By Julian Wyllie

Newswise — Imagine a future where stuffed animals, loaded with artificial intelligence (AI) instead of fluff, improve the emotional well-being of children in hospitals. Imagine, again, these same stuffed animals helping kindergarteners increase their reading-comprehension skills.

Innovations like these and others, which have harnessed technology to enhance individual and societal well-being, were the focus of the recent New Directions in Research on the Psychology of Technology conference, hosted at University of Virginia Darden School of Business DC Metro in the Rosslyn district of Arlington, Virginia.

The event, brought to the School through the leadership of Professor Roshni Raveendhran and co-sponsored by Darden and its Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, spanned two days and included sessions featuring researchers from top academic institutions around the world. There were also several breakout sessions led by experts studying artificial intelligence, social media, technology and well-being, and the future of work.

“It was great to partner with the Psychology of Technology Institute to bring this prestigious conference to Darden and host it in a region that is fast becoming one of the world’s foremost technology hubs,” said Raveendhran. “Not only did the conference deliver incredible content from leading academics and industry professionals on topics at the intersection of psychology, technology and policy, it was also an opportunity for 100 scholars doing cutting-edge research to come together and engage with critical questions in these areas.”

Researchers addressed the economic, ethical and psychological challenges of the future that relate to novel advances in technology. They also discussed innovations in artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, exploring how these new technologies could improve the human experience.

Empathy and Ethics in AI

Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences and founder of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, discussed her research on “social robots” and AI.

“Today, we are interacting with AI in all kinds of ways,” she told the audience of professors, researchers and entrepreneurs. “Whether you’re using your navigation system in Waze, or calling American Airlines to book a flight, or you’re using YouTube and you’re getting recommendations, AI is surrounding us.”

Breazeal emphasized that technology and voice-recognition machines will increasingly enter our lives. She said society must invest more time into studying AI so it can more ethically and efficiently assist and interact with humans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“AI can make a positive difference if it’s designed the right way,” Breazeal said. “I don’t think AI will have fulfilled its full potential unless it can help us unlock human potential.”

She highlighted a study she conducted in collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital in which chronically ill children interacted with robotic teddy bears. The results, published in the journal Pediatrics, indicated that child interaction with social robots in the hospital can lead to increased positive emotions as well as reduced stress and pain, all of which contributes to better, faster recovery.

Tech Startup Taps Psychology to Substitute Time Payments for Money

In another session, Lorrana Scarpioni described her startup, Beliive, where users exchange time, as opposed to money, for services. For example, users apply time credits to have someone teach them a new language, or how to code. In return, they can use the platform to help a stranger get started on a new hobby. A native of southern Brazil, Scarpioni said she came up with the idea for Beliive while reflecting on her childhood, in which she witnessed how structural inequalities limited opportunities for many.

“Beliive is about sharing equal opportunities with people using a resource that is equal and available constantly for every human being — that is time,” she said. “Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student in life. There are things that you are good at and things that you can learn. The premise for Beliive is that we are all equal in a way.”

The Future of Achieving Scientific Impact

The main focus of the conference was on emerging research at the intersection of technology and psychology from a broad range of scholarly disciplines. Arthur Lupia, head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, highlighted the important role that multidisciplinary research collaborations like the Psychology of Technology Institute play in bringing forth fresh, creative approaches to solving problems.

“Don’t take yourselves for granted,” he told the scholars present. “You have a really interesting opportunity here to start commitments that change the way we think about things and transform the quality of people’s lives at scale.”

Given the NSF’s focus area on the future of work and how technologies are shaping workforces, he noted the urgency for gaining scientific understanding at the human-technology frontier and developing effective policies that empower technology to benefit society. Additionally, he cautioned that impact requires strategic communication to reach decision-makers. “Communication matters [for scientists] because there are a billion people on the internet fighting for the attention you want and some of them are named Beyoncé and Pokémon.”

Examining Major Concerns for Tech-Driven Business Models

Leading a panel discussion, Alison Snyder, managing editor at news platform Axios, raised critical questions pertaining to privacy and labor concerns for peer-to-peer companies. The panel included Justin Kintz, vice president and head of global public policy at Uber; Vikrum Aiyer, vice president of public policy and strategic communications at Postmates; and Stephanie Nguyen, a research scientist at MIT Media Lab.

Snyder asked panelists for their perspective on how consumers and policymakers view advanced technologies in an era when many have anxiety about where technology is leading society.

“If your job is to educate policymakers or the press on what you’re doing, the narrative doesn’t last for very long unless the product or service is backing up what you’re saying,” Kintz said. “The press will point it out if it’s not. Policymakers will regulate if it’s not.”

Postmates enables local brick-and-mortar retailers to have their goods picked up and delivered to consumers who use the Postmates app. Retailers who use on-demand delivery grow about four times the rate as those that don’t, Aiyer said, yet he noted the company is embroiled in “a pretty big national conversation” about whether restaurants, as one example, are getting too dependent on this form of delivery and are cannibalizing their in-store sales.

In addition to establishing policies that balance on-demand technologies with the future of retail in a way that empowers businesses to grow, Aiyer said Postmates is also engaging in a national conversation on how to elevate the standards for its on-demand workforce, who power the app. By exploring the portability of benefits and modernizing 20th century labor laws for 21st century workforces, discussions in California, New York and the U.S. Congress are exploring how to balance a safety net with a form of hyper-flexible work in the gig economy.

Nguyen said consumer rights, justice and equality vis a vis data-collecting technology is a central topic on Capitol Hill. She said there are both gaps and opportunities between social scientists, technical researchers, policymakers and industry practitioners. “This is where a cool spark of magic is happening. I’m seeing in the space now where you’re bridging really rigorous research to policy, and more of that needs to happen.”

Other speakers at the two-day conference include Susan Persky of the National Institutes of Health, who discussed how virtual reality can be useful in the health care space. Jason Farman from the University of Maryland offered an overview on the impact that connected devices are having on our society. Don Moore from the University of California-Berkeley shared his research on the psychology of overconfidence and its implications for artificial intelligence. Leslie John from Harvard Business School presented on privacy in the digital age and what influences people to share content to their peers.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.