By Carol Anne Black
Dr. Isabel Pedersen isn’t shy about asking uncomfortable questions when it comes to emerging technologies that can be carried, implanted, ingested or worn by humans. In fact, she’s made a career of it.
The Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Digital Life, Media and Culture has been interested in human-computer interactions since her teenage years playing Pac-Mac in the Yonge Street arcades of downtown Toronto.
Today as a researcher and associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) Digital Culture and Media (Decimal) Lab, much of her time is devoted to launching a new institute that addresses the subjective, rhetorical, cultural, ethical and political challenges posed by these new technologies. In doing so, her research teams will address how wearables, or embodied technologies, will shift our reality, change how we interact with others and participate in digital culture.
In late 2017, Pedersen’s Tier 2 CRC was renewed for another five years. That funding, combined with a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is enabling her to transform the UOIT Digital Culture and Media (Decimal) Lab that she founded into an interdisciplinary institute with two locations. One will be located at UOIT’s Oshawa, Ontario campus and a second will open in Toronto, which Pedersen described as a hub for start-ups developing wearable technology, giving the lab easy connections within industry. The institute will also formalize collaborations over the next five years with other Canadian and international universities.
“Decimal Lab is a digital humanities lab. It’s about humans before technology, rather than the other way around,” says Pedersen who earned her Masters and PhD in human-computer interaction design at the University of Waterloo.
The Decimal Lab conducts speculative research, tracking technology that exists only as predictions or in labs (disruptive tech) and when a market has just appeared (emergent tech).
“Right now I’m looking at brain-computer interfaces and brain implants,” says Pedersen, who published a book in 2013 entitled “Ready to Wear: A Rhetoric of Wearable Computers and Reality-Shifting Media”.
Her research goes beyond today’s wearable gadgets to study the effects of these emerging technologies on human communication, social interaction and human thought.
In particular, she is investigating how artificial intelligence and brain implants will be governed, and how popular culture is either celebrating or paranoid about the possible consequences of adopting these technologies. While much of the focus on wearable tech has been on the physicality of the human body using sensing devices and biometric feedback, Pedersen’s team is trying to understand how these new technologies will, and are perceived to, affect us.
For example, her lab developed an art-based project that enables visitors to experience art in a new and different way. Called iMind, the application explores an “alternative dialogue” between the viewer, the art piece and the artist. It encourages participants to ‘select’ which art piece to view, based on their interpreted emotional state.
“You use it to select paintings based on your emotional output, read by a wearable device,” she explains Digitized paintings from the New York Metropolitan Museum were pre-coded with emotions, and a headset worn by the user reads brain activity and selects what painting to show based on the user’s emotional output.
The iMind art installation is designed to investigate questions like: Is the computer really able to read my emotions, and have my emotions been reduced into a pale version of how I feel?
iMind mimics a future technology in which our smartphones constantly read our emotions and change their output as a result.
The most common question Pedersen gets asked: “Will we be covered in technology in our future?” While she can’t predict exactly when this will become reality, she is confident “that it will happen.”