Tag Archives: design fiction

Of Threatcasting

Until a Google alert came through my email this week, I have to admit, I had never heard the term threatcasting. I clicked-in to an article in Slate that gave me the overview, and when I discovered that threatcasting is a blood-relative to guerrilla futures, I was more than intrigued. First, let’s bring you up to speed on threatcasting and then I will remind my readers about this guerrilla business.

The Slate article was written by futurist Brian David Johnson, formerly of Intel and now in residence at Arizona State University, and Natalie Vanatta a U.S. Army Cyber officer with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics currently researching in a military think tank. These folks are in the loop, and kudos to ASU for being a leader in bringing thought leaders, creators and technologists together to look at the future. According to the article, threatcasting is “… a conceptual process used to envision and plan for risks 10 years in the future.” If you know what my research focus is, then you know we are already on the same page. The two writers work with “Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab, whose mission is to use threatcasting to envision futures that empower actions.” The lab creates future scenarios that bring together “… experts in social science, technology, economics, cultural history, and other fields.” Their future scenarios have inspired companies like CISCO, through the Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL), to create a two-day summit to look at countermeasures for threats to the Internet of Things. They also work with the “… U.S. Army Cyber Institute, a military think tank tasked to prepare for near-future challenges the Army will face in the digital domain.” The article continues:

“The threatcasting process might generate only negative visions if we stopped here. However, the group then use the science-fiction prototype to explore the factors and events that led to the threat. This helps them think more clearly how to disrupt, lessen, or recover from the potential threats. From this the group proposes short-term, actionable steps to implement today to nudge society away from potential threats.”

So, as I have already said, this is a very close cousin of my brand of design fiction. Where it differs is that it focuses on threats, the downsides and unintended consequences of many of the technologies that we take for granted. Of course, design fiction can do this as well, but design fiction has many flavors, and not all of them deal with future downsides.

Design fictions, however, are supposed to be provocations, and I am an advocate of the idea that tension creates the most successful provocations. We could paint utopian futures, a picture of what the world will be like should everything work out flawlessly, but that is not the essential ingredient of my brand of design fiction nor is it the real nature of things. However, my practice is not altogether dystopian either because our future will not likely be either
one or the other, but rather a combination that includes elements of both. I posit that our greatest possible impact will be to examine the errors that inevitably accompany progress and change. These don’t have to be apocalyptic. Sometimes they can be subtle and mundane. They creep up on us until one day we realize that we have changed.

As for guerrilla futures, this term comes from futurist and scholar, Stewart Candy. Here the idea is to insert the future
into the present “to expose publics to possibilities that they are unable or unwilling to give proper consideration. Whether or not they have asked for it.” All to raise awareness of the future, to discuss it and debate it in the present. My provocations are a bit more subtle and less nefarious than the threatcasting folks. Rather than terrorist attacks or hackers shutting down the power grid, I focus on the more nuanced possibilities of our techno-social future, things like ubiquitous surveillance, the loss of privacy, and our subtlely changing behaviors.

Nevertheless, I applaud this threatcasting business, and we need more of it, and there’s plenty of room for both of us.

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Corporate Sci-Fi.

Note: Also published on LinkedIn

 

Why your company needs to play in the future.

As a professor of design and a design fiction researcher, I write academic papers and blog weekly about the future. I teach about the future of design, and I create future scenarios, sometimes with my students, that provoke us to look at what we are doing, what we are making, why we are making it and the ramifications that are inevitable. Primarily I try to focus both designers and decision makers on the steps they can take today to keep from being blindsided tomorrow. Futurists seem to be all the rage these days telling us to prepare for the Singularity, autonomous everything, or that robots will take our jobs. Recently, Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of the gene editing technique called CrisprCas9 has been making the rounds and sounding the alarm that technology is moving so fast that we aren’t going to be able to contain a host of unforeseen (and foreseen) circumstances inside Pandora’s box. This concern should be prevalent, however, beyond just the bioengineering fields and extend into virtually anywhere that technology is racing forward fueled by venture capital and the desperate need to stay on top of whatever space in which we are playing. There is a lot at stake. Technology has already redefined privacy, behavioral wellness, personal autonomy, healthcare, labor, and maybe even our humanness, just to name a few.

Several recent articles have highlighted the changing world of design and how the pressure is on designers to make user adoption more like user addiction to ensure the success of a product or app. The world of behavioral economics is becoming a new arena in which we are using algorithms to manipulate users. Some designers are passing the buck to the clients or corporations that employ them for the questionable ethics of addictive products; others feel compelled to step aside and work on less lucrative projects or apply their skills to social causes. Most really care and want to help. But designers are uniquely positioned and trained to tackle these wicked problems—if we would collaborate with them.

