Human-Centered AI: A Second Copernican Revolution

Human-Centered AI: A Second Copernican Revolution

Ben Shneiderman, October 2, 2020,


Copernican Revolution puts humans at center of attention

A second Copernican Revolution puts humans at the center of attention.


Artificial Intelligence (AI) dreams and nightmares, represented in popular culture through books, games, and movies, evoke images of startling advances as well as terrifying possibilities. In both cases, people are no longer in charge; the machines rule.  However, there is a third possibility; an alternative future filled with computing devices that dramatically amplify human abilities, empowering people and ensuring human control. This compelling prospect, called Human-Centered AI (HCAI), enables people to see, think, create, and act in extraordinary ways, by combining potent user experiences with embedded AI support services that users want.

The HCAI framework, presented in four papers, bridges the gap between ethics and practice with specific recommendations for making successful technologies that augment, amplify, empower, and enhance humans rather than replace them. This shift in thinking could lead to a safer, more understandable, and more manageable future. An HCAI approach will reduce the prospects for out-of-control technologies, calm fears of robot-driven unemployment, and diminish the threats to privacy and security. A human-centered future will also support human values, respect human dignity, and raise appreciation for the human capacities that bring creative discoveries and inventions.

Audience and goals: This fresh vision is meant as a guide for researchers, educators, designers, programmers, managers, and policy makers in shifting toward language, imagery, and ideas that advance a human-centered approach. Putting people at the center will lead to the creation of powerful tools, convenient appliances, and well-designed products and traditional services that empower people, build their self-efficacy, clarify their responsibility, and support their creativity.

A Second Copernican Revolution: Reframing old beliefs with a fresh vision is among the most powerful tools for change. Ancient astronomers saw the earth at the center of the solar system with the sun and planets revolving around it. In the 16th century, Copernicus reframed astronomy with a sun-centered model, which was more accurate, thus enabling further discoveries. Similarly, HCAI reframes AI by putting humans at the center.

Traditional discussions suggest that humans are “in-the-loop” around AI, while the HCAI reframing suggests that AI is “in-the loop” around humans, who are now the center of attention. Some may see this analogy as exaggerating the importance of and the differences between AI and HCAI, but it is meant to have readers stop and think about these issues. I believe that the role we give future technologies will shape the lives we live and the image we have about human dignity and destiny.

The reframing to HCAI has deep implications. In the past, researchers and developers focused on building AI algorithms and systems, stressing machine autonomy, measuring algorithm performance, and celebrating what AI systems could do.  In contrast, HCAI’s design thinking approach puts the human users at the center, emphasizing user experience design, measuring human performance, and celebrating the new powers that people have. Researchers and developers for HCAI systems focus on user needs, explainable systems, and meaningful human control. People come first; serving human needs is the goal.

Putting humans at the center of design thinking does not mean that designers should mimic human form and behavior. The alternative is to serve human needs by way of comprehensible, predictable, and controllable tools, appliances, and user experiences.

The four papers

  1. Summary: This paper summarizes the other three and describes a second Copernican Revolution:
  2. HCAI Framework for Reliable, Safe, and Trustworthy Design: The traditional one-dimensional view of levels of autonomy, suggests that more automation means less human control. The two-dimensional HCAI framework shows how creative designers can imagine highly automated systems that keep people in control. It separates human control from computer automation allowing high levels of human control AND high levels of automation.
  3. Shift from emulating humans to empowering people: The two central goals of AI research — emulating human behavior (AI science) and developing useful applications (AI engineering) — are both valuable, but that designers go astray when the lessons of the first goal are put to work on the second goal. Often the emulation goal encouraged beliefs that machines should be designed to be like people, when the application goal might be better served by providing comprehensible, predictable, and controllable designs. While there is an understandable attraction for some researchers and designers to make computers that are intelligent, autonomous, and human-like, those desires should be balanced by a recognition that many users want to be in control of technologies that support their abilities, raise their self-efficacy, respect their responsibility, and enable their creativity.
  4. Fifteen recommendations for AI governance: Successful HCAI systems will be accelerated when designers and developers learn how to bridge the gap between ethics and practice. The recommendations suggest how to adapt proven software engineering team practices, management strategies, and independent oversight methods. These new strategies guide software team leaders, business managers, and organization leaders in the methods to develop HCAI products and services that are driven by three goals:
    1. Reliable systems based on proven software engineering practices,
    2. Safety culture through business management strategies, and
    3. Trustworthy certification by independent oversight.


Governance structures for Human-Centered AI

Governance structures to guide teams, organization and industry leaders.


Trustworthy certification by industry, though subject to government interventions and regulation, can be done in ways that increase innovation.  However, other methods to increase trustworthiness are for accounting firms to conduct independent audits, insurance companies to compensate for failures, non-governmental and civil society organizations to advance design principles, and professional organizations to develop voluntary standards and prudent policies.


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