How Technology Can Help Tell Deeply Human Stories

Author: Michelle Russell       

A life-sized hologram of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter tells a listener about his experiences via technology created by Andrew Jones and his team.

Nine years ago, a team led by Andrew Jones, Ph.D., a computer graphics programmer at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Institute for Creative Technology, invented, as he says in a 2016 TEDx Talk (video below), “a floating 3D head in a box” — a display where you can see the depth of a face while s/he speaks. Most people didn’t know what to make of it, Jones says in the video. Except one woman, who grabbed his hand, looked him in the eye, and asked if it would be possible to record this 3D conversation with a Holocaust survivor.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell

The woman was from the USC Shoah Foundation, which has recorded thousands upon thousands of video interviews with genocide survivors — the world’s largest collection of its kind — mostly comprised of testimonies of Holocaust survivors. She saw an application for the technology that went beyond what its inventor envisioned: an interactive conversation with a survivor where you could ask questions that he or she could respond to, because those same questions had already been asked and their responses recorded.

At that point, the technology wasn’t there yet — and the prospect of delivering on it was “just totally daunting,” Jones said. He persevered, and by training 50 cameras on Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, he was able to fulfill the dream “that one day, kids could sit around the 3D Pinchas and listen to his stories.” The result is so realistic that Deputy Editor Barbara Palmer, who experienced the life-sized Pinchas hologram at The Future of StoryTelling Festival three years ago, hesitated to ask him a deeply personal question, fearing it would cause him pain.

I’ve just told a story — the core of what connects us to our humanity. Storytelling is the way we make sense of things, and at the risk of being too meta, the story I’ve just shared is about the future of storytelling. Moreover, it’s a story about using technology as a tool to expand upon our humanness.

Our August 2019 cover and CMP Series story takes a more sobering look at how technology — or more specifically, AI and automation — continues to disrupt the workforce, and the very real threat it poses to our livelihoods. Some of the experts we spoke to said that the need to use our wisdom and ethics — to lean in to what makes us human — to harness the power of these technologies is urgent. To improve our world, rather than blindly enabling their proliferation without consideration of their potential consequences.

SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Andrew Russell, Ph.D., told me that his fears about automating people out of jobs are twofold: It means replacing workers with a less effective alternative because it’s not infused with an “ethic of care,” and “further, basically disadvantaging the people — and their families — whose work is really essential for keeping our society running.”

What does this mean for you and the business events industry? In researching the future of work and speaking to writers and experts on the topic, we tried to connect the dots where we could. We’d love to hear how it gets you thinking.

Michelle Russell is Editor in Chief of Convene.