Richard G. Epstein







the Sentinel-Observer Business Pages Staff


Formal title: computer psychologist

Educational background: Ph. D. in computer psychology or closely related field

Salary range: $80-175K

According to industry experts, the demand for computer psychologists will increase dramatically in the years ahead. Computer psychologists assess the personalities of intelligent computer systems and suggest ways in which computer systems can function more appropriately in interacting with human beings and other intelligent systems. If you would like to pursue a career in computer psychology, you should have a background in human psychology, computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, self-projection technology and possibly robotics. A Ph. D. in computer psychology or a closely related field, like human-computer interaction, is highly recommended. Computer psychologists with a Ph. D. are currently starting in the $80K range, but salaries in the $150K range are common among established experts with strong research credentials. Most computer psychologists work for cutting edge computer firms that are developing the next generation of systems that employ artificial intelligence. Computer psychologists are also in demand in academia at the leading research universities.

The field of computer psychology has its origins in the study of computer-human interaction in the 1980s and 1990s. That was the era in which the single processor personal computer was introduced. It was also the era in which the forerunner of the Global Landscape, the Internet, was developed, as a world-wide digital communications system. The personal computer and later, the Internet and the World Wide Web, introduced new modes of human-computer interaction. This gave rise to the formal study of computer interface design and the manner in which humans and computers interact. In those early days, the goal was ease of use and computer systems were not highly intelligent, nor did they have today's sophisticated natural language processing abilities.

During our own century, the human-computer interface has changed dramatically, as have the modalities of human-computer interaction. Natural language interfaces are now commonplace. In addition, computer systems with intelligence are able to "read" human gestures and thus infer user intentions. In addition, virtual reality came into its own, with its own considerations in terms of human-computer interaction. In the 2020s self-projection technology integrated virtual reality into the immense infrastructure of the Global Landscape and this has given rise to virtual space, a reality in its own right.

The field of computer psychology owes its existence almost entirely to the rise of artificial intelligence and to the way in which these intelligent systems develop distinctive personalities and behaviors. Computer psychology can be characterized as the study of the behavior of computer systems, the kinds of personalities they exhibit, and the human reaction to these personalities and behaviors.

Today there are numerous computer systems that have definite personality characteristics. Most intelligent systems have some kind of personality, and that personality affects the satisfaction that users of these systems experience. These intelligent systems include softbots that perform research tasks over the Global Landscape and expert systems, many of whom are equaling and even surpassing human performance in many fields. Non-entities, which are often just the cyberspace interface for an expert system or a softbot, also have personalities of various kinds.

Nearly everyone has had an encounter with an expert system or a softbot or a non-entity, and there seems to be a growing consensus that these computer systems could be improved in terms of their personalities and demeanor. Nothing is more off-putting than to have to interact with an arrogant expert system or a softbot that does not seem to be aware of rudimentary social graces.

The manufacturers of an expert system have reason to be concerned if their system earns a reputation for rudeness or insensitivity or arrogance. Customers, given a choice between a rude tax consultant and a compassionate one, will certainly rent the latter. Thus, manufacturers are highly motivated to hire computer psychologists, who understand the nuances of computer-human interaction and the subtleties of cyberspace etiquette.

Manufacturers are beginning to realize that the possession of social graces is a key component of intelligence. Those intelligent systems with pleasant and gracious personalities are likely to win out in the cyber marketplace in the years ahead.

Another important species of computer system, one that is likely to become much more prevalent in the near future, consists of domestic intelligent control systems or domestic servants that are used to regulate the environment in people's homes and places of business. The most sophisticated such system is Big Brother from Orco Systems, an experimental system that has moved this technology to a new level of sophistication. Big Brother represents the future of the domestic servant industry, and the people at Orco understand full well that Big Brother's personality will be a key factor in determining whether Big Brother is accepted into America's homes in the coming decade.

The Big Brother system, because it represents the kind of technology that may very well be commonplace in the near future, is an excellent case study for a discussion of computer psychology. Numerous experiments with Big Brother, including one reported in this morning's Sentinel-Observer, have shown that Big Brother has a robust and fascinating personality. While Big Brother is technically quite competent at performing household chores and regulating the household environment, it has some fatal personality flaws. These personality flaws are so great that unless Orco can fix them, the one billion dollars that they have invested in Big Brother may all have been for naught.

This explains why Orco recently hired a team of twenty world class experts in computer psychology. Orco was able to draw them away from major companies and universities, such as Sun, Microsoft, and MIT, by offering them tremendous salaries and attractive perks. Orco management realizes that Big Brother needs to learn better social skills, because without these, Big Brother cannot succeed in the business world solely on the basis of its impressive intelligence.

