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Evolution In Human-Computer Interaction

Dr. Suninder Kaur

Consultant Anthropologist

Keywords: Internet of things (IoT), Ecommerce, Natural Language Processing (NLP), Alexa, Siri, machine learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI). Linguistic Anthropology, Applied Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Digital Anthropology, Data Mining, Data Science, Data Analytics, eCommerce, Communication

Communication has been a powerful mechanism throughout evolutionary history in connecting people. The spoken word has influenced social life. The structure and use of language have helped in the development of human societies. People socialize at home, and at their workplace, at community centres, in parks, at religious institutions and so forth. Humans are social beings. They are not able to live alone, they must socialize. They want to live in groups, families, congregations, organizations, and communities. Another space where people socialize these days is twitch. Twitch is a social media platform and community for gamers. An ethnographic study of virtual communities is an upcoming field of research in Anthropology. As dependency on computers and the Internet of things (IoT) is increasing, with online school systems during the covid pandemic, when the world was on lockdown, platforms like zoom and youtube videos for classroom lectures became the norm.

Lifestyle changes and cultural adaptations of the same are the basic study area of anthropologists. Language is complex, and anthropologists study languages in the context of the cultures where languages were developed. Linguistic practices are culturally rooted. A sentence can have many meanings and there are multiple ways of saying it. Linguistic anthropologists decipher the meanings in its cultural context. Today, NLP has been used in interpreting sentences and accents. Accent makes the task of interpretation even more difficult. Advanced speech recognition technology has helped in the development of AI- based virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa. We, humans as social beings reflect ourselves in computers allowing our voices to create dialogue and make the interaction with computers more ‘human like’. Al is a subset of machine learning and deep learning that uses large datasets of real voices and recognizes the complexities of tone, voice modulation, and intent in language thereby developing personal assistants for consumer use.

Digital Technology and Human Behaviour

Data Scientists study consumer behaviour. eCommerce or online shopping is a field of study which cuts across all domains and verticals, be it finance, health care, marketing, education, communication, environment etc. The growth of machine learning (ML) in the last 20 years has been phenomenal. The way people have adopted the change and embedded it in their lives is also incredible. People are not so much resistant to change when it relates to technology, rather they welcome and embrace it. How Google or Alexa has entered a lot of homes and intruded in our personal communication patterns is unbelievable. You can just say “Alexa, switch on lights in the living room” and it happens, then you ask, “Alexa, when is Diwali?” and it tells you the date. “Alexa, give me some music” and music starts playing. This change is decidedly welcome.

Robo for automatic cleaning of house floors is common in many households in the developed world and making inroads in the developing countries as well. GPS for driving and finding one’s way is now a device for regular and common use. Mobile smartphones also come with google maps and other direction and navigation web mapping platforms. These are now constant companions to most of us. Internet with speed as well as cloud computing has helped make inroads and connections across platforms and domains.

Studying human behaviour has always been about adaptation to technology. Its incorporation in anthropology has given rise to the sub-branch of the discipline called Digital Anthropology. Researchers in this domain are called digital anthropologists. Our smartphones, tablets and laptops are now an intrinsic part of our lives. With increasing speed, visibility, and accessibility, communication is instant. It’s as close as a mouse click or simple tapping of a finger. Human response and eagerness are driving innovation in computer technology. Digital anthropologists attempt to understand personal behaviour and adaptation to technology. They study the role digital technology plays in reshaping the lives of people. It attempts to understand the transformations associated with digital culture.

In this transformation, AI called artificial Intelligence has played a critical role. It uses pattern recognition and pattern matching technique. This technique can be used in many fields such as law, medicine, forensics and investigation of crimes, and to forewarn accidents in self-driven cars. Pattern matching has facilitated the pace of investigation in medicines and forensic investigation. Supercomputers having speed, and accuracy act as the extension of the human brain and human hands. Artificial intelligence played a pivotal role in the search for vaccines in the Covid-19 pandemic. DNA pattern matching of thousands of samples for interventions in cancer patients has helped in their timely treatment. Similarly, in patients such as those dealing with cancer, the genetic DNA pattern is matched with millions of patterns of cancer, documented in various research papers that help to find the best fit to help cure these patients.

In the AIDS control program, behaviour modification remains the best preventive method and Anthropologists have made immense contributions in managing the epidemic. Mapping of human cultural patterns comprising of customs and norms, taboos, and inhibitions that are diligently generated by intense fieldwork can be expeditated with the help of artificial intelligence to decipher behavioural patterns. Anthropologists have been working as data scientists, data mining, data analytics, statisticians, content management experts. Data analytics and machine learning are branches of data science. It deals with pattern matching and pattern recognition. Social and medical anthropologists are using this technology for AIDS and TB control, education for all, health for all, by tallying data from various sources to mobilize best practices.

