David Prendergast is on the panel in the afternoon. David is a social anthropologist who worked for Intel until recently. He is now Professor in Science, Technology & Society in the Department of Anthropology at Maynooth University. We invited David to tell us more about himself ahead of the conference.
David, you’re a social anthropologist with a PhD from Cambridge University but you worked a Intel for over a decade. How did a social scientist end up working at Intel?
After leaving Cambridge, I moved into a couple of interesting research posts first at Sheffield University working with anthropologist Jenny Hockey on changing rituals around death in the UK and then a Trinity College Dublin (TCD) project on care workers in Ireland. I was more interested in research than teaching at that stage but never imagined a future working in the tech industry.
Working with designers and engineers who could turn ideas into tangible prototypes that we could explore in practice was too exciting to miss out on.
That all changed in early 2006 whilst I was at TCD and I met a small group of anthropologists from Intel including John Sherry, Eric Dishman, and Simon Roberts who were forming a new Digital Health business unit at Intel and encouraged me to join them in an adventure setting up a new €36 million centre focused on developing technologies to support older people to live independently. The aim was to create a multidisciplinary research centre that moved beyond the confines of the clinic to place emphasis on the lived experiences of older people in different cultures, housing arrangements and support networks.
This, coupled with the possibility to work with designers and engineers who could turn ideas into tangible prototypes that we could explore in practice, was too exciting to miss out on.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you worked on and led at Intel? How did your social science training help and what did your engineer colleagues think about working alongside an anthropologist?
The first six years of my career at Intel I spent working in the Digital Health Business Unit and helping to run the Technology Research for Independent Living Centre in Ireland. I lead or participated in a variety of healthcare projects ranging from Intel’s Global Ageing Project which explores the expectations and experiences of health and ageing around the world, to Irish and EU studies on pathways into health and social care, active retirement communities, loneliness, sleep and activity patterns, behavioural change, caregiver support systems, and social innovation.
These projects…required considerable qualitative research to reveal, map and respond to the subtleties of the complex ecosystems and sociotechnical practices in which we were designing technologies.
I moved into Intel Labs Europe in 2011 as User Experience Lead and helped set up and run the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities with Imperial College and University College London until 2015. A major part of my latter five years in the company focused on directing Urban Living Labs and ‘Internet of Things’ research testbeds in London, San Jose and Dublin. Projects in these included environmental and air pollution monitoring in Hyde Park and Enfield, a Flood Management System with Dublin City Council, a Smart Stadium project with Croke Park, and a co-funded collaboration with the Science Foundation Ireland LERO Centre and Maynooth University on designing autonomous vehicles for Older Adults.
All of these projects were formed around strong questions or challenges that required considerable qualitative research to reveal, map and respond to the subtleties of the complex ecosystems and sociotechnical practices in which we were designing technologies. By the time I joined Intel there had been a decade of ethnographers and psychologists in the company demonstrating how valuable social science research can be. This helped greatly as much of the hard work of setting and managing expectations had already been done and I was fortunate to work with technical colleagues who genuinely wanted as much information and insight possible to help define, test and refine engineering requirements.
Of course this educational ‘awareness raising’ work is ongoing and sometimes frustrating as generations of engineers leave and join teams. It’s also important to note how the success of multidisciplinary collaborations needs to be underpinned by constant efforts to communicate and careful navigation of the shifting currents of corporate politics.
Why are you excited to attend the conference and what do you hope to get from attending?
Cyber-Physical Computing is both a much hyped and rapidly expanding area, with social, ethical, and economic consequences that can only be guessed at.
Some of my work in recent years has been focused on AI in environments such as cities, sporting arenas, and vehicles. Mainly I have been exploring use cases whilst supporting colleagues interested in wireless sensor networks, edge and fog computing. Cyber-Physical Computing is both a much hyped and rapidly expanding area, with social, ethical, and economic consequences that can only be guessed at. I’m acutely aware of how much I don’t know in this space and how much I need to learn, research and think about. I’m hoping I will meet many others at this conference much further along certain pathways that can help fill some of the gaps in my knowledge and allow me to reflect on this emergent field. A few weeks after the conference I am travelling to Tokyo with a colleague to make a short film on future technologies for integrated care networks so this conference is very timely as I think about how I want to arrange the questions I will ask.
In your opinion, why do you think technologists should attend the conference?
The widespread implications of innovations underway are simply too significant for any single discipline, company, or government.
Technologists should attend for the same reason as the social scientists. To learn openly, widely and holistically about an exciting emergent set of technologies and possibilities that hold the potential to both positively transform and damage lives. The widespread implications of innovations underway are simply too significant for any single discipline, company, or government.
The focus of this conference is about encouraging and facilitating cross-disciplinary discussions on AI. The power of cross-disciplinary teams is something quite a few of our keynotes feel strongly about, and not just the anthropologists! What’s your view on the benefits of technology teams made up of people from different disciplines?
Quite frankly, some of the most impactful projects I have worked on have been successful because of the way ideas and insights from different disciplines and perspectives have fused to create something novel and interesting. It can be limiting and uninspiring to continue along well-trodden pathways and narrowly defined trajectories. As my friend and colleague Genevieve Bell pointed out when setting up the 3A Institute, “the world needs a new applied science to enable the safe, ethical and effective design, integration, management and regulation of cyber-physical systems.” Currently we all provide part of the story, some of the skills required, but how we manage our collaborations is often exhausting and inefficient. I’m somewhat suspicious of any team in the AI space that doesn’t include a range of disciplines.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us or say?
I look forward to meeting as many of the participants as possible over the course of the conference and welcome the chance to help establish or join evolving networks that keep developing this important conversation.
Thanks so much, David, we can’t wait to meet you on 3 October!
Image credit: Photo by Werner Du plessis on Unsplash