Inclusive design for all, or ICT4D and 4U! with Dr. Ed Cutrell
Episode 88, September 4, 2019
Dr. Ed Cutrell is a Principal Researcher in the Ability group at Microsoft Research and he’s convinced that great technology should be available to everyone. Working in the fields of Accessibility and Information and Communication Technologies for Development (aka ICT4D), his research has explored computing solutions for people across the resource and ability spectrum, both here and around the world.
Today, Dr. Cutrell gives us an overview of his work in the disability and inclusive design space, explains the vital importance of interdisciplinarity – a fancy way of saying many ways of thinking and many ways of knowing – and tells us how a dumb phone beat a smart tablet in rural India… and what that meant to researchers.
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Ed Cutrell: One of the things that we learned early on was that deep interdisciplinarity was absolutely critical for what we were trying to do. My team had an anthropologist, a designer, there was me, a couple of computer scientists, some engineers and a linguist. And it really took this broad set of expertise to come together to try to understand, well, what is it we’re really trying to do here? What do people need? What do they want? What is the context of their lives that could actually make this fit? Good solutions to problems can come in all forms. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be technical, per se. And often, if you over-emphasize the technical bits, you wind up missing the gold.
Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.
Host: Dr. Ed Cutrell is a Principal Researcher in the Ability group at Microsoft Research and he’s convinced that great technology should be available to everyone. Working in the fields of Accessibility and Information and Communication Technologies for Development (aka ICT4D), his research has explored computing solutions for people across the resource and ability spectrum, both here and around the world.
Today, Dr. Cutrell gives us an overview of his work in the disability and inclusive design space, explains the vital importance of interdisciplinarity – a fancy way of saying many ways of thinking and many ways of knowing – and tells us how a dumb phone beat a smart tablet in rural India… and what that meant to researchers. That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.
Host: Ed Cutrell, welcome to the podcast!
Ed Cutrell: Thanks!
Host: We’re going to be fluid today because it seems nearly everything in your life and work overlaps. So, let’s get the flow going. Give us the Virtual Earth 3D view of the work you do as a Principal Researcher in the Ability Group in the MSR. What gets Ed Cutrell up in the morning?
Ed Cutrell: Well, I’ll say that what really gets me up in the morning these days is, we have new kittens, and so, I get up every morning whenever they’re walking over my face. But I don’t think that’s really what you’re asking. Um… right now, I’m a Principal Researcher in the Ability Group, as you said. And what we’re really all about is looking at, how can technology improve and affect the lives – make the lives better – for people with various kinds of disabilities? And this could be from motor disabilities, sensory disabilities, intellectual disabilities… a whole range of things. But there’s a general sense that information technology is uniquely positioned to help people have better lives in this way. And we think we can, maybe, try to figure out what that is.
Host: So, the research focuses specifically on these audiences that we’ll talk about further on in the podcast. Give us a little bit more about your particular “heart” for this, if you will.
Ed Cutrell: I would say that, for me, there is a very strong sense that whatever the kind of work that I do needs to really be influencing and affecting people who maybe don’t get the same kinds of chances that I’ve had, or that other people have, and that are often ignored. And so an opportunity that I’ve had here at Microsoft Research is to try to pivot our gaze from just the information worker, or the people that are really wealthy and that have all the money and all the tech and the gadgets, into people that have been a little bit overlooked.
Host: Well, I usually wait to ask how you got into what you’re doing and how you ended up at Microsoft Research until later in the interview, but I want to move that question up because that answer in inextricably linked to the other things we’re going to talk about today. So, let’s start with the “Ed Cutrell Story” from your initial academic training in cognitive neuroscience to where you are and what you’re doing today. It’s a fascinating path. Give us a little tour of the journey.