Beyond the companies that might be deliberately trying to manipulate us, are those that unknowingly, or at least unintentionally, transform our behaviors in ways that are potentially harmful. Traditionally, we seek to hold someone responsible when a product or service is faulty, the physician for malpractice, the designer or manufacturer when a toy causes injury, a garment falls apart, or an appliance self-destructs. But as we move toward systemic designs that are less physical and more emotional, behavioral, or biological, design faults may not be so easy to identify and their repercussions noticeable only after serious issues have arisen. In fact, we launch many of the apps and operating systems used today with admitted errors and bugs. Designers rely on real-life testing to identify problems, issue patches, revisions, and versions.

In the realm of nanotechnology, while scientists and thought leaders have proposed guidelines and best-practices, research and development teams in labs around the world race forward without regulation creating molecule-sized structures, machines, and substances with no idea whether they are safe or what might be long-term effects of exposure to these elements. In biotechnology, while folks like Jennifer Doudna appeal to a morally ethical cadre of researchers to tread carefully in the realm of genetic engineering (especially when it comes to inheritable gene manipulation) we do not universally share those morals and ethics. Recent headlines attest to the fact that some scientists are bent on moving forward regardless of the implications.

Some technologies such as our smartphones have become equally invasive technology, yet they are now considered mundane. In just ten years since the introduction of the iPhone, we have transformed behaviors, upended our modes of communication, redefined privacy, distracted our attentions, distorted reality and manipulated a predicted 2.3 billion users as of 2017. [1] It is worth contemplating that this disruption is not from a faulty product, but rather one that can only be considered wildly successful.

There are a plethora of additional technologies that are poised to refine our worlds yet again including artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance, human augmentation, robotics, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the pervasive Internet of Things. Many of these technologies make their way into our experiences through the promise of better living, medical breakthroughs, or a safer and more secure life. But too often we ignore the potential downsides, the unintended consequences, or the systemic ripple-effects that these technologies spawn. Why?

In many cases, we do not want to stand in the way of progress. In others, we believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, yet this is the same thinking that has spawned some of our most complex and daunting systems, from nuclear weapons to air travel and the internal combustion engine. Each of these began with the best of intentions and, in many ways were as successful and initially beneficial as they could be. At the same time, they advanced and proliferated far more rapidly than we were prepared to accommodate. Dirty bombs are a reality we did not expect. The alluring efficiency with which we can fly from one city to another has nevertheless spawned a gnarly network of air traffic, baggage logistics, and anti-terrorism measures that are arguably more elaborate than getting an aircraft off the ground. Traffic, freeways, infrastructure, safety, and the drain on natural resources are complexities never imagined with the revolution of personal transportation. We didn’t see the entailments of success.

This is not always true. There have often been scientists and thought leaders who were waving the yellow flag of caution. I have written about how, “back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.”[2] Indeed, researchers like Jennifer Doudna continue to carry the banner. A similar conference took place earlier this year to alert us to the potential dangers of technology and earlier this year another to put forth recommendations and guidelines to ensure that when machines are smarter than we are they carry on in a beneficent role. Too often, however, it is the scientists and visionaries who attend these conferences. [3] Noticeably absent, though not always, is corporate leadership.

Nevertheless, in this country, there remains no safeguarding regulation for nanotech, nor bioengineering, nor AI research. It is a free-for-all, and all of which could have massive disruption not only to our lifestyles but also our culture, our behavior, and our humanness. Who is responsible?

For nearly 40 years there has been an environmental movement that has spread globally. Good stewardship is a good idea. But it wasn’t until most corporations saw a way for it to make economic sense that they began to focus on it and then promote it as their contribution to society, their responsibility, and their civic duty. As well intentioned as they may be (and many are) much more are not paying attention to the effect of their technological achievements on our human condition.

We design most technologies with a combination of perceived user need and commercial potential. In many cases, these are coupled with more altruistic motivations such as a “do no harm” commitment to the environment and fair labor practices. As we move toward the capability to change ourselves in fundamental ways, are we also giving significant thought to the behaviors that we will engender by such innovations, or the resulting implications for society, culture, and the interconnectedness of everything?

Enter Humane Technology

Ultimately we will have to demand this level of thought, beginning with ourselves. But we should not fight this alone. Corporations concerned with appearing sensitive and proactive toward the environment and social justice need to add a new pillar to their edifice as responsible global citizens: humane technology.

Humane technology considers the socio-behavioral ramifications of products and services: digital dependencies, and addictions, job loss, genetic repercussions, the human impact from nanotechnologies, AI, and the Internet of Things.

To whom do we turn when a 14-year-old becomes addicted to her smartphone or obsessed with her social media popularity? We could condemn the parents for lack of supervision, but many of them are equally distracted. Who is responsible for the misuse of a drone to vandalize property or fire a gun or the anticipated 1 billion drones flying around by 2030? [4] Who will answer for the repercussions of artificial intelligence that spouts hate speech? Where will the buck stop when genetic profiling becomes a requirement for getting insured or getting a job?

