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Technology: Connector or Isolator?

Dr. Justin Sanchez speaking at Techonomy 2017 in Half Moon Bay, California on Sunday, November 5. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography

Over a week out from attending Techonomy, and the main theme is still resonating with me: the convergence of man and machine. What happens at this intersection is something that will only increase in importance, so I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it at this conference. Being only recently introduced to AI from AI4ALL’s 2017 SAILORS program at Stanford University and still learning about technology, I had not yet started to think deeply about the different implications that this convergence could have before attending Techonomy recently. After Techonomy, I continue to be excited to see how the combination of humans and machines will shape the future of our lives—and now I’m happy to say that I have a deeper understanding of this intersection.

During his session, Dr. Dean Ornish discussed an intriguing point that furthered my understanding of the convergence of human and machine: He explained how technology can isolate people. At first, I was surprised to hear him introduce this idea. Like most average high school students, I use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to connect with my friends all the time. I also feel connected to the whole world through these social media platforms because I can see news stories from around the globe or communicate with friends and family no matter where they are.

Dr. Ornish identified depression and isolation as key causes of disease, and explained how technology—particularly social media—is linked to these causes. For example, people on Facebook create a profile of themselves that typically only shows their positive aspects. What people actually need is authentic love and support for who they truly are, including their not-so-pretty sides. Even if the perfect social media profile succeeds in getting a lot of likes, this positive attention is not as genuine as when someone accepts you for your whole self. During Dr. Ornish’s talk, I realized that this is a phenomenon that I and many others could relate to. It is a little overwhelming to think about how much people depend on social media and technology to feel human emotions like love. What happens if these platforms do not fulfill the almost primal need for connection with the larger society?

I am convinced that technology needs to be used to bring people together. We’re already seeing the positive effects of humans and technology working together in other areas like robotics, business, medicine, and more. The focus simply needs to be turned towards how technology can be tailored to create more authentic relationships between people, ultimately promoting the well-being of the human population.

Dr. Justin Sanchez also contributed to my deeper understanding of what the union of humans and technology can make possible. He explained how DARPA created a robotic arm for soldiers who lost arms in combat. The arm was connected to the brain using a microelectrode array of sensors, so the person could control and use the arm through his or her thoughts. I found this incredible, and it made me feel optimistic about the convergence of humans and machines. Today, we are making robotic arms by blending robotic systems with the human brain. What other types of technological advancements will we be seeing in the future?

Irene Yang, the author of the article, is a sophomore in high school and active in STEM-related clubs.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sanchez during the reception. In the spirit of Dr. Ornish’s talk, I’ll be honest: The reception was a little awkward for me. Everyone at the conference was so accomplished, and as a young, inexperienced high schooler, I felt extremely small in comparison. However, I managed to start a conversation with Dr. Sanchez. He was warm and welcoming, and I felt encouraged by his passion when I brought up DARPA’s robotic arm.

After our conversation, I realized that the attendees of Techonomy were driven by a commonality. We all share a deep care and interest for technology that makes a difference. It was through this commonality that a normal high school student like me could talk about revolutionary technologies with someone as distinguished as Dr. Sanchez. I think it’s a unique connection that will influence how such a diverse group of people, like the audience of Techonomy, can work together to shape the convergence of humans and machines.

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