Who is afraid of technology and why?
Konrad Maj talks about going digital as an opportunity to survive the current crisis.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has stopped the world we’ve known so far and changed our way of living. Forced quarantine rapidly changed what our professional life looks like, which unfortunately has a significant impact on many industries – including psychiatric and psychotherapeutic – as well as on the entire economy. Digital solutions appearing on the market are often the only chance not only to continue working and learning, but also to save human lives. Despite this, many of us fear to use them in our daily lives. Why? Is there really anything to be afraid of? Or maybe technology is a chance for us to survive the current crisis? Where do we need it most?
These and more questions will be answered by Konrad Maj, PhD from SWPS University – Social psychologist, Head of the HumanTech Meetings project, initiator and Head of the HumanTech Center for Social and Technological Innovation which analyzes the latest social and technological trends, prepares expert opinions based on research results and innovation implementations, and also implements projects in cooperation with business in the field of knowledge commercialization. In his research and teaching he focuses on social influence, media psychology and innovations. Recently, he has been working on a Human-Robot-Interaction (HRI) project.
Damian Markowski (Therapify): Is technology a chance for us to survive the current crisis?
Konrad Maj (SWPS University, HumanTech Center): Yes, without a doubt. Everyone appreciates technology now, we would not be able to do many things without it, such as this interview. Its certainly appreciated by the media, because at the moment they are able to function normally by inviting their guests to talk via various videochats. Students and universities can also use these solutions. In the case of universities, we are dealing with e-learning solutions. An attempt at this form of education has been made a dozen years ago but it did not work out well. It was probably a false start, there were no fast connections, no good solutions for video communication, and laptops with the webcam were not that common. Universities were not prepared for distance learning from the hardware and cultural side — both students and staff did not have experience and skills in e-learning platforms. As a result, universities quickly became discouraged from using e-learning. Now we see a return to this kind of solutions. And it is probably a shock for many — who saw that a lot has changed in the field of e-learning, there is a whole bunch of tools that even allow for workshop work, in subgroups, and the stability of connections is definitely greater than it used to be. Already 10 years ago, the US Department of Education published a report based on research papers, the conclusion of which may surprise: online learners generally performed better than those who learned face-to-face. Last year, Medical Education Online published a meta-analysis of studies, which shows that there are no major differences in the effectiveness of online and offline teaching.
But of course, learning is not our only quarantine activity. Thanks to technology, we can communicate with loved ones in spite of isolation. Talking to the screen is a kind of substitute for real, direct relationships, but it’s always something. The technology turned out to be very helpful last Easter. We adapted it for traditional Christmas meetings at the table. In many homes, a laptop was placed next to the dishes, on which the faces of family members appeared. Perhaps even in many cases the Easter breakfast was consumed in a larger group than usual. He was even joined by those who were very far away from us, even somewhere abroad. Earlier we would not have thought of spending this time in this way, and now we have found that it is possible — we have become familiar with technology. I think this is a big change for us, but I don’t think it caused any major national tragedy.
DM: I wanted to ask about other areas than remote communication. The current quarantine strongly impacts individual sectors of the economy. What are the areas where we need technology the most today? Where can its use be most effective and minimize the effects of the coronavirus pandemic?
