Tag Archives: RankBrain

Anticipation. Start by working with the future.



A couple of blogs ago I wrote about my experiment with the notion of ubiquitous surveillance. I chose this topic because in many ways surveillance is becoming ubiquitous. It is also the kind of technology that I see as potentially the most dangerous because it is slow and incremental and it grows through convergence.

Technological convergence is the idea that disparate technologies sometimes merge with, amplify and/or enfold other technologies. An example often cited is the smartphone. At one time its sole purpose was to make phone calls. Meanwhile other technologies such as calculators, cameras, GPS devices, and video players were each separate devices. Gradually, over time, these separate technologies (and many more) converged into a single hand-held device, the smartphone. Today we have a smartphone that would blow the doors off of a laptop from 15 years ago. The downside to technological convergence (TC) is that these changes can be very disruptive to markets. If you were in the business of GPS devices a few years ago you know what this means.

TC makes change much more rapid and more disorderly. Change becomes unpredictable.

The same concept can be applied to other technological advancements. Biotech could merge capabilities with nanotechnology. Robotics could incorporate artificial intelligence. Nanotech for example could enable many of the technologies formerly in our devices to be implanted into our bodies.

Google’s Chief of Tech and noted futurist Ray Kurzweil is a someone I follow. Not just because he’s brilliant, nor because I agree with his aspirations for future tech, but because he’s often right with his predictions; like 80% of the time. According to Peter Diamandis for singularityhub.com,

“’In the 2030s,” said Ray, ”we are going to send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”

I’ll let you chew on that for a few sentences while I throw out another concept. Along with all of these “technologies” that seem to be striving for the betterment of humankind, there are more than a few disruptive technologies that are advancing equally as fast. We could toss surveillance, hacking, and terrorism into that pot. There is no reason why these efforts cannot be advanced and converged at an equally alarming and potentially unpredictable rate. You can do the math.

Should that keep us from moving forward? Probably not. But at the same time, maybe we should start thinking about the future as something that could happen instead of something impossible?  

More to think about on a Friday afternoon.

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Design fiction. Think now.

This week I gave my annual lecture to Foundations students on design fiction. The Foundations Program at The Ohio State University Department of Design is comprised primarily (though not entirely) of incoming freshmen aspiring to get into the program at the end of their first year. Out of roughly 90 hopefuls, as many as 60 could be selected.

Design fiction is something of an advanced topic for first-year students. It is a form of design research that goes beyond conventional forms of research and stretches into the theoretical. The stuff it yields (like all research) is knowledge, which should not be confused with the answer or the solution to a problem, rather it becomes one of the tools that designers can use in crafting better futures.

Knowledge is critical.
One of the things that I try to stress to students is the enormity of what we don’t know. At the end of their education students will know much more than they do know but there is an iceberg of information out of sight that we can’t even begin to comprehend. This is why research is so critical to design. The theoretical comes in when we try to think about the future, perhaps the thing we know the least about. We can examine the tangible present and the recorded past, but the future is a trajectory that is affected by an enormous number of variables outside our control. We like to think that we can predict it, but rarely are we on the mark. So design fiction is a way of visualizing the future along with its resident artifacts, and bring it into the present where we can examine it and ask ourselves if this is a future we want.

It is a different track. I recently attended the First International Conference on Anticipation. Anticipation is a completely new field of study. According to its founder Roberto Poli,

“An anticipatory behavior is a behavior that ‘uses’ the future in its actual decisional process. It is the process of using the future in the present, which includes a forward-looking stance and the use of that forwardlooking stance to effect a change in the present. Anticipation therefore includes two mandatory components: a forward-looking attitude and the use of the former’s result for action.”

For me, this highlights some key similarities in design fiction and anticipation. At one level, all futures are fictions. Using a future design— design that does not yet exist—to help us make decisions today is an appropriate a methodology for this new field. Concomitantly, designers need a sense of anticipation as they create new products, communications, places, experiences, organizations and systems.

