Technology activates its empathy chip

Posted by Flux on 

5 November 2014


Technology scares a lot of people. For the technophobes it feels like someone has pressed the “fast forward” button on the movie that is life, and no one can locate the pause button. But rest assured, I’ve seen the future and there is gentler side.

Last week I attended a three-day techno feast called My World of Tomorrow. The organisers didn’t want to call it a conference or an exhibition – although both elements were there – but rather “an experience”: and what an experience it was.

As expected the futuristic technology that freaks the Luddites out, was there in all it’s interconnected glory – from smart homes and appliances that talk to each other, to virtual reality gaming, which was an immediate draw card to all the school kids that were in attendance. (A hydraulic, motion sensor, racing car simulator had a two hour waiting list for the eager test drivers).

But the fact that schools had bussed their learner’s in to see the futuristic exhibition was in itself forward thinking. These learners, all digital natives, looked as if they had stumbled into Aladdin’s digital cave. They might have been immediately drawn to the gaming stands, but they were equally curious about the philanthropic possibilities that technology can enable.

I’ve been tracking the trend of “remote patient monitoring”: a trend that is poised to revolutionise the healthcare industry. Cisco, a multinational technology corporation, presented their offering of “remote patient monitoring”. It is a system whereby a satellite clinic in a remote area, run by nursing staff, is able to consult with a network of doctors for patients who have ailments that they cannot treat, or who need further diagnosis. Thanks to technology, a patient’s vital signs are uploaded into a cloud-based system, which the doctor accesses in real time, and via webcam can see and speak to the patient and nurse. There is advanced technology that will even allow a surgeon to operate on someone on the other side of the planet, but even this more “basic” technology makes practical sense for a country like South Africa, once you see it working right before your eyes.

Similar to Cisco’s remote patient monitoring was the Samsung mobile clinic: a truck that has been converted into a clinic with three different “departments” – an eye clinic, a dental clinic and a general clinic for blood tests and GP admissions. The trucks are solar powered and even have awnings that are wind sensitive and retract automatically should a storm arise. Personally, seeing the use of technology for greater good was far more interesting than the technology used to control a high tech smart home.

In terms of speakers, the one who most intrigued me was Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford University, who spoke about altruism, using virtual reality. Currently the buzz around virtual reality is in the gaming industry. Earlier this year Facebook bought a startup company called Oculus VR in a $2 billion deal. Oculus have developed a headset called the Oculus Rift for video game developers. When you wear this headset it makes you feel like you’re fully immersed in a virtual environment.

But while gaming companies are scrabbling to develop virtual reality games that will make full use of the Oculus Rift, Bailenson is embarking on some remarkable research: the possibility of changing antisocial behaviour using virtual reality. Research has shown that if you play a violent virtual reality game for more than 10 hours a day, the likelihood of displaying violent behaviour in the real world increases. Bailenson is trying to reverse this with a “strategic filter” that can change actual behaviour into “transformed behaviour”.

In essence Bailenson’s trials immerse volunteers into a virtual world, which is so realistic that they feel as if they have really experienced it. In one test the virtual world is a city that has been hit by an earthquake and the volunteer is tasked with finding a child who will go into diabetic shock if he/she is not given an insulin injection. The Oculus Rift enables the volunteer to fly through the air – like a superhero – and find the lost child just in time. After the virtual experience they test to see if the volunteer displays more altruist behaviour when faced with someone in need of help – and they do.

In other tests they create a realistic avatar of the volunteer, in a virtual reality where they can actually see themselves in a mirror, then they change, either the race, gender or age of the volunteer’s avatar and make them experience some form of discrimination or prejudice. Bailenson calls this “body transferring” and these trails have lead to changed perceptions and behaviour.

Imagine what this use of virtual reality technology could do for a racially divided South African society? Perhaps the Native American saying “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” should be updated for a digital era, and read “don’t judge a person until you have experienced life as his or her avatar.”

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

Image credit: World Wide Web

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