In 2013, the movie Her received widespread critical acclaim, in part due to its unique storyline. Set in the near future, the film’s main character, Theodore Twombly, falls in love with an intelligent computer operating system (OS), which is personified through a female voice. In the film, Twombly likes to share his thoughts with the operating system, named Samantha, who is interested and supportive. The OS is constantly evolving to fulfill his needs and desires.
Although the concept seemed novel at the time, the idea of people having human-like relationships with technology was not new. Assistant Professor Mustapha Cheikh-Ammar had already been exploring the topic of information technology (IT) desirability. In fact, his paper with Henri Barki of HEC Montreal, “Technology Desirability,” was nominated for best research in progress at ICIS (International Conference for Information Systems) in 2012. It examined how emotional involvement and the relationships individuals experience with IT influence their future IT-related decisions.
“We used to study technology in relation to its usefulness. We need to do something and the technology will help us to do it better. It will increase our performance. This is how we assess it. This is no longer the case today,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we will use useless technologies. If something is difficult to use or useless, we will not use it. But we are also driven mainly by some sort of relationship that we create with some technologies.”
Cheikh-Ammar said looking at technology from a human relationship perspective allows it to be studied in a different way – one that might influence the types of IT products and social networking sites developed.
“Instead of asking the question: What makes technology useful?, it may be relevant to ask: What makes this human-like relationship possible?,” he said. “If we can answer this question, then we’ll be able to create better technologies that people will want to integrate into their daily lives and activities.”
Cheikh-Ammar’s research examines the possible fit between our personalities and specific elements of technology, similarly to how Twombly fell in love with Samantha because the technology could listen to his voice, react, and give him the feedback he fundamentally desires.
“It’s like matchmaking. There are certain things that each one of us would desire and, if the partner or the potential partner has these, then we have a match and this match will lead to a relationship. I’m looking at this possible match with technology,” said Cheikh-Ammar.
One of his research projects incorporates a psychology theory that suggests humans have 16 basic desires, such as power, physical activity, or acceptance. Cheikh-Ammar then looks at technology features to see which ones can make the satiation of these desires possible. For example, since Twitter enables individuals to have followers and influence people, it might appeal to those with a strong desire for power, said Cheikh-Ammar. Saving – not just money, but moments, statements, and photos – is another basic desire. So social networking sites that allow you to preserve special moments might cater to people who have a strong desire to save.
“The idea of looking at technology through these desires doesn’t mean that all 16 desires exist clearly in any social technology,” he said. “But when social networking sites cater to our desires, which might be strong or less strong depending on the person, this will surely shape our relationship with them.”
Although knowing such matches can help companies to develop technology that people will adopt and use for a longer period, there is still always a chance the relationship could fizzle over time. Often in relationships, the level of passion decreases over time and some behaviours become more of a habit. Cheikh-Ammar has been exploring how to prevent this from happening with technology.
“From a relationship perspective, the level of habit will increase with time and the level of passion or desirability will decrease unless some sort of intervention has been applied to the technologies themselves to maintain a certain level of desirability,” he said. “Maybe there is a way to modify the technology to keep this level of desire and desirability high.”
Next, Cheikh-Ammar said he might like to study how esthetics and the stimulation of the senses impact technology-related decisions.
“Esthetics, such as colours and shapes, matter and these may change because our tastes don’t necessarily remain the same over time,” he said.
In terms of senses, Cheikh-Ammar might also explore whether increasing the number of senses stimulated improves an individual’s relationship with technology.
“Many technology gadgets enable you to touch, listen to, or sees things. But what if they also allowed you to smell the item that you’re seeing on the screen? What happens if additional senses are used?,” he said.
Cheikh-Ammar joined Ivey in the fall of 2015. He previously worked as an IT consultant and a project manager in the banking industry. In the mid-1990s he started his career as a web analyst, when the Internet was still new and when web design was very desirable.