Computers were created to be useful tools, but all too often it's still a chore to get technology to do our bidding.
Corinna Lathan imagines a future that's no longer a chore, where computers understand our wants and needs so well that we don't even have to think about telling them what to do. She's an inventor who has started her own company, AnthroTronix, to make that kind of intuitive technology part of our lives. But as NPR's Joe Palca tells us in his Morning Edition story, "this kind of intimate connection with computers is still a ways off. For now Lathan's company is taking smaller steps, using available technology to explore ways for humans and computers to get along and work together."
For example, working as an engineer with astronauts at NASA, Lathan realized that the physical challenges of living in space in some ways mirror the challenges of living with a disability on Earth. Building on that insight, she invented a playful robot that could help make it easier for children with cerebral palsy to get through physical therapy. She and her team also came up with a glove-based interface so that soldiers could move their hands and communicate wordlessly while on night patrol. And after that came a gamelike test to help figure out in the field whether a soldier has suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Lathan dreams of going further, inventing machines that will help us communicate not just our actions and thoughts but also our feelings. She gives a glimpse of her vision in the video below.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's just a fact that many of us now spend the whole day interacting with computers, and computers are increasingly designed to interact very specifically with you.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Google, Facebook - they track what you're watching, and try to deliver ads tailored to your interests. It can be irritating but maybe also reassuring when the computers get it wrong because it means they don't have you figured out just yet.
INSKEEP: Today, we're going to meet an engineer who thinks a lot about how computers will interact with humans in the future. She spoke with NPR's Joe Palca as he continues his series "Joe's Big Idea."
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: In the TV show "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the ultimate evil enemy threatening to destroy humanity was an alien species known as the Borg Collective.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")
PATRICK STEWART: (as Locutus) I am Locutus, a Borg. Resistance is futile.
PALCA: One of the things that made the Borg so lethal was that they had a collective consciousness. Every Borg was connected neurally with every other Borg, so they could share knowledge.
CORINNA LATHAN: If you could spin the Borg Collective in a positive way, that's almost exactly how I envision the future.
PALCA: That's Corinna Lathan. Sharp as a tack and quick to laugh, she's not interested in world domination. But she is interested in technologies that allow people to connect through computers to each other. Sharing consciousness is still in the future, but Lathan says there are technologies heading in that direction that are available now - for example, pop-up displays in your eyeglasses that will tell you about the people and places you're walking past; or sensors in your clothing that could kind of tap you on the shoulder when there's a friend of yours behind you.
To pursue her interests, she founded a company called AnthroTronix. Around 15 engineers and designers work with her to dream up, build and test the kind of technologies Lathan thinks the future needs.
LATHAN: When you walk through a mall, everyone's looking at their cell phone, and they're on the Internet, they're texting, they're doing whatever. They're completely disconnected from the crowd.
PALCA: But what if instead of going to your smartphone screen, all that information you shared about yourself on Facebook - or your friends have shared about themselves - could just flow into your body? And what if Facebook not only knew what you were doing but how you were feeling?
LATHAN: Imagine if Facebook where now you're connected to it physiologically as well. So when you're Facebooking your friends in real-time, you know their emotional state, you know their physical state. You know they're tired and they're depressed or you know they're euphoric because something great just happened.
PALCA: Now, this may sound a bit scary and invasive. But Lathan doesn't see it that way. Knowing exactly how your friends or others around you are feeling could make you more empathetic, better able to get on their wavelength, so to speak. And besides, you can already tell if someone you're standing next to is depressed or euphoric. Lathan just sees this as making a virtual togetherness, bringing your friends into your personal space, even though they're far away. Hi.
PALCA: How are you? Good to see you again.
LATHAN: Good to see you.
PALCA: This kind of intimate connection with computers is still a ways off. For now, Lathan's company is taking smaller steps, using available technology to explore ways for humans and computers to get along and work together.
LATHAN: Well, let me take you right to the back, right to the heart of where a lot of our work is done and then we'll circle back and talk about some of the projects out here.
PALCA: We enter a large room cluttered with computer parts, kids' toys, wiring harnesses.
LATHAN: You can see bits and pieces of robots, of homemade testing devices. You can see our 3-D printer so we can do prototyping, workstations for soldering and electronics.
PALCA: If you want to see what all this stuff looks like, there's a video on the Joe's Big Idea page on NPR.org. Lathan says she founded the company back in 1999 with a contract from the Department of Defense and a grant from the Department of Education to make instrumented gloves.
LATHAN: We have drawers and drawers of gloves.
PALCA: Gloves with sensors in them for controlling computers and robots. And she made robots.
LATHAN: Our original robot was Jesterbot, which was literally made out of foam and an old remote-control car. Uh-oh.
PALCA: Jesterbot's head falls off.
LATHAN: Not very stable right now. And then our first generation of cosmobot actually had a compact iPack as its guts in the inside.
PALCA: These early inventions came out of Lathan's work when she was an engineering professor at Catholic University. Since my new project, Joe's Big Idea, is about understanding the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors, I had to ask Lathan why she turned away from basic research.
LATHAN: I think that's really important. I see the value to it. But I really liked the idea of being accountable to a customer.
PALCA: For Lathan, the idea that people were prepared to put money behind her ideas was more important than rising through the ranks in a university.
LATHAN: I think entrepreneurs tend to be very passionate about what they're working on. You have to believe very deeply in what you're doing so it becomes - it's more a part of your life and who you are than a day job.
PALCA: Another thing Lathan is passionate about is making sure girls get the same support and encouragement for going into science and engineering as boys. She says she was surprised to learn that many girls didn't get the same kind of career support from their families and teachers that she did. She even started an organization called Keys to Empower Youth, a science and technology mentoring program for middle-school girls.
LATHAN: When I was in grad school, I mean I was very often the only woman in my class. I was the only woman professor in the entire school of engineering at Catholic University. And so I think I've always been very sensitive to the fact that I need to be a role model and also make an environment that is friendly to women coming into the profession.
PALCA: One of the projects Lathan is focusing on these days is making tools for helping the military decide when someone has suffered a brain injury.
LATHAN: We've put together a tool called the Defense Automated Neurobehavioral Assessment Tool.
PALCA: It's a low-tech way of assessing the health of someone's brain. She hands me what looks like an armored cell phone - which in fact it is - and has me start one of the assessment tasks.
So all I'm doing here is I'm touching a screen every time a little star-shaped thing shows up.
LATHAN: It's called simple reaction time.
PALCA: Turns out your reaction time can slow considerably when you've had a brain injury.
LATHAN: So the next one's a little bit harder.
PALCA: It's also a reaction time test, but with a decision. One of two colored stick figures will pop up on the screen.
LATHAN: The white figure is a foe, the green figure is a friend. And you press fire only if the foe appears. So only if the white target appears; do nothing if the green appears.
PALCA: Some people with brain injuries seem to have a hard time doing nothing when the green appears. These simple tests are a pretty rudimentary way of peering into someone's brain, but Lathan sees them as a start. The technology to more directly read someone's thoughts could certainly be useful, but it's easy to see how it could be misused as well. Lathan says that's an issue with any new technology.
LATHAN: It's our responsibility to make sure A) that it's used for good, and B) that we can defend against it not being used for good.
PALCA: Otherwise we could fall prey to this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")
STEWART: (as Locutus) From this time forward you will service us.
PALCA: Whoa. That doesn't sound good at all. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.