As part of a collaborative effort with Penn State, which is releasing a monthly video on school deans and their perspectives and passions, the Center Daily Times is continuing a lighthearted Q&A series that highlights a different dean every month in the hopes the local community gets to know them outside of the classroom.
Up next: Andrew Sears, Dean of the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State
Sears became dean in 2015 after serving at the Rochester Institute of Technology, UMBC and DePaul. Also a professor, Sears is widely known and respected in the industry. He was a founding editor-in-chief of the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) “Transactions on Accessible Computing,” serves on two editorial boards and has chaired a number of prestigious conferences on the topics of human-computer interaction and computer accessibility.
He was named an ACM Distinguished Scientist in 2010. And his research has been supported by the likes of IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and the National Science Foundation.
Center Daily Times: In your video with Penn State, you mentioned that you lived in a place so rural it didn’t have a name. It seems as if you really enjoy peace and quiet so, with that in mind, where is your “happy” place, the place where you most enjoy going to relax and unwind?
Andrew Sears: I have several but probably my favorite, which I don’t get to go to as often as I’d like, would be my daughter’s place out in Colorado. And, actually, some of the pictures (in the video) with the horses are from there. It’s just a very nice, relaxing environment to visit our daughter and son-in-law and our granddaughter. They have a nice chunk of land and their horses live on the property, with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
It’s quiet. You can appreciate nature. I will say they don’t have high-speed internet. They don’t have internet. So it’s cellphone access only, so it’s a great place to disconnect from the world and just live in the moment where you are.
CDT: I can appreciate an IST dean who picks a place where the internet is the worst, which a lot of people would probably not enjoy. So let’s flip this question around a little bit: What’s one place most people seem to love that you absolutely hate?
Sears: Lots of people love to live in cities and cities have a lot to offer, but I probably wouldn’t choose to live in a city at this point in life.
I do enjoy visiting, taking advantage of what they have to offer and spending some time there — but then being able to come back home to my quieter existence, the calmer existence. … I like the energy of the city. I like the activities. But, after a certain amount of time, I’m ready to disconnect from the world a bit more.
CDT: Let’s touch on technology a little bit. At some point, whether it’s customer service or online dating, we’ve likely all come across chat bots. Since this is related to your field, let me ask: What’s the easiest or fastest way you’re able to tell whether you’re talking to a real person or a bot online?
Sears: First of all, it’s getting increasingly difficult. These technologies continue to improve and get more and more realistic. My go-to strategy is to throw something unexpected and out of context at it and see what the response is, or to kind of probe several times with similar questions and see how it comes back at you — whether it’s just kind of repeating the same response or slight variations of the same response. Because people are still much better at dealing with those types of things.
But I think even those techniques probably aren’t going to work on every system at this point. And as these technologies continue to improve, that’s the stuff they’re trying to address — to be more generic, to be able to deal with things out of context a little more effectively.
CDT: The “metaverse” has been in the news a lot lately. And, by metaverse, I don’t necessarily mean Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, also known as “Horizon Worlds,” but any virtual worlds based on virtual reality and augmented reality. Do you think the metaverse is the future of the computer industry, or is it just a fad?
Sears: I don’t think it’s just a fad. If you look at how any number of technologies have developed over the years, they find an area where they happen to apply effectively and the technologies evolve. So I think it’s safe to say there will be situations and there will be people where those technologies work really well, and they will take off.
I don’t know if this will be the future of the industry as a whole. But there are already places where they’re using virtual reality and augmented reality to deliver a better experience and to deliver information more effectively. So I think we’ll see that expand. … One that I know I’ve heard about is the field of medical education, when they’re using a virtual reality experience to help physicians learn about providing medical care.
… But, for me, I think the real interesting question ends up being, “What are the unintended consequences to come with this?” So we’ll find places where it’ll work really well. But I think the really interesting question ends up being what the unintended consequences are. What are the social implications that come with more and more use of these technologies? And what are some of the ethical questions that might arise?
CDT: We’ve seen technology evolve a lot over the decades. I mean, it’s been widely reported our smartphones are thousands of times more powerful than the NASA supercomputers that got us to the moon in 1969. You read a lot of peer-reviewed studies that touch on some of this, so I want to ask you to play futurologist and/or fortune teller: What are some of your best guesses for what technology might look like by 2050?
Sears: That’s certainly a challenging question. And I think, if you look at it, there are probably countless scenarios where people have tried to predict the future. Most have probably been wrong, a few ended up being right — and they were geniuses in retrospect.
I’m not sure predicting what will exist in 25 years, that I’m in a great position to do that. But I can certainly tell you what I would hope we would see. I would hope that we would see technologies that really do a better job of working for people and working with people. If you look at a lot of research in new technology development, a lot of it starts with the question of, “Can we do X?” And they really focus on figuring out if that’s possible. So face recognition was a good example. Can we recognize people using computer vision technologies in a reliable way?
And, eventually, the technologies move along, and some of them end up being successful. So, yes, they end up getting face recognition to work. But they were focused solely on the “Can we?” questions. Not the “What happens if we do this?” question. Or, “What are some of the unintended things that can come along with the technology when it happens?” So I would really like to see where the research into new technologies and the technology development is going beyond those “Can we?” questions to think about social implications that come along with it, the ethical questions that come along with it. …
And we’ve seen, over and over, it’s easier to design technologies to avoid problems upfront than it is to go back and retroactively fix them. So I would think, similarly, if we can spend more time thinking about the social implications, the ethical implications, the various ways things will be used beyond what we intend, then maybe we can do a better job of designing those technologies from the beginning .