While the backlash against these types of unintended consequences or unforeseen circumstances are not yet widespread and citizens have not taken to the streets in mass protests, behavioral and social changes like these may be imminent as a result of dozens of transformational technologies currently under development in labs and R&D departments across the globe. Who is looking at the unforeseen or the unintended? Who is paying attention and who is turning a blind eye?

It was possible to have anticipated texting and driving. It is possible to anticipate a host of horrific side effects from nanotechnology to both humans and the environment. It’s possible to tag the ever-present bad actor to any number of new technologies. It is possible to identify when the race to master artificial intelligence may be coming at the expense of making it safe or drawing the line. In fact, it is a marketing opportunity for corporate interests to take the lead and the leverage their efforts to preempt adverse side effects as a distinctive advantage.

Emphasizing humane technology is an automatic benefit for an ethical company, and for those more concerned with profit than ethics, (just between you and me) it offers the opportunity for a better brand image and (at least) the appearance of social concern. Whatever the motivation, we are looking at a future where we are either prepared for what happens next, or we are caught napping.

This responsibility should start with anticipatory methodologies that examine the social, cultural and behavioral ramifications, and unintended consequences of what we create. Designers and those trained in design research are excellent collaborators. My brand of design fiction is intended to take us into the future in an immersive and visceral way to provoke the necessary discussion and debate that anticipate the storm should there be one, but promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation. Design fiction embraces the art critical thinking and thought problems as a means of anticipating conflict and complexity before these become problems to be solved.

Ultimately we have to depart from the idea that technology will be the magic pill to solve the ills of humanity, design fiction, and other anticipatory methodologies can help to acknowledge our humanness and our propensity to foul things up. If we do not self-regulate, regulation will inevitably follow, probably spurred on by some unspeakable tragedy. There is an opportunity, now for the corporation to step up to the future with a responsible, thoughtful compassion for our humanity.

 

 

1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

2. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/08/04/now-2/

3. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/03/24/genius-panel-concerned/

4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-31/world-of-drones-congress-brisbane-futurist-thomas-frey/8859008

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What did one AI say to the other AI?

I’e asked this question before, but this is an entirely new answer.

We may  never know.

Based on a plethora of recent media on artificial intelligence (AI), not only are there a lot of people working on it, but many of those on the leading edge are also concerned with what they don’t understand in the midst of their ominous new creation.

Amazon, DeepMind/Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft teamed up to form the Partnership on AI.(1) Their charter talks about sharing information and being responsible. It includes all of the proper buzz words for a technosocial contract.

“…transparency, security and privacy, values and ethics, collaboration between people and AI systems, interoperability of systems, and of the trustworthiness, reliability, containment, safety, and robustness of the technology.”(2)

They are not alone in this concern, as the EU(3) is also working on AI guidelines and a set of rules on robotics.

Some of what makes them all a bit nervous is the way AI learns, the complexity of neural networks and inability to go back and see how the AI arrived at its conclusion. In other words, how do we know that its recommendation is the right one? Adding to that list is the discovery that AIs working together can create their own languages; languages we don’t speak or understand. In one case, at Facebook, researchers saw this happening and stopped it.

For me, it’s a little disconcerting that Facebook, a social media app is one of those corporations leading the charge and leading the research into AI. That’s a broad topic for another blog, but their underlying objective is to market to you. That’s how they make their money.

To be fair, that is at least part of the motivation for Amazon, DeepMind/Google, IBM, and Microsoft, as well. The better they know you, the more stuff they can sell you. Of course, there are also enormous benefits to medical research as well. Such advantages are almost always what these companies talk about first. AI will save your life, cure cancer and prevent crime.

So, it is somewhat encouraging to see that these companies on the forefront of AI breakthroughs are also acutely aware of how AI could go terribly wrong. Hence we see wording from the Partnership on AI, like

“…Seek out, support, celebrate, and highlight aspirational efforts in AI for socially benevolent applications.”

The key word here is benevolent. But the clear objective is to keep the dialog positive, and

“Create and support opportunities for AI researchers and key stakeholders, including people in technology, law, policy, government, civil liberties, and the greater public, to communicate directly and openly with each other about relevant issues to AI and its influences on people and society.”(2)

I’m reading between the lines, but it seems like the issue of how AI will influence people and society is more of an obligatory statement intended to demonstrate compassionate concern. It’s coming from the people who see huge commercial benefit from the public being at ease with the coming onslaught of AI intrusion.

In their long list of goals, the “influences” on society don’t seem to be a priority. For example, should they discover that particular AI has a detrimental effect on people, that their civil liberties are less secure, would they stop? Probably not.