The reality of technological convergence makes the future an unstable concept. The merging of cognitive science, genetics, nanotech, biotech, infotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence is like shuffling a dozen decks of cards. The combinations become mind-boggling. So while it may seem a bit advanced for first-year design students, from my perspective we cannot start soon enough to think about our profession as a crucial player in crafting what the future will look like. Design fiction—drawing from the future—will be an increasingly important tool.

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Micropigs. The forerunner to ordering blue skinned children.


Your favorite shade, of course.

Last week I tipped you off to Amy Webb, a voracious design futurist with tons of tidbits on the latest technologies that are affecting not only design but our everyday life. I saved a real whopper for today. I won’t go into her mention of CRISPR-Cas9 since I covered that a few months ago without Amy’s help, but here’s one that I found more than interesting.

Chinese genomic scientists have created some designer pigs. They are called ‘micro pigs’ and they are taking orders at $1,600 a pop for the little critters. It turns out that pigs are very close—genetically—to humans but the big fellow were cumbersome to study (and probably too expensive to feed) so the scientists bred a smaller version by turning of the growth gene in their DNA. Voilà: micropigs. Plus you can order

Micropigs. Photo from BPi and nature.com
Micropigs. Photo from BPI and nature.com

them in different colors (they can do that, too). Now, of course this is all to further research and all proceeds will go to more research to help fight disease in humans, at least until they sell the patent on micropigs to the highest bidder.

So now we have genetic engineering to make a micropig, fashion statement. Wait a minute. We could use genetic engineering for human fashion statements, too. After all, it’s a basic human right to be whatever color we want. Oh, no. We would never do that.

Next up is Googles’ new email respond feature coming soon to your gmail account.

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What did one AI say to the other AI?


I know what you want.

A design foundations student recently asked my advice on a writing assignment, something that might be affected by or affect design in the future. I told him to look up predictive algorithms. I have long contended that logic alone indicates that predictive algorithms, taking existing data and applying constraints, can be used to solve a problem, answer a question, or design something. With the advent of big data, the information going in only amplifies the veracity of the recommendations coming out. In case you haven’t noticed, big data is, well, big.

One of the design practitioners that I follow is Amy Webb. Amy has been thinking about this longer than I have but clearly, we think alike, and we are looking at the same things. I don’t know if she is as alarmed as I am. We’ve never spoken. In her recent newsletter, her focus was on what else, predictive algorithms. Amy alerted me to a whole trove of new developments. There were so many that I have decided to make it a series of blogs starting with this one.

Keep in mind, that as I write this these technologies are in their infancy. If the already impress you, then the future will likely blow you away. The first was something known as, Project Dreamcatcher from Autodesk. These are the people who make Maya, and AutoCAD and much of the software that designers, animators, engineers and architects use every day. According to the website:

“The Dreamcatcher system allows designers to input specific design objectives, including functional requirements, material type, manufacturing method, performance criteria, and cost restrictions. Loaded with design requirements, the system then searches a procedurally synthesized design space to evaluate a vast number of generated designs for satisfying the design requirements. The resulting design alternatives are then presented back to the user, along with the performance data of each solution, in the context of the entire design solution space.”

Another on Amy’s list was Google’s recently announced RankBrain, Google’s next venture into context-aware platforms using advances in predictive algorithms to make what you see scarily tailored to who you are. According to Amy from a 2012 article (this is old news folks):

“With the adoption of the Siri application, iOS 5 mobile phones (Apple only) can now compare location, interests, intentions, schedule, friends, history, likes, dislikes and more to serve content and answers to questions.”

In other words, there’s lots more going on than you think when Siri answers a question for you. Well RankBrain takes this to the next level, according to Bloomberg who broke the story on RankBrain:

“For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain…’Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing,’ said Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai on the company’s earnings call last week.”

By the way, so far, most AI predicts much more accurately than we do, humans that is.

If this is moving too fast for you, next week, thanks to Amy, I’ll highlight some applications of AI that will have you squirming.

PS— if you wan to follow Amy Webb go here.

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