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  • Writer's pictureDr. Mina Henein

Are We What We Do With Technology or What Technology Does to Us?

Thinking about AI, cybernetically


What is the first thing you do when you wake up? You probably check your phone, and if you are one of the few more conscious people and you like to have a healthier start to your day, maybe taking a shower, exercising, or having breakfast while reading a book, I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this article now checks their phone within the first hour of waking up. According to a study by the International Data Corporation, 80% of people check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up. This tiny little thing is proof that our lives –and maybe I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say our existence– have become dependent on technology. 


No one can deny that we live in a world that is governed by data, algorithms and AI. It’s no longer science fiction, but we interact and deal with algorithms and AI every day, but every minute of our lives. From recommendation systems and targeted ads on social media platforms (YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and more) to maps and navigation (Google maps, Waze, and others), electronic payments (online banking and shopping, InstaPay, etc.) and Chatbots and Generative AI (ChatGPT, Gemini, Copilot, Dall-E, etc.) that are radically transforming the way we live and do work.


Today, our best estimates suggest that at least 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced every day (that's 2.5 followed by 18 zeros!). For those of you who can’t imagine how big the number is, 1 quintillion second is around 32 billion years, and that’s more than twice the age of the whole universe! And more than 90% of the data that exists in the world today was created in just the last three years. And with such an incredible amount of data, our lives have become entwined with algorithms and computational machines. 


So who’s really in charge to make a change? What agency do we have in today’s world? And how are data and algorithms changing those power dynamics? Are we what we do with technology or what technology does to us? 

Illustrations by Nour Ahmed

Kubernetes - The Art of Implementing Change in a Complex System 

In ancient Greece, Plato first quoted "Kubernetes", referring to "steersman, pilot or governor", the same root as government, and meaning the art of steering to navigate. Post-WWII, Norbert Wiener denoted the term "Cybernetics" as “the control and communication in the animal and the machine”, focusing on studying feedback loops, and patterns of interactions between biological and computational actors and the environment.


Cybernetics provided a way of thinking to study how meaning is created between actors to investigate and design systems where humans, machines, and the environment interact. Giving way to biologically-inspired computing and neural nets in artificial intelligence, conceptualizing principles of automation and robotics, prescribing humans' role in technology, cybernetics is at the core of a lot of today’s new technology. Simply put, cybernetics is a way to think about how components of a system interact and integrate together. It’s like a meeting point of technology, humanity, and the environment and it studies how they all influence and are influenced by each other, and so it is a multidisciplinary approach by design; it advocates for a multitude of perspectives, a collection of conflicting interests and an awareness that our differences are our biggest strength towards a better future. 


Cybernetic Lenses for Designing and Living in a Complex World 

To help answer some of the questions raised earlier in this article, and to give the reader a way to understand cybernetics, the following presents three lenses inspired by cybernetics thinking helpful to investigate and design interventions in complex systems. 


Lens One: observed systems - controlling relationships 

This lens explores systems designed with self-regulating behavior to respond to the environment and regain a desired state. Examples include self-regulating robot creatures, such as a light-seeking robot, that exhibited self-regulating behavior by continuously sensing light and readjusting its orientation to follow the light source. Another example is an air conditioner that alternates between on and off states to keep a desired temperature set by the user. 

This lens provides a valuable perspective to draw closed-loop boundaries in a system, where the practitioner defines the parameters for self-regulating behavior in a computational actor, so the actor steers its behavior towards a goal. This closed-loop boundary enables the practitioner to observe the system from a third-person perspective and experiment with its dynamics. 


Lens Two: observing systems - evolving relationships 

This lens proposes that all systems are open and intertwined in a complex multi-feedback interdependent relation. Examples include how a human piano player, via a modified piano that displays light colors according to the melodies played, can enter a performative state as if the piano was an extension of their body. Another example is a partnership between a rider and a modified eBike that senses traffic light data to adjust engine support and assist the rider in catching traffic lights on green. 


This lens acknowledges the biological, material, computational actors, and the environment as one ecosystem. Thus, while the first lens offers a third-person perspective to observe

closed-loop boundary complex systems, the second lens offers a first-person perspective, where the observer is part of an open co-evolving complex system. 


Lens Three: Mutually observing systems - social relationships 

This lens reminds us of the larger social dimension where mutually observing systems are within—as the singer is to the orchestra and the audience—and mutual observation and acting occurs to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Examples include adaptive architectures, where adaptive computation orchestrates changes in the built environment in response to human or infrastructure needs, and humans adapt to such changes. Another example is tele-robots to enable remote participation in previously considered human-only practices, such as mediation of funeral ceremonies, resulting in emerging social and cultural relationships through technology. 


This lens can empower practitioners to think more broadly about their technological contributions, reflecting on the social dimension our systems and choices contribute to when mutually observing and acting alongside other systems. 