Ed Cutrell: OK. Well, let me start when I was twelve years old and I bought my first computer. It was a TI-99/4A computer that I bought with my lawn mower money that I had gotten over the summer. And, from that moment forward, I knew that there was something special about computers. But then, as I got a little older, I started to realize that there’s actually something special about this computer I was born with in my head. And so, I wanted to understand more about, well, how did that work? Fast forward a number of years and I’m in grad school and I really had this starry-eyed optimism that I could understand how this three pounds of pudding in my brain was going to lead to, really, understanding of consciousness. So, my thesis during grad school was on the neural basis of spatial attention in the parietal cortex. OK. So, that should give you a hint that I was kind of far away from figuring out how the brain gives rise to consciousness. And so, as I left grad school, it became clear to me that, to answer the questions that I really wanted to answer was going to be another fifty or a hundred years, if ever. And so, I started casting around to figure out well, what else could I be doing with my time and my life and my energy and the questions that I wanted to ask that would maybe give me a little more immediate kinds of answers? So, I called up my friend Mary Czerwinski, who I had heard was doing usability research at Microsoft, and she had just moved to MSR. And she was doing some work with Eric Horvitz and some other people on looking at interruptions. How do people manage their attention while they’re working with computers? And she said, I need some help on this. Maybe you can come up and do some studies for me, and that sounded pretty good to me, so I did. And, next thing you know, I’m spending the next nine years at Microsoft Research doing work in human computer interaction, or HCI.
Host: Interesting… OK.
Ed Cutrell: Now one of those things that came up, and this was a big highlight for me early on, was that I managed to get to work with, really, one of my heroes, this woman named Susan Dumais, who was here at MSR. And we had this simple question which was, why is it that I can search the entire world wide web and get an answer in under a second, yet when I want to search my email and my file system it takes ten minutes to grep through the whole thing? And so, we were really asking so how can we make this better? And so, what we did was, we just took some of the technologies from web search, and we just said, well, why can’t we just apply that to our own stuff? And so, we created this system called Stuff I’ve Seen. And the Stuff I’ve Seen basically just uses modern indexing techniques on your own stuff. So that was a fascinating experience for me, and it actually led to the Windows Search that millions of people use today, right now.
Ed Cutrell: And so, that’s the basic technology that that was from.
Host: Right. All right. Here you were doing search stuff and working with Mary, working with Susan, etc. Then, because I know the end of the story, what happened next?
Ed Cutrell: So, the next thing was in about 2005, MSR had started a lab in Bangalore. Now this was, at the time, a tiny little lab, and I had been in contact with one of founders. This is a fellow named Kentaro Toyama. And as part of the new lab, Kentaro was heading up a new research group and it was called the Technology for Emerging Markets, or T-E-M, TEM. And the TEM group was focused on trying to understand how computing could help to improve the lives of people living with very serious constraints. And when I say constraints, I mean things like resource constraints, money. But it might be infrastructure, like they don’t have access to broadband. Or no literacy or, so it’s educational constraints. Even electricity. So, all of these things together, how can technology help these folks? Now, at the time, they were just starting to look at this. And they were looking at things like kiosks that you would have in the middle of a village and maybe that people could all share to use and get maybe agricultural information. And what they were finding was that a lot of the problems that they were running into weren’t really technical problems. They were a lot more about understanding what people really needed and then how to fit the technology into their lives.
Ed Cutrell: And so, basically, that’s an HCI problem.
Ed Cutrell: And so, I was chatting with him and, over the next couple of years, he basically said, well why don’t you come out and play with us for a little bit. And I said, that sounds fun. And so, my wife and I left, and we were going to spend about four months just spending some time in Bangalore and looking at a bunch of these problems. Now, I’d been there for about two months and I was having a great time, we were doing some really cool research and I was having coffee with Kentaro, and he told me, I just thought I should tell you that I’m leaving Microsoft. I’m going to go write a book. And I was like, OK, that’s cool… And he’s like, do you know anybody who would want this job? And I said, no, but I’ll ask around. And over the course of the next couple of weeks, we were looking to hire who the next person would be. And at some point, they turned and looked at me and they said, well do you want to do this? So, I went and talked to my wife and she was like, sure, what the hell! So, we came back to Seattle and we sold the house. We sold the cars. We sold most of our stuff. We packed up the two cats in carriers and we moved to Bangalore. And I managed to take over the Technology for Emerging Markets Group for the next several years.
Host: Well, let’s talk in more depth about the six years you spent at MSR India working on Technology for Emerging Markets. So, your focus was, to put it simply, making tech for people that people don’t usually make tech for.
Ed Cutrell: That’s right.
Host: Or they do, but it doesn’t really fit them. So, you told us a little bit about how you got there. Talk about why you went and what you learned.
Ed Cutrell: Sure. So, the Technology for Emerging Markets Group really is focused on an area in academia or scholarship that’s called ICT4D. Now what that stands for is Information and Communication Technologies for Development. And the development there is not really sort of the computer science terms of development, this is really global development. Like the idea of global, economic, social development. Now, when I went there, this was really just at the beginning of when mobile phones were starting to take off. So, this is right around 2008, 2009. And they were starting to blow up throughout the country. But they hadn’t really, deeply penetrated much of the hinterlands of India. And, of course, they were still very expensive. So, most of the work that we were doing was really focused on computers and laptops and tablets. Now since then, a lot of this stuff has very much shifted into phones. But at the time, for these populations, it was very, very little. So, what we were really interested in was understanding how technology can be used for achieving goals having to do with education, with agriculture, with global health, with financial services for the poor. Now, one of the things we learned early on was that deep interdisciplinarity was absolutely critical for what we were trying to do. My team had an anthropologist, a designer, there was me, a couple of computer scientists, some engineers and a linguist. And it really took this broad set of expertise to come together to try to understand, well, what is it we’re really trying to do here? What do people need? What do they want? What is the context of their lives that could actually make this fit? Good solutions to problems can come in all forms. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be technical, per se. And often, if you over-emphasize the technical bits, you wind up missing the gold. So, let me give you an example. Fairly early on we were playing with this technology that used a digital slate. And so, what we had done is we had adapted this thing for this domain for healthcare workers that were monitoring childhood malnutrition in really, rural, remote India. Now, we thought it was a perfect solution because it was really easy to learn. It was based on the same skills and techniques that all the healthcare workers were using anyway. So, we’re like, this is a home run. This is beautiful. So, we were going to deploy it. And at the same time, we were going to be deploying it, another group from our friends at Dimagi, they were going to be deploying a similar kind of a solution, but theirs was just based on a standard “dumb” phone. So really a feature phone is what we called it.
Ed Cutrell: Now, their solution was cool because it was cheaper than ours. But it was really hard to use. I mean you had to triple tap text entry. It was in Hindi and Hindi triple tap text, let me tell you… it was really difficult for the workers to kind of manage it. And the other thing is that they were really very attracted to our cool, sexy tablet. And so, we’re like, this is a home run. There’s no way Dimagi’s going to really walk away with this. So, we deployed the thing. We do our training. We leave. We come back in three weeks and nobody is using the tablet, and everyone is using the phone. What happened was there were a few things. First, the phone was really useful as a phone.
Ed Cutrell: So, many of these healthcare workers were women. They didn’t have phones themselves. We were handing them a phone so that their sister from the neighboring village could call them, periodically. So, that was one thing. Another thing was that the camera on the phones turned out to be really useful almost as an adjunct tool in their jobs because many times they would be trying to say, okay, well I’ve got a child, they really need some kind of nutritional care, something like that. So, then their job was then to turn to some other workers from another agency to say, you need to provide them with the appropriate nutritional supplements. And often, they would get pushback. They wouldn’t do that. So, then what they started doing was taking the camera on the phone and taking a picture of the person and recording this interaction and threatening the other person that they had evidence that they were denying these kids nutrition.
Host: Oh my gosh!
Ed Cutrell: And then the final two things, which, just in retrospect is of course this is going to be true, was that there was a repair ecology for all these feature phones. Things break. You’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s dusty. There’s all kinds of problems. And so, we had a number of these healthcare workers that would take our tablet to the local repair guy in a nearby village and he’d take one look at our tablet and say, uh-uh, I’m not touching that thing.
Ed Cutrell: But they would get their phones and they would work on them. They would fix them. And then the final piece about this was power. Many of these villages had power for maybe three hours a day. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our tablets actually took six hours to fully charge. And so, for many of the workers, they would come to work with an only partially charged tablet that’d been run out in the middle of the day and then they would be embarrassed whenever they’re trying to do their work. So, they just fell back on the phone. So, anyway, that’s an example of, by paying attention to the much larger context, and the actual deployment of use, in situ, you learned so much more about what you might be able to be doing, and where you need to be moving your design, and how to think about what your intervention’s going to be.
Host: So, I happen to know that after six years you came back here, 2016, and started working in the Redmond lab again on technology for another group that’s been traditionally underserved by tech. I’m going to let you tell the story, but I want to tee it up by this little anecdote that you told me that makes me laugh. You started as a “group” of two people and basically were told that, two is a duo, not a band. However, the stars were in alignment for the work that you wanted to do, and so the Ability group was born. Tell us your version of that story, Ed.
Ed Cutrell: All right. Well, when I first started thinking about leaving India, I had had some conversations with my friend Merrie Morris. Now, both of us had come to the conclusion that, well, whatever we did next, it really needed to be something that, well, first it was something we really cared about. That it really mattered to us. And two, that we felt could really help improve people’s lives in a meaningful way. She’d been doing a little bit of work in accessibility and, as we talked more, it became clear that there was like a real opportunity for impact here at Microsoft in that space. Now Satya had just become CEO, and he was repeating our mission statement, which is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. That means every person. And, this diversity and inclusion notion was really in the air, but there wasn’t really any work at MSR at the time that was focusing on this space. Now, Rico Malvar, um, I think you’ve had him on the podcast?
Host: I have, and Merrie.
Ed Cutrell: You know, and so, he was doing some amazing work at the time with ALS, but that was about it. There really wasn’t any other kind of work going on. So, I moved back to Redmond and we pitched the idea to our management. We said, we want to start a group in Accessibility and we think this is the right time. MSR is the place to do it. Let’s do it! They looked at us and they went, well, you guys do that, that’s great, but two people ain’t a group. So, we put our heads down and we just started working. And, by the next year, we were collaborating with, actually, quite a few researchers in several different groups, all sort of related to Accessibility. And during that time there were three fairly senior researchers that all basically came up to us and said, can I play? And by that point we kind of had a quorum. So, senior management sort of looked at what we were doing, and they said, you know, this is something that MSR should invest in. And so, they handed us the group and the Ability group was born. And so, Merrie manages the group and the other members include a fellow named John Tang. There’s a guy named Andy Begel, Mike Barnett, and the most recent person who joined was Martez Mott.
Host: Well, so whether you’re in another country or here in the US, your research interests are seen geared toward equipping people who’ve been, to some degree or another, for one reason or another, marginalized by the tech world. So, when we talked before you told me that you based your work on three guiding principles. We’ve sort of alluded to them now, but I like how you framed them when we talked before. So, I want you to tell our listeners what they are and how they inform the work that you do, Ed.
Ed Cutrell: Sure. Well, the first of these is, the work needs to be deeply interdisciplinary. Now, when I say that, engineers and computer scientists have an amazing skillset for solving certain kinds of really well-structured problems. But people are complicated, and their lives are really complex, and the situations in which they live are not always tuned for that. So, this really requires a broader palette of expertise. Now, in Ability, we have the same kind of broad spectrum of social scientists, and computer scientists, and me, a psychologist. And by combining these kinds of disciplines together, it creates almost an alchemy that you can’t get when you just have these monocultures of exploration. So, that’s the first one. The second key pillar is that it has to be anchored in the lives and the needs of the people. This includes the context of living, the culture, the infrastructure, and so much more about what defines the place that we are, and how we live. The idea behind that is that there’s really no policy or design that you should be engaging in without the full participation of members of the groups of people that are going to be using your technology. The third thing is rigorous evaluation. Everything we do, we want to explore, how good is it, really? So, for any innovation, prototype, new idea, any of that stuff, we have to carefully, and, as hard as it is for us, dispassionately, study whether and how it’s going to be used by the people it’s intended for. And so often, that means guide-posting dead ends as well as promising places to go, so that people don’t tread on the really terrible ideas. It also gives us a certain credibility in the marketplace to be able to say to people, we had this cool idea but uh… there are some problems. And let’s be very honest about those problems. And to be honest about when that’s true and when that isn’t true actually turns out to be really important.
Host: Yeah. When they’re using your tablet to serve dinner on instead of…
Ed Cutrell: Exactly.
