Exploring the neurophysiology of interactions between humans, and humans and technology

What it is

The NeuroTech Institute is the vision of Dr Fiona Kerr, a prominent thinker and science educator who’s diverse qualifications include cognitive neuroscience, complex systems engineering, anthropology and psychology. It has been establishedtto explore and untangle the neurophysiology of both human and human-technology interaction.

How does it work?

The NeuroTech Institute (TNI) occupies the unique niche of researching the neurophysiology of interaction between humans, and between humans and technologies. It examines cutting-edge neurobiological and neuro-ethical problems from a multidisciplinary perspective through small teams of researchers and experts in the areas of neuroscience, engineering, AI and robotics, psychology and policy, led by Dr Fiona Kerr.

Based in Adelaide, the NeuroTech Institute leverages established connections with Adelaide University (with whom Fiona is the Neural and Systems Complexity Specialist) and Flinders University, SAHMRI, DST’s Trusted Autonomous Systems CRC and the Global Centre for Modern Aging. Dr Kerr also has strong collaborations with a range of organisations in Finland, France, Ireland and the USA including Universities, companies involved in Technology design and supply, Robotics, health, medical and aged care, and Defence. *

As well as offering local & global research, consulting, technology & policy input, TNI seeks to grow the new and sought after knowledge area of the neurophysiology of interaction, both between humans, and with and through technology. This is critical as AI increasingly becomes part of everyday life, and there is a sometimes ill-informed assumption that everything can be technologised. Whilst technology is an essential part of TNI’s work and holds unimagined promise in enabling a human centric future, in order to do so we must also be cognizant of the unique capacity and capabilities of humans in order to know when a human is better, when technology offers the best outcome and when (and how) a partnership offers the best of both worlds.

TNI aims to provoke new questions and prompt a wider conversation, assisting decision makers (leaders in government policy, science, technology, business, aging, health, education, environment and the future of work) to clearly understand the complex benefits of both technology and humans in any given situation in order to optimise the effective use of both. Such questions also inform decisions on financial investment, research and technology design and use.

The Quest

“The marvellous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering”

– David Whyte

There is a huge gap in understanding concerning the impacts of human interaction with each other, with technology, and through technology. This stems from:

  1. Gaps in current research into human-to-human and human-to-technology interaction
  2. Not asking the right questions about the value each can bring
  3. A lack of existing knowledge reaching people in simple, easily-understood & relevant formats
  4. The general lack of cross-disciplinary approaches to investigate and tackle our large, complex problems

By building up a new body of research and knowledge in this area will assist us to maintain human connection in a fast-paced world that is seeing humans becoming increasingly disconnected, whilst designing and leveraging technology to be more positively transformative than we thought possible and creating  quality interactions and true partnerships between humans and technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI).

Such understanding aids technology designers or investors to maximise outcomes; researchers to ask the right questions; parents, surgeon’s or CEO’s to understand and use technology. It also assists policymakers to shape social and economic drivers and regulations for a positive future.

As technology advances, humans and technology interact more and problems become more complex, we know that unpredictable outcomes will emerge that we cannot predict (we are already seeing increasing evidence of this). To minimise negative outcomes, a deeper and wider understanding of the neurophysiological (and socio-cultural) aspects of the interaction between humans, and humans-technologies is paramount. This becomes especially important as AI migrates into many more applications (self-driving vehicles, in-home robots, decision support tools, etc.).

Why do we need to answer new questions?

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

– Albert Einstein

The primary driver of human advancement is our capacity to think in complex and abstract ways, and outside the boundaries of previous thinking (it is worth noting that this is greatly enhanced by direct interaction with other humans). Human interaction is increasingly understood as a physical synchronization of electrochemical information, which has profound neurobiological impacts on emotional and physical health; social cohesion; trust; creativity; complex problem solving and even neurogenesis (building new brain). So personal interaction is critical to our individual and collective wellbeing, but it is largely dismissed through a lack of understanding, and due to the human propensity to quickly adopt  new technology which causes us at time to change our world not because we should, but because we can.

Humans have also advanced through being tool users, and until now, even though the tools have grown more complex, we have generally maintained control. But as AI and other technologies advance, the balance of power is shifting and humans will be increasingly instructed and controlled by technology. This shift brings with it a myriad of both challenges and opportunities as each innovation creates new relationships and interactions between humans and their technological tools, but we seldom consider how it changes interactions and relationships between humans themselves.

Strategically, a multidisciplinary approach offers new solutions, conversations, priorities and questions. Advances in technology and neuroscience is allowing us to better understand the unique skills and advantages humans bring to a situation. Technology too offers undreamed of advantages if we ask the right questions, gain new knowledge and seek human centric answers. The NeuroTech Institute will assist us all to understand the benefits of both technology and humans, and to optimise the effective and efficient use of both in any given situation. It can inform individual, national and global decisions on financial investment and technology design and use, as well as offer brand new frontiers for technological research and innovation through exploration of the neurophysiology of technologization.

Why Now?

“Every problem has within it the seeds of its own solution.”

– N V Peals

In this increasingly technologized world we can build a human-centric, technologically-enabled future that gets the best from both humans and AI. Understanding how humans shape each other and how technology shapes humans will allow us to, in turn, better shape technology. But we must start actively shaping it now, through asking new questions, debate, exploration through research, and active dissemination of the knowledge to everyone. Technology can reflect, influence and reward the best and worst of human behaviour – we decide. We can  build a future where the partnerships between people and with technology help us all to flourish.

* The Institute has been invited to research or advise in e-health, aged care and dementia, education, defence, and the design and use of smart technologies for both personal and workplace use. Current roles include Advisor to Finland’s AI steering committee, retained advisor to a robotics firm for aged care, and research projects into man-machine interaction with trusted autonomous systems for the Defence sector in Australia (DST Trusted Autonomous Systems CRC) and the USA (TARDEC, Department of Defence). NDA’s with Neurovalens (Ireland), BrainMindBank (Ireland), Nokia (Europe), MetaKura Health (New York) and R4Robotics. MOU’s with Dublin University’s SMARTlab, Tampere University (Finland), Mt Sinai’s Putrino Lab (New York) and Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia).