Survival Guide: Alex "Sandy" Pentland, director of human dynamics research, MIT

Alex Pentland, MIT lab director

Sam Ogden

The work of MIT's Alex "Sandy" Pentland encompasses areas such as wearable computing, human-machine interfaces and artificial intelligence. Pentland recently spoke with Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery about the implications of 24/7 electronic communications.

WT: Your group pioneered the idea of wearable computers about 15 years ago. How has the field evolved?

Pentland: About 15 years ago, the idea of putting computers and sensors on the body sounded quite crazy. But we won, it's here. All of you carry little computers, called cell phones, that are Internet connected and have some sort of sensors.

WT: Why did it take 10 years for the Epson cell phone-PDA-GPS device you developed to make it to market?

Pentland: In Japan, you began to see devices like this six or seven years ago, and they became very popular there five years ago. We're only beginning to see them here. Here, we've seen people adopt PDAs far more commonly. 

WT:Technology can connect people, but it can also watch them without their knowledge. How do we make sure it's used for good purposes?

Pentland: You have to design it to make it hard to violate people's privacy. You have to make people aware there is a danger, and you have to make a social contract.

WT: What do you mean by a "social contract"?

Pentland: If my cell phone knows enough about me, it can know when to take a message, when to be quiet and not do anything, and when to put somebody through.

Of course, that's dangerous, because that's a more intimate relationship. Do you really want your cell phone to know that much about you? I'd be willing to trade that [privacy] to keep some of the phone calls and messages away from me.

WT: When will the technology be capable of knowing what I'm doing and when to take a message or interrupt me?

Pentland: We can do that today. The phones know where you are and who is around you because they have Bluetooth, a type of short-wave radio. Your boss could ask where you are, who else is in the room, and since [your phone] has a microphone, he could be listening to the conversation.

The phone knows whether you are walking, sitting, laying down or if you are in a car. It knows how many calls you are making and how energetic you are. Most phones do not collect this information now, but there is a program you can run that will collect it.

On a personal level, you can use it as a supercharged pedometer. You could plot out a graph that shows you haven't been getting as much sleep as usual. If you went to a doctor, you could download a version of the data and look at it with him. Airplanes have black boxes; cars do, too. People will have them, too.

WT: But what if I don't want my cell phone or PDA to know all about me?

Pentland: Your technology knows everything about you already.

At home, you have papers with all your personal information on them. You are just not thinking about paper and pen being technology. It's a technology you're comfortable with and you put in a place that is private, and there is a social contract about what you give out and when.

When photos were introduced, the natives in New Guinea thought you were capturing their spirits when you took a photo. It wasn't that different here. People had to get used to it.

We have to guarantee privacy and personal control so you are as comfortable with [the technology] as you are with having photographs of yourself.

WT: Has 24/7 connectivity made people more productive or less productive?

Pentland: At a certain level, the quality is better in the sense you don't miss opportunities as much. But the level at which things are executed -- the care and depth -- tends to be less because of the pace.

The bosses in startup mode really enjoy this. For the poor guy trying to pay the bills and take care of his kids, it tends to be a hassle.

We have to be able to merge the calm, thoughtful things you get when you aren't being bothered all the time with the rapid ability to reach out to someone. We have to make the communications devices more socially aware.

Right now, they are like a bull in a china shop, rude and inappropriate. If they were well behaved and respected the personal space people have, we could forge a social contract around that technology that would feel better as well as being better. If phone companies and handset makers start offering things that are a little less rude, people will buy them.

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