Changing Interactions: A perspective on the nature of our interaction with computers, and what this means for the future

Professor Russell Beale delivered his inaugural lecture in November 2014. This profile celebrates his success in the field of Computer Science.

He’s been involved in a wide range of potentially life-changing projects, from curbing addictive behaviour to saving energy, but Professor Russell Beale is probably most proud of helping to educate 1.5 million students across the world.

Russell, who is Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, played a major part in bringing MOOCs – massive open online courses – to higher education learners throughout the UK and overseas. Delivered by world-class academics from Birmingham and other leading universities around the world, the free courses enable learners to sample high-quality educational content.

“I’ve been part of FutureLearn, the UK’s first MOOCs provider, from the start,” he explains. “We basically said: ‘We’re going to put learning online – what should it be like’? The web only came alive when it became social and personal, so the focus of MOOCs has been on social learning. People ‘follow’ each other and comment on course work. Even on courses with 10,000 or 100,000 people on them, there is still a social element – and that’s been the core.

“The MOOC programme went from zero to around 750,000 users in a year, and there are learners from 140 countries. So it’s a massive success. We’ve had 1.5 million course sign-ups, so you could say I’ve been partly responsible for educating that many students.”

Social media plays an increasingly important role in Russell’s research, which brings together technology, artificial intelligence (AI) – or, as Russell prefers to call it, “appropriate intelligence” – and the human psyche.

“One of the main things we do is to look at the sorts of behaviours that people want to change – the kind of things you include in your new year resolutions: stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight, cut down on alcohol – and build bits of technology to support people in achieving that.

We understand from a psychological point of view the theories behind how people change their behaviour, and then we use science to build in lots of technology that will ‘understand’ you and your behaviour and can intervene at just the right time.

That means designing technology to recognise what triggers certain behaviour. “We fall into habitual behaviour because of triggers,” explains Russell. “So if you can determine the things that trigger wanting to light a cigarette, for example, then you can intervene at the right time.”

It might be that a smoker always ends a restaurant meal by nipping outside for a cigarette. “So the technology system, embedded in their smart phone, could sense and detect that the meal was ending and could either connect the smoker to someone via social media, so that they have a 15-minute conversation rather than going outside for a cigarette, or, more drastically, as soon as they get up to go outside, the cigarette packet emits a loud scream, which embarrasses them in front of their fellow diners.

“It’s about trying to bring the costs of detrimental habitual behaviour forward: being embarrassed in front of your friends could be enough to break a habit rather than knowing that in the long term smoking could cause serious serious illness.”

Russell’s work focuses on a wide range of behaviours and habits. For instance, he and his team have designed a “stroppy kettle” to stop teenagers overfilling kettles and so save money and energy. The kettle boils perfectly if filled with just enough water to make a cup of tea, but behaves “stroppily” if overfilled, taking longer to boil or forcing the user to operate a spinner on their smart phone to make it work.

Russell, who recently delivered his Inaugural Lecture, is currently recruiting for participants to take part in a bed-wetting study.

“Bed-wetting in children is a massive problem and isn’t treated very well by the NHS, which either adopts a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach or prescribes drugs that can have unpleasant side effects.

“We know that elderly people with dementia jig about a bit when they want to pass water, so what we’re doing is collecting data to see if children who wet the bed do the same thing – which we can detect with a smart phone – and if they do, the system can wake them up before they wet the bed. That helps them to become aware of how they feel just before they wet the bed, so the hope is that they are able to break the habit.”

Russell believes the sorts of technological interventions he designs can be more effective than, say, seeing a therapist once a week because the computer systems are tailored to an individual’s needs and situation.

“The principle is to make technology as intelligent as we can, using appropriate intelligence rather than AI, which is about making computers look like the movies,” he says.

Appropriate intelligence gives technology systems specific abilities to allow them to work synergistically with people. Computers are very good at remembering details, such as what you had for breakfast on a particular date 20 years ago, which we’re not good at; but they’re bad at things like vision, which we’re good at, so the ideal is to get them and us working together.

Russell, who has been at Birmingham since 1991, became a computer scientist “by accident”, having started out as a theoretical physicist.

“I deferred my PhD for a year because I wanted to go to Africa to do voluntary work,” he recalls. “Just before I went, I had a call from the university to say they’d forgotten to apply for my funding! So I was left with the prospect of having nothing to come back to.”

But then, at a party, he had a conversation about neural networks and as a result did that for his PhD instead. “So it was all the result of a university forgetting its funding and a conversation at a party!”

It turned out to be a happy twist of fate. “I always wanted to be a scientist, because I was fascinated by how the world worked, but I love working with people and people who use technology – that combination of AI and human-computer interaction I’ve been interested in ever since I did my PhD.”

Having witnessed so much technological change over the past 20 years, what does Russell imagine the next two decades will bring?

“Humans are still human beings: they like to communicate with each other, they look after their kids, and they want to be happy. So fundamentally nothing has changed. But the way we express things and do things has changed somewhat. It’s not completely clear whether the next 20 years are going to be as revolutionary in terms of technological advancement as the previous 20 years have been – but they might be.”