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Humans and Computers


Humans and robots

Questions by Mikenna Pierotti
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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For Saiph Savage, the study of humans and how we use computer technology is as much an exploration of sociology and psychology as it is crunching numbers and amassing data. And as director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at WVU, she and her students do everything from examine the use of bots — the digital robots that carry out our orders online — in political action to create tools to better bend the Internet to our needs. She swears she’s not programming the next Skynet in her not-so-secret lab in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources — she’s way more interested in how to use computers to build systems that help transform and improve communities — but we decided to check it out just to make sure.

If you aren't creating deadly artificial intelligence in here, what do you do in the Human Computer Interaction Lab?

Here we are very interested in understanding how humans are using technology. We are particularly interested in how they are using technology for collective action. We do a lot of social media analysis to understand, for instance, how people organized teams to support Donald Trump in the election. We looked at how they were using these social media to be able to organize at scale and then have a large-scale impact offline. We are also interested in enabling better learning. Once we understand the limitations of online-learning platforms, we can improve them. Lastly, we are looking into devices for people with disabilities.

In terms of the election, what were your findings? 

One group of my PhD students focused on analysis. We took a lot of big data that is readily available on places like Reddit, Twitter and Snapchat and analyzed it to find patterns. We discovered, for instance, that one tactic that was really useful during the election was using a transparent call to action rather than an obscure one. In order to do that, users had to clearly explain to their audience the political climate they were coming from in order to be effective. Those who were clear were able to mobilize a larger set of citizens. So, we can now use that assumption as a design probe to create next-generation tools that will enable people to have even better collaboration and produce even better collective action.

How do you foresee human/computer interaction impacting our daily lives in the future? 

Human/computer interaction is already affecting you every day. The better question is how can our research help citizens better coordinate and transform their societies. That’s why novel tools like gig-economy platforms are so important. If someone wants to create a new collaboration or bring in a certain type of job to their community, these tools can empower them to create the type of change they want to see. 

Will robots and AI replace humans in jobs one day?

One of the greatest things about technology is that we can define it and how we want to interact with it. For instance, the intelligent systems you see today actually have a lot of humans in the background doing work to keep them running. The problem isn’t that they are taking jobs, they are actually creating new types of jobs. But while we’ve been really focused on enabling better AI, we haven’t been looking at improving the lives of the workers behind those systems. One aspect of the research in this lab is looking at how we can create better interfaces. It’s about recognizing that we have the power to shape the future of these technologies.