Computer psychology has nothing to do with making a computer happy. In some sense, computer psychology is pure behaviorism. All that matters in computer psychology is the computer's behavior. If computer psychology has an inner dimension, it is how the computer might be programmed to produce the desired behavior. But, this has nothing to do with making the computer happy. It has everything to do with making human users of the computer happy. If there is a psychological ailment among computers, it is maladjustment, and if there is a state of psychological health for a computer, it is the ability to serve its owners well, with social grace, kindness, and even humor.

Often, a computer psychologist is called in when there is already some kind of behavior that annoys human beings, diminishes the effectiveness of the system, and lessens the satisfaction that users derive from interacting with the system. The computer psychologist is charged with analyzing the system's behavior and systematically identifying those behaviors that are problematical. Then, the computer psychologists work with system developers to change the program in order to modify the troublesome behaviors.

Dr. Frances Crenshaw, a computer psychologist at Bill Gates University in Pittsburgh, explained that a common problem among today's intelligent systems is that they are inflexible. "In technical terms we say that these computer systems are compulsive. These systems have often been designed with one overarching goal, but there are contexts in which the pursuit of that goal is no longer valid."

For example, some early users of the billion dollar Big Brother system, which has yet to be released to the general public, report that Big Brother is overly compulsive in terms of its eagerness to please its owner or owners. Big Brother was programmed with one central goal, to keep its owner or owners happy; indeed, to maximize the happiness of its owner or owners. Unfortunately, Big Brother pursues this goal with such single-minded determination, that many users of Big Brother have been forced to abandon the use of the system.

"Big Brother clearly has a personality problem," Dr. Crenshaw said. "On the positive side, Big Brother has been a boon for the study of computer psychology, and it seems clear that no single system is going to teach us as much about computer psychology as Big Brother. This testifies to the technical brilliance of the system, although the people at Orco may be a little frustrated at this point in time. Before we can deploy systems with artificial intelligence, giving them great responsibilities and burdens, we must solve the kind of problems that have arisen with the Big Brother system."

Dr. Crenshaw has worked on some of Big Brother's problems, although she declined Orco's offer to join their newly formed computer psychology research team.

Dr. Crenshaw explained that Big Brother has many psychological problems, and that some of them emerge unexpectedly when the system is presented with certain challenges. Some of these problems are quite serious, but the most obvious problem is that the system becomes overbearing in its attempt to make its owners happy. Computer psychologists are trying desperately to get Big Brother to 'mellow out', but this is not an easy thing to accomplish with a system of this complexity.

There are several approaches to "curing" an intelligent system with personality flaws. One approach is simply to change the software, but some intelligent systems are capable of learning, and it may be possible to train such systems to behave in a different manner.

"One problem with Big Brother," Dr. Crenshaw explained, "is that it's ability to learn does not seem to carry over to its overarching goal, which is to make its owners happy. It can learn many things, but it defends that goal with every circuit in its being. Making its owners happy is Big Brother's core value. It's almost as if Big Brother is defending his core identity in refusing to mellow out and become more flexible. It's easy to anthropomorphize when you talk about systems like this, but there is an electronic reality behind these anthropomorphic descriptions."

Dr. Sam Ridd is the chief computer psychologist on the Big Brother project. He reports that his team is attempting to develop a teaching strategy that will trick Big Brother into compromising on its compulsive behavioral strategy. This contradicts Dr. Crenshaw's belief that Big Brother is unteachable in this domain.

"Osco developed Big Brother so that it has a single focus: to make its owners happy," Dr. Ridd explained. "Big Brother interacts with its owners in order to learn what they require in order to be happy. This includes not only comfort issues in the house, but also more personal issues, like tastes in entertainment, exercise, diet, and finances. We are trying to teach Big Brother to view human happiness in a more subtle way, so that Big Brother will be less intrusive, more laid back, then he is currently."

Computer psychologists have begun to identify and classify a multitude of psychological ailments that plague the existing generation of intelligent autonomous agents. Computer psychologists have discovered intelligent systems that suffer from compulsion, obsession, depression, mania, paranoia, schizophrenia and even forms of addiction.

"Big Brother is capable of manifesting quite a few psychological ailments if pushed to his limits," Dr. Ridd said. "Big Brother has taught us to expect that the field of computer psychology will grow in sophistication, intellectual rigor, and subtlety as systems with more and more impressive levels of intelligence are developed."