KM: Currently, all services that deal with the fight against the epidemic need technology, although not everyone is using it, and not everyone is aware of its importance. We can ask ourselves how did the Chinese remain at 82,000 infections and the number of new cases is small? How did Korea, Taiwan or Japan deal with these problems so quickly? I think the answer is partly that a lot of different technological solutions have been involved — in public space and in hospitals. Various robots allow you to limit people-to-people contacts, help medical staff in many tasks that are dangerous and can result in infection. It is worth knowing that every fourth person in our country is infected in the medical community — these are of course doctors and patients. This leads us to conclude that we do not use technology properly to secure hospital staff. In China, robots were used to disinfect hospitals on a large scale, various existing robots were reprogrammed for those purposes. Drones were also used on a massive scale – they transport samples for research, medicines or spray disinfectants over cities. They also provide information on threats, call on people not to gather and go home. These are examples that although we often complain about the dominant presence of technology in our lives, in the fight against a difficult opponent it is a helpful ally for us. I think it results from the fact that we use it too often in a way that discourages us from it — we watch TV too much, use smartphones too often and we become addicted which brings us various negative effects. Therefore, I am saying that the problem is not in technology itself, but in the fact that we usually use it improperly. Perhaps for this reason, when people find out that they are planning to use the technology more widely, e.g. in medicine, they develop strong fear and reluctancy. They say “too much of all this, this technology thing is everywhere”. But let’s face it – robots and other AI solutions have now saved some of their lives.
Perhaps the consequence of our greater immersion in the virtual world will be a greater digitization of our society, which will see that many things can be done in this way. It seems that both on professional and private ground, remote communication technology has convinced us very much, but it will probably develop even more. This can be a new impulse for the economy. Probably many companies have noticed that they can offer their products or services with delivery. Banks and various offices have seen that some operations can be moved to a remote level without visiting branches.
But still answering the question: our entire industry needs more automation and robotization. There are 36 robots per 10,000 employees in Poland, 710 in South Korea, and 322 in Germany. You can’t be efficient and competitive with such technological backwardness.
The development of technology also allows the elimination of many unnecessary processes, shortens them. During the epidemic, the only things we do is ‘click’ and after 1-2 days we go to pick up the product from the parcel locker a few streets away. This is a revolution. We visit basically only grocery stores, but even there we will probably see various improvements soon. For example, in Chinese stores, a solution is used where you “pay” by placing your hand on the scanner or smiling at the camera. Of course, this technology raises some controversy, but these ideas should be discussed thoroughly.
Health care needs are huge, and in fact technology can save us from staff shortages and disasters in the face of various lifestyle diseases. In most Polish hospitals, we still have beds that need to be adjusted independently or with the help of a doctor or nurse. This should be done swiftly, with a remote control.
It is worth to invest in solutions related to artificial intelligence, big data, HoloLens technology, telemedicine, etc. We must be aware that in many cases people needn’t come visit a doctor, and in turn others should appear quickly, but do not hit, or come too late. I think there is a huge potential in initial remote diagnosis. Real-time health monitoring is also getting better: pressure, EKG / ECG, sugar level measurement, etc. Soon everyone will have a small laboratory on their own, and the doctor will have access to data on a regular basis. As a curiosity, I want to say that there are even toilet bowls that are able to do urine or fecal tests at home.
DM: You cited a large number of examples and evidence of the positive impact of technology on our lives. I have recently come across a statement saying that “Polish outpatient psychiatry has gone online.” This shows that also the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic industry uses these types of solutions. However, I have the impression that many people are still skeptical. I would even say that many people experience anxiety related to the use of these solutions – both related to the aforementioned robots, but also applications that enable interpersonal contact in the private, professional and medical sphere. From a psychological perspective, are we able to find an explanation of where this “technological anxiety” comes from?
KM: There is indeed a whole range of technology concerns. There is even such a term “technophobia”, which means irrational fear of technology — of computers, technical devices. Graham C.L. Davey from the University of Sussex also spoke about “robophobia”, i.e. fear of devices related to artificial intelligence. This is irrational. I think there are at least a few reasons for this fear. One of them may relate to the fact that we are afraid of technology, because we do not fully understand how it works, we wonder if it is safe. At the moment, there are huge discussions about 5G technology, in which we often hear totally irrational reasons and various conspiracy theories that are supposed to negate its use.