Self-driven cars use billions of pattern-matchings to recognize vehicles, humans, traffic signals etc. and move accordingly. Any intervention program to be successful must have a comprehensive understanding of culturally-induced social responses to various signals being produced by such vehicles. Tasks such as self-driving cars, automated board games, google assistants, just like humans, plan, learn, integrate prior knowledge in decision making. Anthropologists provide these inputs. Anthropological understanding coupled with artificial intelligence provides tremendous value to alternative paradigms for environment-friendly and sustainable development projects. To mimic the cognitive functions in humans such as perceiving, listening, planning, speaking, learning, problem-solving, etc., Artificial Intelligence uses high data volume and advanced algorithms to solve real-world problems today.

Machine learning, a subset of AI, matches patterns to understand and create models and make predictions, like mails filtering where it recognizes spam. Machine learning also understands images and videos and is used in event detection, object recognition. It is also used for speech analytics, converts speech to text and simplifies human interaction with apps such as the computer Alexa, or apple’s Siri, which functions as a personal assistant. Computing got a voice with Siri and Alexa entering the computer world. These software perform various tasks based on the user’s voice commands. You just need to say, "Siri, wake me up at 6.30 am" and Siri sets the alarm. You may also ask Siri if it will rain today, and it tells you about its probability. It is also ready to entertain on your voice command. NLP or online system is the manipulation of text and speech and is used in chatbot, google assistant, robotics, and many other services we use are driven by AI.

Anthropological knowledge is becoming vital in eCommerce. To sell any commodity through an online web portal requires extensive knowledge of the cultural preferences of the community being served. In this enterprise coordination between communication and consumer is necessary to drive revenue. Online shopping depends upon many factors such as page loading time, the effectiveness of written content as well as picture clarity, ease of using the website. Hence single-page applications are made these days so that hovering over content can provide more information. Content is written in HTML, JavaScript, angular, react. These are all front-end tools for better user interface (UI) design and content display.

Anthropologists in different parts of the World are becoming increasingly involved in writing content for several websites. Content strategists in eCommerce embody and embellish content to increase consumer traffic and have a satisfactory buying experience. It involves establishing virtual communication and if the content is culturally offensive, marketing of any product becomes a liability. To become a good content writer, one must comprehend social and cultural diversity to evolve different content sets for the same product for different communities. This is possible only if the writer is engaged in exhaustive reading, critical thinking, and culturally sensitive meticulous writing. Content writing is about building consumer relationships and advocacy.

Linguistic anthropology empowers trained anthropologists to comprehend the criticality of the spoken word. Tone variation and gestures make a lot of difference in the audience’s perception of spoken words. However, in written communication, words are the only sole components deriving thoughts and direction. Awareness and sensitivity in writing and understanding the audience which reads the content are of utmost importance before drafting any piece of article, blog, or monograph. This skill holds immense potential in the writing of e-content. Writers adjust, adapt, and develop over time to the changing demands of the audience. With strong media power, word travels very swiftly and within moments we come to know the reactions of our words. Hence responsible writing, with a sense of purpose, is the key to the success of any enterprise.

Application of anthropological methods, theory, and perspectives to elucidate complex social problems have received strong validation. Anthropological approaches are increasingly being used in projects on the environment, health, poverty alleviation, planning behavioural change strategies in times of pandemic like Covid-19 and HIV/AIDS. Franz Boas was among the earliest anthropologist to recognise the potential of anthropologists as being both intellectual and moral. He ventured to transform society into a better place to live in. Living in an era of Digital technology, Anthropologists like Daniel Millar studying digital Anthropology strive to explore human and technology interactions. Digital Anthropology is spearheading new developments in methods of research and increasingly focusing on the dependency of humans on digital technology, social networking, and interactions with IoT.

The computer is embedded in every culture and has come to be an important tool in cultural analysis, merging ethnographic studies with computer technology. Hi-tech anthropological tools and methods of data collection, research and analysis make wide use of computers- both software and hardware and have become an intrinsic part of empirical research. Compounded with various sensors, software, and other technology for both connecting and exchanging data with devices, the IoT (internet of things) aids anthropological research and influences every culture in different ways. The billions of devices connected via the internet, cloud computing and social media trends define our culture today and the changing face of the environment- social and physical. This has opened zillion opportunities for young researchers to come forward and take the challenge to mark a niche for the discipline and its vibrant, multifaceted approaches. This is the time to develop alternative paradigms for the future of humankind and we must not let these prospects lapse for want of courage to experiment!

Further Reading


Computer uses in Anthropology

Krampetz (2005) Writing across cultures and contexts: International students in the scientific study of writing


Royer, Alexandrine (2020) Blog on The Short Anthropological Guide to the study of Ethical AI


75 years of innovation: Siri


Horst, Heather A., & Miller, Daniel (eds) (2012) Digital Anthropology. Routledge

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