the world – has made technology a national right.

We, on the other hand, are still suffering through lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or voting booths. I think the Western’s obsession with the colonising supremacists’ philosophies of the past is keeping us from advancing, as many emerging economies have in the last decade.

YS: As the physical and online worlds converge, how can designers prepare better seamless experiences for consumers?

OS: I think understanding how spatial computing fits in with human-centred design is an essential step in helping consumers have an overall smooth experience. For example, understanding when to reveal hidden information using augmented reality (AR) to make purchasing a product easier and less stressful is key.

YS: Which are your other favourite design festivals around the world, and what makes them special?

OS: I rarely get to go to any design festivals because I’m always so busy, but I enjoyed attending and speaking at AfroTech in the US, SIGCHI (last year it was in Glasgow), and UX Research Collective in Toronto, because it’s fun and the people are amazing, and it is focussed specifically on research and design.

YS: What are the three books designers must have on their bookshelf?

OS: Design for the Real World, by Victor Papanek

Change by Design, by Tim Brown

Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith.

YS: As we come to the close of 2019, what are the three key emerging design trends you see in 2020?

OS: You can’t skip over a Medium post or blog subject line or increasingly long tome about AI and its twin sister ethics in design. More designers will have to understand how AI works and how it can be applied, that’s a given.

But I believe, in order for designers to take up our charge as bringing meaningful order to chaos, we will have to go beyond just how AI works and focus on being well-versed in when NOT to add AI. What I mean is that we’re going to have to become more attuned to human cultural, ritualistic practices and norms so as not to disrupt, destroy or trample upon the very essence of our humanity with a slathering dose of an automated technology.

In a truly AI world, design will be less about what humans do, and more about what humans fundamentally need to do to meet that definition of humanity for themselves.

(Edited by Suman Singh)


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