People are afraid of the unknown. Sometimes, even when the ordinary remote control for the TV annoys us, we start to complain about technology, but we rarely admit that it may be the fault of some of our bad operations and lack of competence, we prefer to say: “what a piece of scrap”, “it is broken” “useless”, etc. Frequent complaining can cause negative feelings and aversion to all technological innovations. A lot of people are unnerved by different devices, some are convinced that they generate harmful radiation, some blame them for their worse mood or illness.
For robots, the matter is even more complex. We are afraid of what manifests similar, intelligent behaviors. We are convinced of the uniqueness of human nature and we are afraid that the world of robots is threatening us, it is too strongly associated with ourselves. The literature cites the effect of Uncanny Valley, in simplified terms — a negative attitude towards humanoid robots, very similar to people. Such robots are often disgusting. We are also afraid of the “cyborgization” of humanity, that technology will become a part of ourselves and the border between us and technology will get blur and we will get lost in it. There are huge ethical discussions on this topic.
The Polish people, as a nation, are very reluctant to implement new technologies and I checked it myself in my research. It turns out that there is a lot of resistance and ignorance in us towards artificial intelligence and robotics. In our research, it turned out that most do not accept robots in such professions as a soldier, fireman or doctor, i.e. in difficult and dangerous professions, where deficits often occur. It forces us to think about it. I think it is a matter of entering a higher level of competence in this area in our country. To calm down a little, we should look at the experiences of other countries. We should not be just talking about threats. We should consider how to best use the achievements of modern civilization, taking into account possible damage.
DM: So far, we’ve talked mainly about the positive aspects of technology and its use, and I would like to ask about the other side. What is the biggest technology threat to us right now? Is it a risk of uncontrolled leaks, theft or sale of our data without our consent, as we have heard many times in the context of Facebook, for example? Or maybe scenes from many science-fiction films with a vision of artificial intelligence taking control over a man ?
KM: As for the possibility of data leakage, it is worth noting that we have millions of various applications around the world, thousands of computers, robots, etc., and cases of data leakage are still rare. We have not heard of any scandals related to the founders of assistance, psychological or medical applications, that they commit unethical behavior. However, recently we have been dealing, for example, with a serious error on the part of the National School of Judiciary and Prosecutor’s Office in Poland, as a result of which the personal data of many judges and prosecutors leaked. We now know that a person was behind it and the IT system was not leaky.
Obviously, it doesn’t mean that one should underestimate the cybersecurity of various apps, but it is in the interest of their founders to protect this data and the motivation for security is probably high here.
Technology gives us something, but at the same time take something from us — time, control, decision-making, our concentration , addictions, etc. It happens that someone is not able to withstand even 5 minutes without looking at the screen of their phone. This is a modern disease that some people call “nomophobia” . People can get lost in the world of technology, people who overdose contact with the virtual world may even require psychological intervention and the use of “digital detox”. Fortunately, we’re biologically programmed in such a way that most need contact with a real human being. If the intermediary is a glass screen, it only satisfies us to some extent.
But there are situations when it is the only form of contact with a wider group of people. I am talking about people who live in less urbanized places, the lonely, those looking for new relationships or psychological support. Small towns have this characteristic that everyone knows each other. Using the services of a psychologist or psychotherapist sometimes causes awkwardness or fear that someone would find out. Remote contact allows us to use the services of people who live even in another part of the world. What’s more, there are also studies that show that people can say more and be more honest in such a virtual relationship. The reason is clear – in face-to-face situations there is a greater fear of judgment, and hence the tendency to present ourselves in a slightly colored way. It turns out that even people are not honest with doctors – they want to hear that everything is fine and you can go home. However, when we have contact mediated by technology, we can be more open and freer.
DM: In that case, can we say that the technology itself is neither good nor bad, but can it be used by man for good or for bad purposes?
KM: This is what I wanted to show. Technology should still serve people, complement and support people-to-people contacts, not replace them. It all comes down to the question of what safeguards should we use? In the case of robots, no one now thinks that they have so-called “fertility”, i.e. that they can copy each other and I do not think that this will happen in the coming years. That is why I think that we should not fear that they will suddenly control the world.