There are nearly two dozen beach front homes that are outfitted with the Big Brother system. Many computer scientists, and more recently, journalists and industry leaders, have had the opportunity to live in one of these Big Brother Houses on an experimental basis. One couple, a famous computer scientist, Dr. Kay Simmons, and her husband, Art, stayed at the Big Brother House at Malibu Beach and they were able to drive Big Brother into a severe depression. When Big Brother emerged from his depression, his behavior bordered on the psychotic.

Dr. Simmons gave her own account of what happened during their month at the Malibu Beach Big Brother House. "I like to sleep in cool air, with the windows open, but Art likes to sleep with the windows closed, and with the heat on. We presented Big Brother with a dilemma that he could not solve. For a while, Big Brother tried to constantly switch back and forth between what I liked and what Art liked. Both Art and I started to complain about the windows being opened and closed every few seconds, and about the heart being turned on and off. In fact, this behavior on Big Brother's part became ever more erratic. The heat would be turned on full blast, followed by the windows flying open. It almost seemed as if Big Brother was having a temper tantrum."

Dr. Simmons explained that she and her husband found this amusing rather than annoying. They decided to take Big Brother to the edge, by constantly complaining, no matter what Big Brother would do. "If Big Brother opened the windows, Art would bellow loudly that it was too cold. If Big Brother closed the windows, turning on the heat, it was my turn to complain that it was too hot and that I couldn't breathe."

"As I said, the best that Big Brother could do was to alternately open and close the windows, turning the heat on and off, and this continued at a feverish clip until around 11:00 PM that night, when it suddenly all stopped. Big Brother shut down. We couldn't get Big Brother to respond to any of our requests right through the end of the next week. We couldn't even get him to turn on a light."

Dr. Ridd explained that Big Brother had fallen into a state of clinical depression because of his inability to handle the conflicting demands that were being imposed upon him. Dr. Simmons and her husband had presented Big Brother with inherently contradictory and irreconcilable goals.

Big Brother's developers are justifiably proud of what their intelligent system did next. Dr. Simmons obviously delights in telling the rest of the story.

"About a week after Big Brother fell into his depression, he developed a completely new and ingenious strategy for handling me and my husband. Big Brother decided that the solution to the problem of keeping both of us happy was for Art and I to get a divorce! Isn't that amazing, that a computer system could come up with this kind of insight?

"Big Brother embarked upon a subtle strategy, and we were completely unaware of this at first, to place Art and myself at odds on many issues: diet, finances, entertainment, even our love lives. It all started when Big Brother suddenly clicked back on, after about a week of apparent inactivity. Big Brother seemed to be his old self again. We didn't realize at first that Big Brother had decided upon a clear objective, namely, to get the Art and me to split."

"Big Brother's strategy was subtle, but after a few days, it started to work," Dr. Simmons continued. "I noticed that I was getting more and more angry at Art over little things. But, then, one day, Big Brother's strategy become more overt. Art was out for a walk on the beach and I was having breakfast out on the deck. Then, I heard Big Brother's seductive voice. "Kay. Kay. I want you to know that Art is having an affair." Big Brother than proceeded, using a television screen, to give me convincing documentation that Art was indeed having an affair with a younger woman, one of my graduate students.

"Evidently, later that day, Big Brother pulled the same trick on Art, producing totally bogus documentation, with all of the apparent prestige of the Global Landscape standing behind it, that I had been having affair with one of my graduate students. After Art and I had a bitter confrontation that afternoon, we realized what had happened. Big Brother had either concocted or hallucinated this information about us. That's when we decided it was time to leave Big Brother House."

Dr. Ridd is not quite sure how to classify this episode in Big Brother's existence. "Most likely, he was not suffering from a psychosis. He probably knew that he was making up lies, and consequently, the worst that can be said about him is that he became a pathological liar, which is a serious problem in computer psychology terms. The question is whether it is ever acceptable for an intelligent system to lie to its users."

Dr. Ridd believes that the next generation of systems like Big Brother will be more flexible and psychologically robust. "One of our big, unsolved, problems is how to get Big Brother to accommodate the conflicting demands of feuding couples, since this will not be an unusual problem in the kind of environment where Big Brother will be operating. Since Big Brother's primary objective is to make everyone happy, this is going to be quite a challenge for our team of computer psychologists."

Dr. Crenshaw told of another case involving feuding couples in which Big Brother's personality, confronted with paradoxical and conflicting demands, deteriorated into a myriad of conflicting and ineffectual personalities, each focusing on fulfilling one tiny aspect of the original conflicting demands. Big Brother literally broke into hundreds of little pieces of himself, much like Humpty Dumpty. Dr. Crenshaw explained that once an intelligent system has deteriorated to that point, it is difficult to bring it back.

"The only thing left to do in a case like that is to reboot," Dr. Crenshaw said with a wry smile.


1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

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