A Case Worth Studying 

A crucial component of any built environment, a great case study when thinking about systems, and an interface I bet you use multiple times a day. 


Let’s study toilets! A toilet is an interface between a human/biological system and the environment. In Canberra, Australia where I lived for the last seven years, all of the sewage generated by humans is treated and returned to the environment. The Lower Molonglo Water Quality Control Centre is Canberra’s main wastewater treatment plant and holds the title of the largest inland treatment center in Australia. The storage dam can hold up to 147 million liters of wastewater – enough to fill 58 Olympic swimming pools. Each day the plant recycles an average of 10 million liters of wastewater, and produces approximately 16 tons of Agri-Ash which is then used by farmers as fertilizers. In New Cairo, a similar sewage treatment plant project is to be launched with a capacity of 500,000 m³/day to allow for water recycling and reuse. 


And so sewage water from toilets feeds back into the environment and our food, and it is a crucial part of the sustainability of the planet. 


First lens: Observed systems 

Humans are only generating an input to the system, which then feeds back into the agriculture system that produces the food necessary for the existence of humans. 


Implications for design: 

What are the two or more systems in play? How do they interact?

Can you think of feedback loops present? 

How are your design choices/interventions changing the system you are designing/creating? Affordances of the observed system: What are you (dis)enabling/(dis)allowing the system to achieve? What are the constraints and limitations you are putting on the system? 


Second Lens: Observing systems 

Smart toilets and the design to anticipate human behavior and make the experience better through turning the lights on, adjusting the seat height, warming up the seat, or playing music are all examples of observing systems, where the toilets sense, think and react to humans, and vice versa. The high-tech toilets available in Japan are integral to the “quantified-self”. They weigh the person sitting on the toilet, analyze excrement for sugar content, fat content, pathogens etc., data is stored, interpreted, and recommendations about diet, disease and so forth are made by the toilet. 


Implications for design: 

How is the interaction shaping and changing each system’s behavior? How are your design choices changing you as a result of the change that is caused by the intervention in the system you are designing/creating? Affordances of the observing systems? 



Third Lens: Mutually observing systems 

Toilets as a system (as established so far) interact with and integrate with other systems in the built environment and beyond. Think of the design requirements of a toilet in a house vs the same requirements in a stadium. These are quite different, from sound insulation to physical location in the building, design, and technology used. Toilets have changed over time to adapt to new human, ecological and environmental systems, and will continue to do so. A more recent example is COVID-19 and how the design of toilets in some of the places with the most density and frequency of visitors in the world (e.g. airports) has changed to ensure more hygienic measures and meet standards and regulations set by international entities. 


Implications for design: 

How are your design choices changing you and other systems as a result of the change that is caused by the intervention in the system you are designing/creating? Affordances of the mutually observing systems? 

How are these systems changing other systems (if any)? 

How is their own behavior changed in turn of the change they induce in other systems?


When designing, building, deploying, maintaining, or decommissioning new technology to adapt to the complex world that we live in and create, it is important to think about the different connections between the technology and the other systems it interacts with and

becomes part of. Applying the three cybernetic lenses to disseminate those relationships is a helpful way to think about the different orders of interactions and connections and their implications on the broader system. 


Path Forward


We are clearly at a crossroad, and decisions we make today will impact our humanity for lifetimes to come. I truly believe the only way to make sure we pursue a future we do not regret later (like we have sadly done multiple times in history) is to incorporate a multidisciplinary approach when designing, creating, developing and deploying new technology; an approach that ensures that technological advancements are not only innovative and profitable but also socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, and culturally sensitive. And perhaps if James Watt knew his steam engine would go to scale, and could see the impact it would have on the planet, the 100-year pollution problem it would create, and the irreversible effects it would cause, he might have thought of doing things differently and we would be in a different place. This is exactly the case now, and in particular in Egypt and the MENA region. I think in Egypt and the MENA region, and while we might be a bit behind on technological development, I believe we have a huge privilege and responsibility. A privilege to see where the world is heading with the technology developed, while still being on the outside, and a responsibility to steer things right, to think cybernetically about what technology means and would do to the bigger pieces of the puzzle: humanity, and the environment, and to develop technology that is safe, responsible, and sustainable.


 

Dr. Mina Henein is a robotics and AI researcher, consultant, and previously director of an innovators academy and a Near-East demand manager for a multinational FMCG. Throughout his career, he has developed an expertise in cybernetics and a passion for including humanity in technology to design, create, deploy, and decommission safe, sustainable, and responsible algorithms and systems.

His research focuses on the intersection of AI and society. His work at the Australian National University School of Cybernetics and more recently as an AI and Robotics Safety and Social Responsibility Consultant explores the integration of responsible AI principles in projects across academia, industry, governments, and in sectors like research, tech, innovation, arts, education, and sustainability. Dr. Henein aspires to do transformational research, with tangible impacts and a commercial advantage, while advocating for safe, responsible and sustainable technology.

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