Interview with Sverker Sikström – our man at Lund University
Sverker Sikström is one of the brains behind Strossle’s technology. He’s also a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the Department of Psychology, Lund University. His research includes mathematical models of behavior and, more recently, how to measure meaning in language, something that’s been very valuable in Strossle’s quest to personalize the media experience.
Sverker grew up in Lapland but lives in Lund, where he starts every morning with a quick jog. He loves a good tango and drives a 1987 Corvette C4.
What’s your greatest scientific achievement so far?
– Haha, difficult question. Maybe the article published in the magazine Science explaining that people don’t know why they make the decisions they do. Or when we showed that you can help people with attention problems by adding background noise.
What is it that you find interesting about media and technology?
– Media is culture and many think that it’s the opposite of technology. But today those endpoints are being welded together. The Internet has fundamentally changed the concept of media, and fuelled an information explosion. It has also made information more democratic, since we all have the opportunity to spread information globally.
– What’s less obvious is that technology has also made the media itself more intelligent. The media is no longer something passive, that the consumer has the responsibility to manage, but an active agent that interacts with you in an intelligent way. It adapts to your needs and presents the information you’re most interested in right now. You could say that the Internet today is actively involved in a smart dialogue with you.
How does that work?
– This has been made possible by using self-learning technologies, or so called machine learning. Today companies in the forefront of the media industry work hard to develop smart algorithms to help you get the most out of your time online. Strossle is one such company. It’s about finding the right content experience for you at this very moment, keeping your personality and your values in focus. In this new world culture and technology come together while we try to answer basic psychological questions about who you are.
You’ve made text analysis the centre focus of a lot of your research. To me it seems like academics have always considered written information, such as books and newspapers, superior to TV. Is that true, and if so why?
– Partly true. And the reason is that text contains so much more information, at least in term of facts. If you transcript a typical news broadcast, the text would fill one page in a newspaper. On the other hand, moving pictures is much better at communicating emotions.
What shortcomings do you see with the media, from a consumer perspective?
– What the media presents today is far from a fair and balanced reflection of what happens in reality. Media is like a lens magnifying some details and obscuring others. We see the mouse’s whiskers, but not the elephant. A clear example of this is violence. A large part of the media of today is engaged in physical violence; murder, war and accidents. But honestly, when were you last hit by such violence? What’s more relevant to most people today is psychological violence; separations, what people say and how they value each other. This psychological violence occupies the everyday person but is underrepresented in the media.
Why is that?
– It’s easier for the media to deal with things that are easy to define and communicate. Physical violence is more obvious to measure than psychological maltreatment, which can be vague.
What major changes would you predict for the future when it comes to media?
– The media will become more and more like speaking partners, as opposed to one-way information distributors. And they’ll help you to shed light on news stories from more perspectives. Historically a typical publisher was likely to tell a story from a certain viewpoint, and the narrative reflected the journalists’ own opinions. The future media experience will include information from more external sources, and in more formats: articles, images, video, tweets ect. To the benefit of the consumer. All this calls for smarter technology and better algorithms.
What about platforms? Any predictions beyond Google glasses and Oculus Rift?
– Are Google glasses even in the stores yet? It’s challenging to pinpoint specific devices, and you always risk being ridiculed in retrospect. However, it’ll be a big thing when we connect the tecnhology directly to the brain; streaming information to the nerve cells. Scientists have demonstrated that this can be done already today, small scale. But imagine what’ll happen when we can stimulate your brain to experience things that don’t exist in reality, like seeing things with your eyes closed, or feeling someone touching you, without the physical contact.
That sounds a bit like the Matrix, both mind blowing and scary. What risks you see with increasingly intelligent media and technology?
– So far information technology has definitly worked to the benefit of people. It has played a major role in facilitatating democracy and equality around the globe, because access to information used to be an advantage available to the elite. Now most people can access all information through their mobile phones, also in the third world.
– I think the biggest risk with smarter information technology is that it steals time from reality. Media consumption will continue to grow, maybe to a point where we spend too much of our time staring into screens instead of living the life.