Host: Let’s talk now about some specific threads of active research in the Ability group that you’re involved in. Tell us, from your perspective what’s new, what’s cool, what’s promising, what you find exciting and why?
Ed Cutrell: All right, well, I think one of the things that I find most exciting right now is, you know, if you think about virtual reality, and augmented reality, or here at Microsoft we call it mixed reality, there’s an enormous hype there, and one of the really interesting things about the work that’s being done in that space is that it’s intensely visual, and there hasn’t been a lot of thought about what that means to engage in virtual reality or augmented reality kind of experience if you’re disabled. And there are a number of different threads for the ways in which this might fall out. So, some of the projects we’re working on are very much around people with visual disabilities, but it actually goes beyond that, and it goes into if you’re motor disabled, like you’ve got maybe weakness in your head, how do you wear this giant headset? VR tends to require you to be able to look around, and move easily, to use both hands, and controllers, and things. What happens when you can’t do that? If you are low vision, then you put on this thing, and you’re still low vision, and you can’t even wear your glasses. So, I would say that there are a few really fun threads that we’re working on now. So, one of these is a project that we’ve just wrapped up and that I’m excited to say is now open source, so you can download it and use it, and this is called Seeing VR. The idea behind this is to create a set of tools for people who are low vision. Now, this is not blind, but these are people that have, essentially, uncorrectable visual problems. So, when you have these issues, VR, as it exists today, just is a blurry screen. So, what Seeing VR does, is it’s a plugin for Unity that allows you to do about nine or eleven different kinds of things to improve that. Things like magnifiers. They’ll do edge enhancement. We can do things like condensing to avoid your blind spots. Now, the cool thing about all this is that it doesn’t require the developer to do anything. We just take the raw input that’s taken from the system that’s generating and rendering to the screen, and then we can manipulate it. So, that’s Seeing VR. Another project that’s related to VR, and this is also for people that are blind, actually, and this is a project called the CaneTroller. The idea behind this project is that people who are blind, particularly if they’ve been blind a while, will go through a process of training for using a white cane. We had a question which was, well, if you were blind and you were put into a VR space, could we create a virtual white cane that was fully haptic, that would give you the experience of navigating walls and objects within a virtual space that are not really there? And we were able to do that, and it turns out that when people use our little virtual, what we call the CaneTroller, then they’re able to actually start to understand a virtual space without seeing anything. So, that’s two of them that are in the pure VR space. Now, another thing that’s quite exciting, when you think about AR… AR is augmented reality, and so this is where you can use a phone or you can use a headset that combines images of the real world with artificial things, and so you’re augmenting what’s in the reality. So, HoloLens is the sort of the Microsoft example of this, that’s really super cool. There are other versions of augmented reality, and one of those is produced by the Enable group here at MSR, and it’s called Soundscape. Now this is a little app that you can download to your iPhone, and what it does is it provides spacialized audio to tell you about things around you as you’re out walking in the world. The notion behind this is not really to give you turn-by-turn navigational information, but to really give you an enhanced understanding of the world around you, things that you might miss because you can’t see. And one of the things I find very exciting about this is that it’s using a different modality and augmenting the reality on top of that by using spacialized audio. Now, this is something that could be used by everybody.
Ed Cutrell: And I’m actually quite thrilled we’re starting to explore, what is non-visual augmented reality? What does that mean? How do we think about that?
Ed Cutrell: So, I’m going to pivot a little bit and talk about another set of projects that we just started working on, and this is stuff that’s still quite new, and um, so I can’t talk about too much of it, but I can give you a teaser. And the idea behind this work is to start to understand neurodiversity in the workplace. Now, I’ve been talking about things like sensory and motor impairments, but there are other kinds of impairments, and one of those is people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or autism. They’re often called neuro-diverse. And neuro-diverse folks have an interesting time in the workforce. One common issue that they experience is a difficulty in thinking about emotion and processing that from other people, and even how they present that emotion. So, we’re starting to explore, are there ways that technology can help improve their experience as they’re, sort of, managing just their day to day lives?
Host: Right. You can’t really say much more about it?
Ed Cutrell: I’m just going to leave that there…. Ummmm…
Host: Dang it!