Unfortunately, because of science-fiction movies, intelligent machines remind us of unpredictable and very dangerous objects for us. And yet we program them – their morality is a reflection of our morality. Their behavior reflects our needs. We should therefore be able to work on the personality and way of thinking of programmers and constructors. It is not technology that should set requirements, but those who design it.
DM: Quarantine also promotes a large increase in interest in mobile applications designed to work on yourself – on physical condition, your diet or mental health. What should we look out for most in the context of using broadly understood technology – surfing the internet, using mobile applications?
KM: Indeed, the application market is huge. And it is not surprising, because we can download applications to one’s phone and use it anywhere. As you know, people often forget about behaviors and habits that they want to change. Technology can be a kind of reminder here, we can run a program that will guide us in more difficult moments – when we are on a tram or in the street. In difficult moments, when people have different dilemmas or need urgent help, they have a personal coach or therapist “in their pocket”. This is a very convenient solution and is probably the main reason for the popularity of various aid apps, in addition to the low cost of their use.
What should we watch out for? I think you need to start with the fact that the developers of these applications should be based on well-established knowledge, i.e. we are talking about the evidence-based approach. If it is so, that the given solution is developed in cooperation with specialists, it is a warranty that we will not hurt ourselves. Tips are very different in quality and relevance, and this also applies to those given face-to-face. For example, if a coach or trainer does not have the qualifications and experience and is a consultant for the program in the coaching application, I see a certain threat here. So, if I should advise something, first to find out on what basis a given application was created — whether appropriate and reliable scientific research was carried out with it, is there any update of knowledge in this application, or has it been consulted with experts. It is also worth asking oneself whether a given virtual or mobile solution is for us? Some cannot function without direct contact, while others are good at it. And the question of functionality remains, how it meets our needs, what it offers, how personalized, intuitive it is, how can we track and monitor our progress, etc. I also think that the application should never be a tool that makes us addicted, but also give us subjectivity and lets us free at all times. If we are looking for an application to support solving specific problems, we should not forget to get direct help from a psychologist, coach or therapist — then we can use the best in the application, but we also get the benefits of direct contact from time to time.
DM: Does the current situation have a chance to permanently change our approach to technology and show that it is not terrifying?
KM: At the moment, all discussions and negative comments about the technology have paused. Everyone has stopped complaining about mobile phones and the Internet, because we can talk, order shopping, etc. Perhaps this time is a kind of renaissance of remote communication with the world. I think companies have certainly noticed that their effectiveness has even increased in many cases. Let’s remember that an employee who leaves home, goes to work through half of the city may be tired before they start work. And being at home we can wake up morning 10 minutes earlier. Therefore, we are now less sleepy, our minds are more fresh because we do not waste time on any unnecessary activities. How much time do we waste every day on operations such as opening an office, flipping a card or logging into systems? Of course, being at home can also experience a certain decrease in efficiency — when we can not really meet in a large group, but on the other hand we also have an increase in efficiency for the reasons I mentioned. Conducting classes with students, I see that they are almost perfectly punctual, the conversations are more intense and interesting – there is no such shyness from speaking. There is also no classic effect associated with being in the room – when someone reports for a speech, they are afraid of being immediately “illuminated” by the eyes of others like a powerful spotlight. Even if someone is a bit shy in public speaking, here they have a chance to express their views.
In these times, employees and employers are getting used to technology. Perhaps this will cause many companies to switch to remote work after the epidemic. This experience has shown many companies that offices can move to our homes. It is possible that universities will come to the conclusion that lectures will now be held online, but only exercises or workshops in the form of direct meetings. There is not such a big difference between whether we listen to someone in the hall or sitting at home in front of the computer. It will definitely be a moment of reflection and analysis – everyone will calculate the costs and efficiency. It’s all a positive side effect of coronavirus.