At the rate that these companies are racing toward AI superiority, the unintended consequences for our society are not a high priority. While these groups are making sure that AI does not decide to kill us, I wonder if they are also looking at how the AI will change us and are those changes a good thing?

(1) https://www.fastcodesign.com/90132632/ai-is-inventing-its-own-perfect-languages-should-we-let-it

(2) https://www.partnershiponai.org/#

(3) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML%2BCOMPARL%2BPE-582.443%2B01%2BDOC%2BPDF%2BV0//EN

Other pertinent links:

https://www.fastcompany.com/3064368/we-dont-always-know-what-ai-is-thinking-and-that-can-be-scary

https://www.fastcodesign.com/90133138/googles-next-design-project-artificial-intelligence

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On utopia and dystopia. Part 2.

From now on we paint only pretty pictures. Get it?

A couple of blarticles (blog-like articles) caught my eye this week. Interestingly, the two blarticles reference the same work. There was a big brew-haha a couple of years ago about how dystopian science fiction and design fiction with dystopian themes were somehow bad for us and that people were getting sick of it. Based on the most recent lists of bestselling books and films, that no longer seems to be the case. Nevertheless, some science fiction writers like Cory Doctorow (a fine author and Hugo winner) think that possibly more utopian futures would be better at influencing public policy. As he wrote in Boing Boing earlier this month,

“Science fiction writers have a long history of intervening/meddling in policy, but historically this has been in the form of right-wing science fiction writers…”

Frankly, I have no idea what this has to do with politics as there must certainly be more left handed authors and filmmakers in Hollywood than their right-sided counterparts. He continues:

“But a new, progressive wing of design fiction practicioners [sic] are increasingly involved in policy questions…”

Doctorow’s article cites a long piece for Slate, by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Bankston. Bankston says,

“…a stellar selection of 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and visionary filmmakers, has tasked itself with imagining realistic, possible, positive futures that we might actually want to live in—and figuring out we can get from here to there.”

That’s great, because, as I said, I am all about making alternative futures legible for people to consider and contemplate. In the process, however, I don’t think we should give dystopia short shrift. The problem with utopias is that they tend to be prescriptive, in other words, ”This is a better future because I say so.”

The futures I conjure up are neither utopian nor dystopian, but I do try to surface real concerns so that people can decide for themselves, kind of like a democracy. History has proven that regardless of our utopian ideals we more often than not mess things up. I don’t want it to be progressive, liberal, conservative or right wing, and I don’t think it should be the objective of science fiction or entertainment to help shape these policies especially when there is an obvious political purpose. It’s one thing to make alternative futures legible, another to shove them at us.

As long as it’s fiction and entertaining utopias are great but let’s not kid ourselves. Utopia and to some extent dystopia are individual perspectives. Frankly, I don’t want someone telling me that one future is better for me than another. In fact, that almost borders on dystopia in my thinking.

I’m not sure whether Bruce Sterling was answering Cory Doctorow’s piece, but Sterling’s stance on the issue is sharper and more insightful. Sterling is acutely aware that today is the focus. We look at futures, and we realize there are steps we need to take today to make tomorrow better. I recommend his post. Here are a couple of choice clips:

“*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.”

“*If you like doing incredible things, because you’re of a science fictional temperament, then you should frankly admit your fondness for the way-out and the wondrous, and not disingenuously pretend that it’s somehow bound to improve the lot of the mundanes.”

Prettier pictures are not going to save us. Most of the world needs a wake-up call, not another dream.

In my humble opinion.

 

How science fiction writers’ “design fiction” is playing a greater role in policy debates

Various sci-fi projects allegedly creating a better future

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On utopia and dystopia. Part 1.

A couple of interesting articles cropped up in that past week or so coming out of the WIRED Business Conference. The first was an interview with Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of Crispr/Cas9 the gene editing technique that makes editing DNA nearly as simple as splicing a movie together. That is if you’re a geneticist. According to the interview, most of this technology is at use in crop design, for things like longer lasting potatoes or wheat that doesn’t mildew. But Doudna knows that this is a potential Pandora’s Box.

“In 2015, Doudna was part of a broad coalition of leading biologists who agreed to a worldwide moratorium on gene editing to the “germ line,” which is to say, edits that get passed along to subsequent generations. But it’s legally non-binding, and scientists in China have already begun experiments that involve editing the genome of human embryos.”

Crispr May Cure All Genetic Disease—One Day

Super-babies are just one of the potential ways to misuse Crispr. I blogged a longer and more diabolical list a couple of years ago.

Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

In Doudna’s recent interview, though she focused on the more positive effects on farming, things like rice and tomatoes.

You may not immediately see the connection, but there was a related story from the same conference where WIRED interviewed Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy co-creators of the HBO series Westworld. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I recommend it if only for Anthony Hopkins’ performance. As far as I’m concerned Anthony Hopkins could read the phone book, and I would be spellbound.