Ed Cutrell: I will say that part of what we’re doing with this is trying to create tools that just provide a little bit of insight for people that are on the spectrum to sort of provide their own agency in the way that they manage this information.
Ed Cutrell: It’s not like we’re trying to “fix” them. Really, the notion is, we can get some insight about what might be going on here, and we might be able to give you some clues about it, and then we’re going to leave it up to you to figure out what you want to do with that.
Host: All right, we’re going to have to come back to you in a year or so and find out where that’s landed.
Ed Cutrell: I look forward to it.
Host: I do, too. I want to touch on one more, because Ann Paradiso had brought up a couple of ideas when she was talking to me about Steve Gleason and the eye-controlled wheelchair and so on, but we also got to talking about communication disabilities and when it’s difficult for someone to speak. Tell us about the, is it AAC?
Ed Cutrell: AAC. It’s Augmentative and…
Ed Cutrell: …Alternative Communication. There’s actually a long history of AAC work that’s been done, and actually this is for nonverbal children with autism. They often will use these kinds of systems, people that can’t speak clearly in different ways, they will use them, and, as you mentioned, people with ALS, because, as they lose their ability to speak, they still have, you know, complete cognitive clarity and they want to be able to interact with folks.
Ed Cutrell: Now, one of the cool things that Ann and that group has done, is they’ve been really working on this eye control notion of communication, of being able to sort of type with your eyes, and you can create, you know… Steve will write speeches using these systems, you know? But if you’ve ever heard Steve or, for instance, Stephen Hawking…
Ed Cutrell: …use these systems, it’s this monotone computer voice. Now, you can imagine what it’s like if you’re trying to tell a joke using one of these systems. It just falls flat. It’s impossible to be sarcastic using these systems. Um, and one of the things that we really were thinking about was, how can we enhance the expressive palette of an AAC kind of system to allow people who are using them to be able to produce the richer range of emotional content that we produce with just prosody?
Ed Cutrell: You know, there’s an enormous difference when I say, “Can you come over here now?” to my kid, or, “Can you come over here now?”
Ed Cutrell: Actually, Steve mentioned that one of the things that was really hard for him was being able to yell at his kid. Uhh! I mean, if you’re just like, “Get over here now.” I don’t know what you, you know?
Host: Right, is it imperative, or what?
Ed Cutrell: So, what we did, was we did a big exploration of ways in which we could provide this kind of setting of context, and so what you were talking about with the emojis is that, as he would be producing an utterance, there was a separate keyboard palette that sort of sat above the normal keyboard as he’s producing his text, and then he could just sort of apply different kinds of emotion to it. Now, we would produce then, on the other side of his screen, which was visible by people that he’s talking to, different kinds of emoji that would set the tone.
Ed Cutrell: The other thing we could do with that, which was kind of cool, is we could start to shape the prosody of the text in the computer-generated speech. So, we could create up-tones for maybe happy kinds of sounds, or, if you were trying to say this is sad, then you could have falling tones. It’s still quite early and it’s not amazing yet, but it’s so much better than it was.
Host: Wow. You know, I have forever said they need to have a sarcasm font for my emails. But they don’t. All right, well, it’s time for unintended consequences, and that’s the part of the podcast where we ask, what could possibly go wrong? Is there anything about the work you do that keeps you up at night, any concerns that you’d share with us?
Ed Cutrell: I would say that the fundamental thing is that no matter how, you know, air quotes, noble your intentions are, when you’re trying to work with and on behalf of people that have a really different life experience than you do, then there’s always a hazard that you’re going to build in all your own biases and values and desires into whatever you’re doing. And so, the solutions that you think you’re finding answers to problems that people actually have, may be just solutions to problems that I think they have, or that I think I would have if I were in their place. And there’s always going to be a threat that the technologies that you have that you’re producing are going to snap back and bite people on the butt in really non-obvious ways. I’ve been doing a lot of work with cameras, like wearable cameras for blind and low vision people. Now, you can already see where this is going.
Host: I can see it clearly.
