Big-Data Algorithms. Don’t worry. Be happy.


It’s easier for us to let the data decide for us. At least that is the idea behind global digital design agency Huge. Aaron Shapiro is the CEO. He says, “The next big breakthrough in design and technology will be the creation of products, services, and experiences that eliminate the needless choices from our lives and make ones on our behalf, freeing us up for the ones we really care about: Anticipatory design.”

Buckminster Fuller wrote about Anticipatory Design Science, but this is not that. Trust me. Shapiro’s version is about allowing big data, by way of artificial intelligence and neural networks, to become so familiar with us and our preferences that it anticipates what we need to do next. In this vision, I don’t have to decide what to wear, or eat, or how to get to work, or when to buy groceries, or gasoline, what color trousers go with my shoes and also when it’s time to buy new shoes. No decisions will be necessary. Interestingly, Shapiro sees this as a good thing. The idea comes from a flurry of activity about something called decision fatigue. What is that? In a nutshell, it says that our decision-making capacity is a reservoir that gradually gets depleted the more decisions we make, possibly as a result of body chemistry. After a long string of decisions, according to the theory, we are more likely to make a bad decision or none at all. Things like willpower disintegrate along with our decision-making.

Among the many articles in the last few months on this topic was FastCompany, who wrote that,

“Anticipatory design is fundamentally different: decisions are made and executed on behalf of the user. The goal is not to help the user make a decision, but to create an ecosystem where a decision is never made—it happens automatically and without user input. The design goal becomes one where we eliminate as many steps as possible and find ways to use data, prior behaviors and business logic to have things happen automatically, or as close to automatic as we can get.”

Supposedly this frees “us up for the ones we really care about.”
My questions are, who decides which questions are important? And once we are freed from making decisions, will we even know that we have missed on that we really care about?

Google Now is a digital assistant that not only responds to a user’s requests and questions, but predicts wants and needs based on search history. Pulling flight information from emails, meeting times from calendars and providing recommendations of where to eat and what to do based on past preferences and current location, the user simply has to open the app for their information to compile.”

It’s easy to forget that AI as we currently know it goes under the name of Facebook or Google or Apple or Amazon. We tend to think of AI as some ghostly future figure or a bank of servers, or an autonomous robot. It reminds me a bit of my previous post about Nick Bostrom and the development of SuperIntelligence. Perhaps it is a bit like an episode of Person of Interest. As we think about designing systems that think for us and decide what is best for us, it might be a good idea to think about what it might be like to no longer think—as long as we still can.



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Hong Kong 2016

As I mentioned last week in The Lightstream Chronicles, I spent ten days in Hong Kong over the Thanksgiving holiday to present a paper to the Cumulus Open Design For Everything Conference. It was my first visit, even though I have been researching Hong Kong since embarking on The Lightstream Chronicles online webcomic/graphic novel. I have assembled a rich trove of photography and combed the city and neighborhoods where scenes from the story take place using Google Maps and Google Earth. I have interview natives and frequent visitors as well. Nevertheless, taking all my research into consideration, there is nothing quite like a real-life street view and immersion into this city of 7.3 million people. Surprisingly, it is not even in the top 25 cities of population density, but it certainly feels like it could be.

Based upon the dramatic number of buildings exceeding 50 floors, the speculation that this metropolis will continue to grow upward is a realistic one. In 140 years a Top City Spanner that begins at the 50 story level is also within the realm of logical succession. One thing I did not anticipate, however, is the rate at which the old Hong Kong is being replaced with shiny, new architecture. Gritty, deteriorated, residential, low-rise housing is rapidly becoming 50 story apartments with luxury-brand retail on every corner. If I were to re-envision this, the edgy look of Mong Kok in the graphic novel, I would replace it with a similarly edgy albeit modernized version of the gentrification currently underway.

The view from Victoria Peak

Currently, a walk through the streets of HK, especially on the island side in neighborhoods like SoHo, it’s hard to orient yourself visually. Every building around you towers high above so there is no sense of what lies beyond your immediate location. Occasionally, a gap in the architecture reveals some other towering landmark, but it does little to help with navigation. You just have to know where you are. Undoubtedly, that is what the residents come to master. As we near the final seasons of The Lightstream Chronicles, I will do my best to incorporate some of these real-life discoveries into the story.


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