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The ‘new A.I.’ and the future of paper: a strange juxtaposition

27 May

Fifteen years ago, it was imagined that the emergence of personal computers, network systems and the World Wide Web would totally transform work and home. The experiences people have in these settings would become completely digital. At work, paper would cease to be important in messaging or reading, with documents of all kinds being created, exchanged and stored online. The location of work would be transformed as well, with digital connections allowing business to be done anywhere (and indeed anytime). Home life would be revolutionised, with news and lifestyle information no longer being delivered in paper form, in newspapers and magazines say, but online, via the PC. Where people would shop would alter, too, with people using e-commerce to purchase from the couch instead of, say, on the high street or in a shopping centre.

In the past three or four years, further technological change has occurred. The emergence of cloud-based infrastructures has led to Big Data, and this, combined with the new machine intelligence, has led to user data analytics that are allowing some to claim that what people want can be predicted to a fine degree. Some have proposed that this combination will transform the relationship between people and technology. Employment levels will be reduced as intelligent machines move from the factory to the office and replace important decision-making professionals; machines will become experts in work life. As regards the home, data analytics will allow businesses and online providers to deliver content and marketing materials precisely when the consumer needs them. Search engines will not wait for a command, but will deliver what they predict their user seeks. What people want, when they want it, and how to elicit this through marketing, will be understood by intelligent systems interrogating vast sets of data. In effect, the choices people make either in the home and in the workplace will be predictable; choice will be tamed by technology.

On the face of it, these trends would appear to suggest that the use of paper for various purposes will inevitably decline and the digital will take over. Yet, and at just a common sense level, this is evidently not happening in any straight-forward or linear way. To take some examples: the much-hyped arrival of the e-book which some said would lead to the eradication of paper textbooks and novels, seems to have stalled (1). In a similar vein, although sales of paper-based magazines have shown some decline, they have not been replaced by e-content (2). Other research, this time looking at attitudes, suggests that people are returning to a more favourable view about paper as a marketing medium (3). In the first two examples, the issues are related to the ways paper gets used, its ‘interactional properties’ as it were, in the third, it has to do with the changing landscape of perceptions. Paper no longer evokes a dying medium; on the contrary, it has a positive place in people’s attitudes towards how they conduct their affairs at home and work.

These examples make it clear that, just as the relations between paper and digital have been complex and have evolved in diverse ways, so they are likely to continue evolving in equally complex and divergent ways. The relationship between paper and the digital needs more than common sense or brief research studies. This ecology needs systematic research; indeed, a science of how that ecology functions and how it will evolve.

Research of this kind has certainly been done in some respects. The impact of, for example, the first of these transformations, deriving from networked systems, PCs and the Web, has been shown to be not as predicted and the reasons for this explained scientifically. Research reported in, as a case in point, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Sellen & Harper, 2002), showed that paper would continue to have a role in the work setting. Through extensive observational data and experimental examinations, this study demonstrated that the affordances of paper could not be substituted by digital alternatives of the time. For certain tasks, particularly related to information analysis and comprehension, for what one might gloss as essentially human processes of decision-making, using paper was more effective; it enabled people to ‘interact with’ information in ways that best suited the mechanics of their cognition.

Nevertheless, this and other research also showed that digital technologies were altering workplaces in important ways, combining with paper to create new opportunities for information gathering and use, altering the landscape of decision-making as it did so. Networks provided more information to people, enabled widespread transmission and almost infinite storage. This, in turn, altered the role of reports and documents as they came to articulate greater amounts of information; less attention being given to particularities and more to breadth, to navigation. New forms of documents came to emerge that linked information resources on the Web to internal organizational archives. Shared repositories of information in applications like, for example, Microsoft Sharepoint, came to reflect this alteration. Meanwhile, paper continued to have a role in comprehension and document provision, attested to albeit crudely in the increasing volumes of office papers supplied (4).