Ed Cutrell: Um, you know… Now, you could imagine all kinds of benefits that this could provide, but as soon as you’re wearing a camera around, that video is going somewhere. It does provide enormous potential benefits, but it also opens up a profound level of surveillance and intrusion that could really hit people hard. And if we don’t think super clearly about it, then it almost certainly will happen. And even if we do think about it, it’s probably going to happen.
Host: The thing that you just said, is something that almost everyone in this booth has said: “Here’s the problem, and we need to be thinking deeply about this.”
Ed Cutrell: Well, this gets back to my three pillars, because, one of the best ways to help mitigate this is to actually, deeply understand the people that you’re working with. And more than that, to take multiple perspectives of that. If all you take is just a brief study, sort of with an engineering mindset on what is the problem and how do I solve it, rather than, what is the aftermath, or, how is this actually going to be used? So, you know, it’s this kind of thing that, without really sort of taking the time and the effort to sort of study the context and the lives that people have, it’s really easy to screw it up.
Host: You told us a bit of your personal story up front, about your path from academia to the work you’re doing today, but lately I’ve been digging a little deeper on the personal side and asking people to tell us something we might not know about them, especially as it might pertain to how it impacted your career as a researcher. Do you have anything to share?
Ed Cutrell: The one thing I would point at was sort of an accidental thing that I fell into near the end of grad school, and there’s this organization called the Mind and Life Institute. Now, the Mind and Life Institute was convened by a group of neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama. And, essentially, what they wanted to do was to create a bridge between Western views in understanding of consciousness and mind and sort of this reductionist, scientific idea, and the Eastern conceptions of consciousness as evolved over, basically, two thousand years of deep practice and with really deep introspective techniques of meditation. You know, I was really interested in this space, and somehow, I wound up getting invited to a couple of week-long silent meditations of scientists. And so, the Buddhists were basically saying, if you’re going to try to study this stuff, you can’t possibly just use Western tools, but you really need to understand where we’re coming from. Come immerse yourself in this stuff for a little bit. So I did that, and it was deeply impactful to me in my own life and the way that I thought about knowledge and about, sort of, I mean at a higher level, what is evidence and what is truth and how do we think about that? And to some extent, this is what pushed me farther along with my beating the drum around interdisciplinarity because it was this notion that there is no, really, one way to know something. There are many ways of knowing, and that introspective or intuitive approaches can have an enormous amount of validity, especially when allied with, sort of, the Western reductionist, sort of pure scientific view. And I would say that that experience sort of had ripple effects throughout much of the rest of my career. And a second way in which it really had ripple effects was a realization that anything that I do, or don’t do, has ethical implications, and to actually, consciously address the fact that whenever I am choosing to study, or choosing not to study, actually has an influence in the full ethical experience of my life and the way that I experience it and the way that I am influencing other people.
Host: We’ve reached the end of our time together, which makes me sad because this has been one of those, “grinning from ear to ear, head nodding, things that people can’t see” podcasts. I’m going to give you the last word. And now’s your chance to say anything you want by way of advice, inspiration, wisdom, even warning to our listeners. So what might you say to emerging researchers that might be interested in what you do?
Ed Cutrell: OK. I’ve got three things. The first is to look at the places “in between.” It’s the liminal spaces, the things that are between disciplines, epistemologies, ways of knowing. That’s where the real action is. That’s where you’re going to find the next big thing. And the entire training of academia and research is to go super deep, super directly down into the giant body of knowledge and of the discipline that you’re getting credentialed in. And what I really want to tell people is, that’s great, and you need to have that ability under your belt, but that’s not where your real success is going to be. It’s really going to be looking at, where is nobody else looking? Or where is the between things? That’s the first one. The second one is, for God’s sake, don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is beautiful, it’s fun, it’s unexpected, and you have to be able to let it be that, and to revel in it. So, that’s the second thing. And the third thing is a rule that I’ve developed over the years, I’m old now so I can say this, but my really big rule is, surround yourself with nice people. People that you enjoy. So, that’s my three.
Host: Ed Cutrell, thank you for coming on the podcast today, it’s been absolutely delightful.
Ed Cutrell: Thank you so much.
To learn more about Dr. Ed Cutrell and how Ability researchers are making technology for people that people don’t usually make technology for, visit Microsoft.com/research