Research - 31.08.2023 - 08:00 

HSG researchers at the interface between technology and human behaviour

How do artificial intelligence, social robots or smartphones change our behaviour? And how do people in turn shape the development of these and other technologies through their use? The researchers at the HSG Institute for Behavioral Science & Technology are investigating these questions. The institute brings together researchers from various disciplines such as computer science, business administration and behavioural science. The interdisciplinary approach enables researchers to tackle complex and highly topical questions.
HSG-Institut für «Behavioral Science & Technology
Wie verändern Künstliche Intelligenz, soziale Roboter oder Smartphones unser Verhalten? Und wie prägen Menschen durch ihre Nutzung wiederum die Entwicklung dieser und weiterer Technologien? Diesen Fragen gehen die Forschenden im HSG-Institut für «Behavioral Science & Technology» nach. Im Institut kommen Forschende aus ver-schiedenen Disziplinen wie Computer-, Betriebs- oder Verhaltenswissenschaft zusammen. Der interdisziplinäre Ansatz ermöglicht es den Forschenden, komplexe und hochaktuelle Fragen anzugehen.

At the HSG Institute for Behavioral Science & Technology (IBT), there are two sofas and several bar stools in a spacious room. Sitting balls are dotted around the floor and a screen hangs on the wall. There are some technical devices here and there, such as a smart speaker and a robot hoover. It could be the living room of a student shared apartment. But here, in the so-called "HSG Living Lab", the institute's researchers conduct experiments on how people behave in their everyday use of technology. Among other things, they work with research methods and questions from behavioural, computer and business science.

"For this kind of research, it is necessary to have a natural environment, like an ordinary living room. In contrast to the classic laboratory, this environment allows us to map actual behaviour precisely," says Emanuel de Bellis. He is HSG Associate Professor for Empirical Research Methods and one of the three directors of the IBT.

Classifying technological developments for society and the economy

The IBT was founded in 2021 by de Bellis, Christian Hildebrand (HSG Full Professor of Marketing Analytics) and Clemens Stachl (HSG Associate Professor of Behavioural Science). "Researching current technological and social developments requires an interdisciplinary approach – no one discipline alone can solve the complex problems of our time," says Hildebrand. "We want to break down scientific disciplines to understand how new technologies change our behaviour – from social robots to generative AI to smartphones, but also how humans shape these new technologies through their behaviour."

The 18-member IBT team, including 11 doctoral students, focuses primarily on research into behavioural technologies with artificial intelligence. "The starting point of our research is always people and their behaviour," says Stachl. "At the moment we are in a process of technological upheaval, in which complex technologies are available to more and more people. An incredible amount is happening, as the launch of the AI chatbot ChatGPT has shown to a broad public. We want to help society and companies deal with this rapid development," says Stachl.

The IBT research projects – which also include collaborations with companies and NPOs – cover diverse topics. For example, psychologist Stachl is co-author of a study published in spring 2023 on predicting which students will drop out of their courses. The authors developed an algorithm that can predict, with an accuracy of around 80 per cent, which students will drop out after one semester.

To do this, the researchers used AI to evaluate the students' social integration and their experiences at the university. They used data from over 50,000 students in the USA, including their use of an app to communicate with the university. "Such analyses make it possible, for example, to identify students at risk at an early stage and offer them counselling services," says Stachl.

Our relationship with the robot hoover

Hildebrand conducted a field experiment together with researchers from the University of Geneva shortly before the outbreak of the corona pandemic to investigate the influence of large online lectures on the performance of around 1,500 students. "It has been shown that high-performing students benefit from this, because they can process the material at their own pace. For weaker students, it is exactly the opposite. We therefore need to look more closely at where new technologies create productivity advantages on the one hand, but also where we unintentionally lose people and create inequalities," says Hildebrand.

From this, recommendations could be derived as to where and when the use of online or hybrid courses makes sense, not only for universities but also for other levels of education. Hildebrand also developed a chatbot in cooperation with the non-profit organisation Budgetberatung Schweiz. "This helps people plan their budgets online and takes away their fear of complicated Excel spreadsheets," Hildebrand explains. The results of a downstream study showed that the use of the chatbot increased the likelihood that people would create and then implement a budget plan in the first place.

De Bellis is currently conducting a study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation to investigate how the use of robotic hoovers affects users' life contentment by saving them time and what relationship they form with these autonomous cleaning helpers. In previous studies, for example, de Bellis was able to show that autonomous products that have human characteristics, such as voices or faces, can make users feel guilty.

"Robot hoovers are ideal as objects of study because they are a widely used technology," says de Bellis. The findings from this study could be transferred to the design of other autonomous products. Given that the "age of autonomy", according to the IBT website, has now dawned and is characterised by technologies that increasingly act autonomously, these are potentially crucial pointers for designers and programmers.

When AI makes unfair decisions

"The possibilities of today's technology are fascinating and frightening at the same time. Used correctly, they can help address the great challenges of our time, such as the climate crisis," says de Bellis. At the same time, many people are apparently scared by a technology that makes autonomous decisions. That is why IBT researchers are also taking a critical look at the latest technological developments and their influence on human behaviour, organisations and society.

"This involves topics such as the protection of privacy in the digital space or the increasing influence that AI has on decisions in both the professional and the private sphere," says Stachl. AI could therefore also apply unfair or biased standards, he says. "And especially with the mass use of ChatGPT, it has become apparent that many people not critical when it comes to AI-generated content," says Stachl. 

HSG institute model enables exchange across disciplinary boundaries

This summer, the IBT is celebrating its second anniversary and continues to grow: Tobias Ebert will join the team as HSG Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science and Technology in the autumn semester of 2023. "It is incredibly inspiring that at HSG we have the opportunity to combine our various disciplines in one institute and to break new ground in research, teaching and executive education," says Hildebrand. The spatial and organisational proximity to HSG's School of Computer Science also facilitates interdisciplinary exchange, he says, and allows "topics to be considered in larger contexts and the HSG spirit, 'From Insight to Impact', to be put into practice".

The Institute of Behavioral Science and Technology (IBT) is one of around 40 institutes, research units and centres at HSG. All research areas, current publications and news as well as business partners can be viewed on the IBT website.

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