Early research in home settings, reported in collections like Inside the Smart Home (Harper, Ed. 2003) explained why paper would persist in the home for reasons similar to those applicable to the workplace. This research highlighted also how technologies were creating changes in the patterns of people’s domestic activities, particularly to do with the experiential form of their decision-making. For example, and while it was agreed that search engines and e-commerce would open up when and how people shopped, research made it clear that this would not result in substituting traditional forms of consumption, on the high street, say. Rather, browsing with a search engine would come to extend the footprint of shopping to include both the high street and the couch. As a result, where people chose, to use a shorthand for consumption practices, would broaden. As it did so, there would be a greater role for paper. More particularly, as the couch became part of the shopping domain, so ways of conveying information in ways appropriate to the leisurely manners of the couch (and the domestic setting more generally) would become more important. Paper brochures and magazines were predicted to have an increasing role because of this. Recent investigations seem to confirm this research, certainly if this is to be measured in terms of gross print volumes. This view has been given further weight by attitudinal findings and small-scale observational evidence. This latter research has mostly been undertaken by the marketing industry, however, and this brings into doubt matters of objectivity. The evidence might be right, but the authority is not scientific.

Whilst studies of the first of these revolutions were comprehensive, far less has been invested in examinations of the new A.I. either by scientific investigators or the industries that might be affected by the new data analytics. With regard to the workplace, some initial research has focused on how machine intelligence might replace the professional in decision-making processes (see for instance, Frey, et al, The Future of Employment, 2013). This substitution will result in a reduction in the numbers of such staff a company might have overall. As a byproduct, there will also be a reduction in the need of paper given that it supports the cognitive processes of these decision-makers. However, this research has not, in any detail, examined whether there are variations in decision-making that will constrain the potential impact of new systems. In some domains these new systems may well replace human decision makers since the choices being made are well suited to probabilistic solutions; in other cases less so. Besides, there is also a lack of evidence about the state of the technology, with ease of use and cost being taken for granted, for example. One particular problem is making intelligent machines intelligible to the user. This is not a simple matter.

More generally, however, the state of research about the ‘new A.I.’ echoes the kinds of excited but often un-evidenced claims that prompted the research reported in The Myth of the Paperless Office. Many of these claims are discussed in Harper et al’s critical assessment of decision-making theories in their book Choice (2016). As they show, many of these claims ignore important complicating factors that will reduce the potential impact of these technologies, or at least make their role less than clear-cut. For example, many of the claims assume that professional decision-making is individual work whereas in the workplace most decisions are the output of joint and co-operative activity. Because of this the new systems may not have the impact some expect.

The role of new predictive technologies in the home has been investigated somewhat more comprehensively, though the concern here has been more to show how these technologies alter the kinds of experiences people have and less on how the new A.I. is making choices for them. For example, considerable change has occurred in the games space with a range of new technologies being used to support camera-based interaction – this has created new experiences for people. That new machine learning techniques do this is largely invisible to the user. Meanwhile, a similar set of techniques have had a much more demonstrative role in helping players find game partners on line. However, attempts to leverage these new techniques to support human decision making elsewhere in the home, with regard to cooking, for instance, or in the management and purchasing of domestic provisions, food, cleaning materials and so on, have been less successful. For a variety of reasons, people prefer to cook as they see fit and not with automated systems; similarly, they prefer to manage their own cupboards and fridges even if this means they sometimes end up eating ‘the same old thing’.

Nevertheless, and in balance, home life has been altered and this is reflected in the titles of books on that subject matter – homes are no longer being thought of as smart with technologies taking over important decision-making activities. Instead, homes and their occupants are connected (Harper, Ed. 2011; also Neustaedter, et al, Eds, 2013). Meanwhile, the impact this move toward the connected home will have on the role of paper and the intersection of paper and digital has only been sketched. What is clear, though, is that just as it is with the workplace, the evolution of paper and digital in the home setting will require careful examination; it will not be straightforward to understand the combinations of motivations, attitudes and the ‘affordances’ of digital and paper media that will shape the future. Scientific investigation into the home is required just as much as it is with regard to the workplace.


References: Papers and articles

Frey, C.B. Osborne, M.A (2013), The Future of Employment: How susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Oxford Martin Institute, Oxford.

The Royal Mail, (2015), The Private Life of Mail.

Harper, R. (2010), Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload, MIT Press, London and Boston

Harper, R. (Ed) (2003), Inside the Smart Home: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the design and shaping of domestic computing, Springer Verlag, Godalming and Heidleburg.

Harper, R. (Ed) (2011), The Connected Home, Springer, London.

Harper, R., Randall, D. & Sharrock, W., ( 2016) Choice: The science of reason in the 21st Century: a critical assessment, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Neustaedter, C. Harrison, S. & Sellen, Eds, (2013) Connecting Families, Springer, London.

Sellen, A. & Harper, R. (2002). The Myth of the Paperless Office, MIT Press, Boston, Mass.


Footnotes to Web references