At any rate, the article quotes:

“The first season of Westworld wasted no time in going from “hey cool, robots!” to “well, that was bleak.” Death, destruction, android torture—it’s all been there from the pilot onward.”

Which pretty much sums it up. According to Nolan,
“We’re inventing cautionary tales for ourselves…”

“And Joy sees Westworld, and sci-fi in general, as an opportunity to talk about what humanity could or should do if things start to go wrong, especially now that advancements in artificial intelligence technologies are making things like androids seem far more plausible than before. “We’re leaping into the age of the unfathomable, the time when machines [can do things we can’t],”

Joy said.

Westworld’s Creators Know Why Sci-Fi Is So Dystopian

To me, this sounds familiar. It is the essence of my particular brand of design fiction. I don’t always set out to make it dystopian but if we look at the way things seem to naturally evolve, virtually every technology once envisioned as a benefit to humankind ends up with someone misusing it. To look at any potentially transformative tech and not ask, “Transform into what?” is simply irresponsible. We love to sell our ideas on their promise of curing disease, saving lives, and ending suffering, but the technologies that we are designing today have epic downsides that many technologists do not even understand. Misuse happens so often that I’ve begun to see us a reckless if we don’t anticipate these repercussions in advance. It’s the subject of a new paper that I’m working toward.

In the meantime, it’s important that we pay attention and demand that others do, too.

There’s more from the science fiction world on utopias vs. dystopias, and I’ll cover that next week.

 

 

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Power sharing?

Just to keep you up to speed, everything is on schedule or ahead of schedule.

In the race toward a superintelligence or ubiquitous AI. If you read this blog or you are paying attention at any level, then you know the fundamentals of AI. But for those of you who don’t here are the basics. Artificial Intelligence comes from processing and analyzing data. Big data. Then programmers feed a gazillion linked-up computers (CPUs) with algorithms that can sort this data and make predictions. This process is what is at work when the Google search engine makes suggestions concerning what you are about to key into the search field. These are called predictive algorithms. If you want to look at pictures of cats, then someone has to task the CPUs with learning what a cat looks like as opposed to a hamster, then scour the Internet for pictures of cats and deliver them to your search. The process of teaching the machine what a cat looks like is called machine learning. There is also an algorithm that watches your online behavior. That’s why, after checking out sunglasses online, you start to see a plethora of ads for sunglasses on just about every page you visit. Similar algorithms can predict where you will drive to today, and when you are likely to return home. There is AI that knows your exercise habits and a ton of other physiological data about you, especially when you’re sharing your Fitbit or other wearable data with the Cloud. Insurance companies extremely interested in this data, so that it can give discounts to “healthy” people and penalize the not so healthy. Someday they might also monitor other “behaviors” that they deem to be not in your best interests (or theirs). Someday, especially if we have a “single-payer” health care system (aka government healthcare), this data may be required before you are insured. Before we go too far into the dark side (which is vast and deep), AI can also search all the cells in your body and identify which ones are dangerous, and target them for elimination. AI can analyze a whole host of things that humans could overlook. It can put together predictions that could save your life.

Googles chips stacked up and ready to go. Photo from WIRED.

Now, with all that AI background behind us, this past week something called Google I/O went down. WIRED calls it Google’s annual State-of-the-Union address. There, Sundar Pichai unveiled something called TPU 2.0 or Cloud TPU. This is something of a breakthrough, because, in the past, the AI process that I just described, even though lighting fast and almost transparent, required all those CPUs, a ton of space (server farms), and gobs of electricity. Now, Google (and others) are packing this processing into chips. These are proprietary to Google. According to WIRED,

“This new processor is a unique creation designed to both train and execute deep neural networks—machine learning systems behind the rapid evolution of everything from image and speech recognition to automated translation to robotics…

…says Chris Nicholson, the CEO, and founder of a deep learning startup called Skymind. “Google is trying to do something better than Amazon—and I hope it really is better. That will mean the whole market will start moving faster.”

Funny, I was just thinking that the market is not moving fast enough. I can hardly wait until we have a Skymind.

“Along those lines, Google has already said that it will offer free access to researchers willing to share their research with the world at large. That’s good for the world’s AI researchers. And it’s good for Google.”

Is it good for us?

Note:
This sets up another discussion (in 3 weeks) about a rather absurd opinion piece in WIRED about why we should have an AI as President. These things start out as absurd, but sometimes don’t stay that way.

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Humanity is not always pretty.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary among several options gives this definition for human: “[…]representative of or susceptible to the sympathies and frailties of human nature human kindness a human weakness.”

