Beki Grinter

What is Interactive Computing?

In computer science, discipline, research on January 27, 2011 at 10:45 am

Recently I came across the following sentence in an article (written by my advisor, Jonathan Grudin).

“What are intelligent machines for if not interacting with people?”

That sentence struck me as being, with slight modification, an interesting definition for Interactive Computing. My revised sentence.

“What are intelligent machines for if not interacting with intelligent people?”

Sometimes people ask me “what is Interactive Computing?”

One answer to this has been that it’s the science of changing the machine in response to a deep understanding of computing in the world.  While that is an important part of Interactive Computing, I don’t think it captures the entire research space, and crucially the sole focus on changing the machine leaves out a very important piece of the design/change terrain: people.

Hence the addition of the word intelligent to the people in that phrase (although I am not quite sure that’s the right word, but it’s a start).

I think that there’s an important and significant amount of research within Interactive Computing that focuses on giving people the type of intelligence that they will need to effectively, appropriately, relevantly, and so forth engage with computational experience in the world. Interactive Computing is a dialog between people and machines. And while a part of that involves making the computational platform a better participant in this interaction, we must also help people to engage in that dialog in new ways. In other words, I see the space of research opportunities for Interactive Computing including not just redesigning the machine, but also to ethically and carefully shape the human experience itself.

One area of research that we pursue in Interactive Computing makes the people part of the interaction very clear: Computing Education. My colleague Mark Guzdial’s research and resultant practice is all about changing what people learn in order for more people to be able to participate in Computing, and to broaden (not just in terms of diversity) what it means to participate in Computing.

However, I also view some of the work that I have done and supervised in that way also. For example, when I worked to understand the human challenges in the production of software systems, it was as much with the view of changing the way that work happened as it was to create a new tool to support that work. Crucially, having a design space that was open to process and product innovations gave us so much more space to design a good interaction with computing. Susan’s work on religious practices and technology was about understanding that interactive experience. One outcome was a redesign of some systems, most notably the SunDial prayer time reminder system. But, her focus on extraordinary computing was about understanding the very powerful human engagement and what that told us about the adoption and use of technologies.

I do not think Mark or I are alone in exploring and even changing the human part of the human-computing equation.

So, to me, Interactive Computing is about a “dialog”, the interaction, between intelligent machine and intelligent person, taking place in the real-world. It’s about building all the technologies and all the competencies required to grow the mechanisms by which that interaction occurs.

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