Then there is humanity which can either confer either the collective of humans, or “[…]the fact or condition of being human; human nature,” or benevolence as in compassion and understanding. For the latter, it seems that we are the eternal optimists when it comes to describing ourselves. Hence, we often refer to the humanity of man as one of our most redeeming traits. At the same time, if we query human nature we can get, “[…]ordinary human behavior, esp considered as less than perfect.” This is a diplomatic way of acknowledging that flaws are a characteristic of our nature. When we talk about our humanity, we presumptively leave out our propensity for greed, pride, and the other deadly sins. We like to think of ourselves as basically good.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know this is not always the case and if we push the issue we would have to acknowledge that this not even the case most of the time. Humanity is primarily driven by the kinds of things we don’t like to see in others but rarely see in ourselves. But this is supposed to be a blog about design and tech, isn’t it? So I should get to the point.

A recent article on the blog site QUARTZ, Sarah Kessler’s article, “Algorithms are failing Facebook. Can humanity save it?” poses an interesting question and one that I’ve raised in the past. We like to think that technology will resolve all of our basic human failings—somehow. Recognizing this, back in 1968 Stewart Brand introduced the first Whole Earth Catalog with,

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

After almost 50 years it seems justified to ask whether we’ve made any improvements whatsoever. The question is pertinent in light of Kessler’s article on the advent of Facebook Live. In this particular FB feature, you stream whatever video you want, and it goes out to the whole world instantly. Of course, we need this, right? And we need this now, right? Of course we do.

Like most of these wiz bang technologies they are designed to attract millennials with, “Wow! Cool.” But it is not a simple task. How would a company like Facebook police the potentially billions of feeds coming into the system? The answer is (as is becoming more the case) AI. Artificial Intelligence. Algorithms will recognize and determine what is and is not acceptable to go streaming out to the world. And apparently, Zuck and company were pretty confident that they could pull this off.

Let’s get this thing online. [Photo: http://wersm.com]

Maybe not. Kessler notes that,

“According to a Wall Street Journal tally, more than 50 acts of violence, including murders, suicides, and sexual assault, have been broadcast over Facebook Live since the feature launched 13 months ago.”

Both articles tell how Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg put a team on “lockdown” to rush the feature to market. What was the hurry, one might ask? And Kessler does ask.

“Let’s make sure there’s a humanitarian angle. Millennials like that.” [Photo: http://variety.com]

After these 13 months of spurious events, the tipping point came with a particularly heinous act that ended up circulating on FB Live for nearly 24 hours. It involved a 20-year-old Thai man named Wuttisan Wongtalay, who filmed himself flinging his 11-month-old daughter off the side of a building with a noose around her neck. Then, off-camera, he killed himself.

“In a status update on his personal Facebook profile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, himself the father of a young girl, pledged that the company would, among other things, add 3,000 people to the team that reviews Facebook content for violations of the company’s policies.”

Note that the answer is not to remove the feature until things could be sorted out or to admit that the algorithms are not ready for prime time. The somewhat surprising answer is more humans.

Kessler, quoting the Wall Street Journal article states,

“Facebook, in a civic mindset, could have put a plan in place for monitoring Facebook Live for violence, or waited to launch Facebook Live until the company was confident it could quickly respond to abuse. It could have hired the additional 3,000 human content reviewers in advance.

But Facebook ‘didn’t grasp the gravity of the medium,’ an anonymous source familiar with Facebook’s Live’s development told the Wall Street Journal.”

Algorithms are code that helps machines learn. They look at a lot of data, say pictures of guns, and then they learn to identify what a gun is. They are not particularly good at context. They don’t know, for example, whether your video is, “Hey, look at my new gun?” or “Die, scumbag.”

So in addition to algorithms, Zuck has decided that he will put 3,000 humans on the case. Nevertheless, writes Kessler,

“[…]they can’t solve Facebook’s problems on their own. Facebook’s active users comprise about a quarter of the world’s population and outnumber the combined populations of the US and China. Adding another 3,000 workers to the mix to monitor content simply isn’t going to make a meaningful difference. As Zuckerberg put it during a phone call with investors, “No matter how many people we have on the team, we’ll never be able to look at everything.”[Emphasis mine.]

So, I go back to my original question: We need this, right?

There are two things going on here. First is the matter of Facebook not grasping the gravity of the medium (which I see as inexcusable), and the second is how the whole thing came around full circle. Algorithms are supposed to replace humans. Instead we added 3,000 more jobs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the plan. But it could have been.

Algorithms are undoubtedly here to stay, but not necessarily for every application and humans are still better at interpreting human intent than machines are. All of this underscores my position from previous blogs, that most companies when the issue is whether they get to or stay on top, will not police themselves. They’ll wait until it breaks and then fix it, or try to. The problem is that as algorithms get increasingly more complicated fixing them gets just as tricky.

People are working on this so that designers can see what went wrong, but the technology is not there yet.

And it is not just so that we can determine the difference between porn and breastfeeding. Algorithms are starting to make a lot of high stakes decisions, like autonomous vehicles, autonomous drones, or autonomous (fill in the blank). Until the people who are literally racing each other to be the first step back and ask the tougher questions, these types of unanticipated consequences will be commonplace, especially when the prudent actions like stop and assess are rarely considered. No one wants to stop and assess.

Kessler says it well,

“The combination may be fleeting—the technology will catch up eventually—but it’s also quite fitting given that so many of the problems Facebook is now confronting, from revenge porn to fake news to Facebook Live murders, are themselves the result of humanity mixing with algorithms.” [Emphasis mine.]

We can’t get past that humanity thing.

 

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Are you listening to the Internet of Things? Someone is.

As usual, it is a toss up for what I should write about this week. Is it, WIRED’s article on the artificial womb, FastCo’s article on design thinking, the design fiction world of the movie The Circle, or WIRED’s warning about apps using your phone’s microphone to listen for ultrasonic marketing ‘beacons’ that you can’t hear? Tough call, but I decided on a different WIRED post that talked about the vision of Zuckerberg’s future at F8. Actually, the F8 future is a bit like The Circle anyway so I might be killing two birds with one stone.

At first, I thought the article titled, “Look to Zuck’s F8, Not Trump’s 100 Days, to See the Shape of the Future,” would be just another Trump bashing opportunity, (which I sometimes think WIRED prefers more than writing about tech) but not so. It was about tech, mostly.

The article, written by Zachary Karabell starts out with this quote,

“While the fate of the Trump administration certainly matters, it may shape the world much less decisively in the long-term than the tectonic changes rapidly altering the digital landscape.”

I believe this statement is dead-on, but I would include the entire “technological” landscape. The stage is becoming increasingly “set,” as the article continues,

“At the end of March, both the Senate and the House voted to roll back broadband privacy regulations that had been passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016. Those would have required internet service providers to seek customers’ explicit permission before selling or sharing their browsing history.”

Combine that with,

“Facebook[s] vision of 24/7 augmented reality with sensors, camera, and chips embedded in clothing, everyday objects, and eventually the human body…”

and the looming possibility of ending net neutrality, we could be setting ourselves up for the real Circle future.

“A world where data and experiences are concentrated in a handful of companies with what will soon be trillion dollar capitalizations risks being one where freedom gives way to control.”

To add kindling to this thicket, there is the Quantified Self movement (QS). According to their website,

“Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.”

Huh? Ok. But they want to do this using “self-tracking tools.” This means sensors. They could be in wearables or implantables or ingestibles. Essentially, they track you. Presumably, this is all so that we become more self-aware, and more knowledgeable about our selves and our behaviors. Health, wellness, anxiety, depression, concentration; the list goes on. Like many emerging movements that are linked to technologies, we open the door through health care or longevity, because it is an easy argument that being healty or fit is better than sick and out of shape. But that is all too simple. QS says that that we gain “self knowledge through numbers,” and in the digital age that means data. In a climate that is increasingly less regulatory about what data can be shared and with whom, this could be the beginings of the perfect storm.

As usual, I hope I’m wrong.

 

 

 

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But nobody knows what better is.

South by Southwest, otherwise known as SXSW calls itself a film and music festival and interactive media conference. It’s held every spring in Austin, Texas. Other than maybe the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show or San Diego’s ComicCon, I can’t think of many conferences that generate as much buzz as SXSW. This year it is no different. I will have blog fodder for weeks. Though I can’t speak to the film or music side, I’m sure they were scintillating. Under the category of interactive, most of the buzz is about technology in general, as tech gurus and futurists are always in attendance along with celebs who align themselves to the future.

Once again at SXSW, Ray Kurzweil was on stage. In my blogs, Kurzweil is probably the one guy I quote the most throughout this blog. So here we go again. Two tech sites caught my eye they week, reporting on Kurzweil’s latest prediction that moves up the date of the Singularity from 2045 to 2029; that’s 12 years away. Since we are enmeshed in the world of exponentially accelerating technology, I have encouraged my students to start wrapping their heads around the idea of exponential growth. In our most recent project, it was a struggle just to embrace the idea of how in only seven years we could see transformational change. If Kurzweil is right about his latest prognostication, then 12 years could be a real stunner. In case you are visiting this blog for the first time, the Singularity to which Kurzweil refers is, acknowledged as the point at which computer intelligence exceeds that of human intelligence; it will know more, anticipate more, and analyze more than any human capability. Nick Bostrom calls it the last invention we will ever need to make. We’ve already seen this to some extent with IBM’s Watson beating the pants off a couple of Jeopardy masters and Google’s DeepMind handily beat a Go genius at a game that most thought to be too complex for a computer to handle. Some refer to this “computer” as a superintelligence, and warn that we better be designing the braking mechanism in tandem with the engine, or this smarter-than-us computer may outsmart us in unfortunate ways.

In an article in Scientific American, Northwestern University psychology professor Paul Weber says we are bombarded each day with about 2.5 exabytes of data and that the human brain can only store an estimated 2.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes). Of course, the bombardment will continue to increase. Another voice that emerges in this discussion is Rob High IBM’s vice president and chief technology officer. According to the futurism tech blog, High was part of a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Conference 2017. High said,

“…we have a very desperate need for cognitive computing…The information being produced is far surpassing our ability to consume and make use of…”

On the surface, this seems like a compelling argument for faster, more pervasive computing. But since it is my mission to question otherwise compelling arguments, I want to ask whether we actually need to process 2.5 exabytes of information? It would appear that our existing technology has already turned on the firehose of data (Did we give it permission?) and now it’s up to us to find a way to drink from the firehose. To me, it sounds like we need a regulator, not a bigger gullet. I have observed that the traditional argument in favor of more, better, faster often comes wrapped in the package of help for humankind.

Rob High, again from the futurism article, says,

“‘If you’re a doctor and you’re trying to figure out the best way to treat your patient, you don’t have the time to go read the latest literature and apply that knowledge to that decision’ High explained. ‘In any scenario, we can’t possibly find and remember everything.’ This is all good news, according to High. We need AI systems that can assist us in what we do, particularly in processing all the information we are exposed to on a regular basis — data that’s bound to even grow exponentially in the next couple of years.’”

From another futurism article, Kurzweil uses a similar logic:

“We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify these artistic qualities that we value.”

The other rationale that almost always becomes coupled with expanding our minds is that we will be “better.” No one, however, defines what better is. You could be a better jerk. You could be a better rapist or terrorist or megalomaniac. What are we missing exactly, that we have to be smarter, or that Bach, or Mozart are suddenly inferior? Is our quality of life that impoverished? And for those who are impoverished, how does this help them? And what about making us smarter? Smarter at what?

But not all is lost. On a more positive note, futurism in a third article (they were busy this week), reports,

“The K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics and Computational Technologies seeks to introduce the thoughtful discussion on the use of AI in society. It is being established through funding worth $10 million from K&L Gates, one of the United States’ largest law firms, and the money will be used to hire new faculty chairs as well as support three new doctoral students.”

Though I’m not sure whether we can consider this a regulator, rather something to lessen the pain of swallowing.

Finally (for this week), back to Rob High,

“Smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg,” High said. “Human intelligence has its limitations and artificial intelligence is going to evolve in a lot of ways that won’t be similar to human intelligence. But, I think they will work best in the presence of humans.”

So, I’m more concerned with when artificial intelligence is not working at its best.

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A guerrilla future realized.

This week my brilliant students in Collaborative Studio 4650 provided a real word guerrilla future for the Humane Technologies: Livable Futures Pop-Up Collaboration at The Ohio State University. The design fiction was replete with diegetic prototypes and a video enactment. Our goal was to present a believable future in 2024 when ubiquitous AR glasses are the part of our mundane everyday. We made the presentation in Sullivant Hall’s Barnett Theater, and each member of the team had a set of mock AR glasses. The audience consisted of about 50 students ranging from the humanities to business. It was an amazing experience. It has untold riches for my design fiction research, but there were also a lot of revelations about how we experience, and enfold technology. After the presentation, we pulled out the white paper and markers and divided up into groups for a more detailed deconstruction of what transpired. While I have not plowed through all the scrolls that resulted from the post-presentation discussion groups, it seems universal that we can recognize how technology is apt to modify our behavior. It is also interesting to see that most of us have no clue how to resist these changes. Julian Oliver wrote in his (2011) The Critical Engineering Manifesto,

“5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.”

The idea of being engineered by our technology was evident throughout the AugHumana presentation video, and in discussions, we quickly identified the ways in which our current technological devices engineer us. At the same time, we feel more or less powerless to change or effect that phenomenon. Indeed, we have come to accept these small, incremental, seemingly mundane, changes to our behavior as innocent or adaptive in a positive way. En masse, they are neither. Kurzweil stated that,

‘We are not going to reach the Singularity in some single great leap forward, but rather through a great many small steps, each seemingly benign and modest in scope.’

History has shown that these steps are incrementally embraced by society and often give way to systems with a life of their own. An idea raised in one discussion group was labeled as effective dissent, but it seems almost obvious that unless we anticipate these imminent behavioral changes, by the time we notice them it is already too late, either because the technology is already ubiquitous or our habits and procedures solidly support that behavior.

There are ties here to material culture and the philosophy of technology that merits more research, but the propensity for technology to affect behavior in an inhumane way is powerful. These are early reflections, no doubt to be continued.

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