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Sufficiently-Advanced Technology

If you know me, then you’ll know that “Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs” pretty much had me at the title.

It’s obviously very relevant to our interests at BERG, and I’ve been trying to read up around the area of AI, robotics and companions species for a while.

Struggled to get thought it to be honest – I find philosophy a grind to read. My eyes slip off the words and I have to read everything twice to understand it.

But, it was worth it.

My highlights from Kindle below, and my emboldening on bits that really struck home for me. Here’s a review by Daniel Dennett for luck.

“Real aliens have always been with us. They were here before us, and have been here ever since. We call these aliens animals.”

“They will carry out tasks, such as underwater survey, that are dangerous for people, and they will do so in a competent, efficient, and reassuring manner. To some extent, some such tasks have traditionally been performed by animals. We place our trust in horses, dogs, cats, and homing pigeons to perform tasks that would be difficult for us to perform as well if at all.

“Autonomy implies freedom from outside control. There are three main types of freedom relevant to robots. One is freedom from outside control of energy supply. Most current robots run on batteries that must be replaced or recharged by people. Self-refuelling robots would have energy autonomy. Another is freedom of choice of activity. An automaton lacks such freedom, because either it follows a strict routine or it is entirely reactive. A robot that has alternative possible activities, and the freedom to decide which to do, has motivational autonomy. Thirdly, there is freedom of ‘thought’. A robot that has the freedom to think up better ways of doing things may be said to have mental autonomy.”

“One could envisage a system incorporating the elements of a mobile robot and an energy conversion unit. They could be combined in a single robot or kept separate so that the robot brings its food back to the ‘digester’. Such a robot would exhibit central place foraging.”

“turkeys and aphids have increased their fitness by genetically adapting to the symbiotic pressures of another species.

“In reality, I know nothing (for sure) about the dog’s inner workings, but I am, nevertheless, interpreting the dog’s behaviour.”

“A thermostat … is one of the simplest, most rudimentary, least interesting systems that should be included in the class of believers—the class of intentional systems, to use my term. Why? Because it has a rudimentary goal or desire (which is set, dictatorially, by the thermostat’s owner, of course), which it acts on appropriately whenever it believes (thanks to a sensor of one sort or another) that its desires are unfulfilled. Of course, you don’t have to describe a thermostat in these terms. You can describe it in mechanical terms, or even molecular terms. But what is theoretically interesting is that if you want to describe the set of all thermostats (cf. the set of all purchasers) you have to rise to this intentional level.”

“So, as a rule of thumb, for an animal or robot to have a mind it must have intentionality (including rationality) and subjectivity. Not all philosophers will agree with this rule of thumb, but we must start somewhere.”

We want to know about robot minds, because robots are becoming increasingly important in our lives, and we want to know how to manage them. As robots become more sophisticated, should we aim to control them or trust them? Should we regard them as extensions of our own bodies, extending our control over the environment, or as responsible beings in their own right? Our future policies towards robots and animals will depend largely upon our attitude towards their mentality.”

“In another study, juvenile crows were raised in captivity, and never allowed to observe an adult crow. Two of them, a male and a female, were housed together and were given regular demonstrations by their human foster parents of how to use twig tools to obtain food. Another two were housed individually, and never witnessed tool use. All four crows developed the ability to use twig tools. One crow, called Betty, was of special interest.”

“What we saw in this case that was the really surprising stuff, was an animal facing a new task and new material and concocting a new tool that was appropriate in a process that could not have been imitated immediately from someone else.”

A video clip of Betty making a hook can be seen on the Internet.

“We are looking for a reason to suppose that there is something that it is like to be that animal. This does not mean something that it is like to us. It does not make sense to ask what it would be like (to a human) to be a bat, because a human has a human brain. No film-maker, or virtual reality expert, could convey to us what it is like to be a bat, no matter how much they knew about bats.”

We have seen that animals and robots can, on occasion, produce behaviour that makes us sit up and wonder whether these aliens really do have minds, maybe like ours, maybe different from ours. These phenomena, especially those involving apparent intentionality and subjectivity, require explanation at a scientific level, and at a philosophical level. The question is, what kind of explanation are we looking for? At this point, you (the reader) need to decide where you stand on certain issues”

“The successful real (as opposed to simulated) robots have been reactive and situated (see Chapter 1) while their predecessors were ‘all thought and no action’. In the words of philosopher Andy Clark”

“Innovation is desirable but should be undertaken with care. The extra research and development required could endanger the long-term success of the robot (see also Chapters 1 and 2). So in considering the life-history strategy of a robot it is important to consider the type of market that it is aimed at, and where it is to be placed in the spectrum. If the robot is to compete with other toys, it needs to be cheap and cheerful. If it is to compete with humans for certain types of work, it needs to be robust and competent.”

“connectionist networks are better suited to dealing with knowledge how, rather than knowledge that”

“The chickens have the same colour illusion as we do.”

For robots, it is different. Their mode of development and reproduction is different from that of most animals. Robots have a symbiotic relationship with people, analogous to the relationship between aphids and ants, or domestic animals and people. Robots depend on humans for their reproductive success. The designer of a robot will flourish if the robot is successful in the marketplace. The employer of a robot will flourish if the robot does the job better than the available alternatives. Therefore, if a robot is to have a mind, it must be one that is suited to the robot’s environment and way of life, its ecological niche.”

“there is an element of chauvinism in the evolutionary continuity approach. Too much attention is paid to the similarities between certain animals and humans, and not enough to the fit between the animal and its ecological niche. If an animal has a mind, it has evolved to do a job that is different from the job that it does in humans.

“When I first became interested in robotics I visited, and worked in, various laboratories around the world. I was extremely impressed with the technical expertise, but not with the philosophy. They could make robots all right, but they did not seem to know what they wanted their robots to do. The main aim seemed to be to produce a robot that was intelligent. But an intelligent agent must be intelligent about something. There is no such thing as a generalised animal, and there will be no such thing as a successful generalised robot.

Although logically we cannot tell whether it can feel pain (etc.), any more than we can with other people, sociologically it is in our interest (i.e. a matter of social convention) for the robot to feel accountable, as well as to be accountable. That way we can think of it as one of us, and that also goes for the dog.”

Is the things.

Or to be more specific, the fetishisation of the things.

To be clear, I like things.

I even own some of them.

Also, my company enjoys making and selling things, and has plans to make and sell more.

However, in terms of the near-term future of technology – I’m not nearly as interested in making things as making spimes.

NEED SETUP

Spimes and the Internet Of Things get used interchangeably in discussion these days, but I think it’s worth making a distinction between things and spimes.

That distinction is of course best put by the coiner of the term, Bruce Sterling – in his book which is the cause of so much of this ruckus, “Shaping Things“.

I’m going to take three quotes defining the Spime from Shaping Things as picked out by Tristan Ferne in, coincidently, a post about Olinda.

“SPIMES are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES being and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” [Shaping Things, p.11]

“The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protaganist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.” [Shaping Things, p.77]

“In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.” [Shaping Things, p. 79]

“…the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation” – this sticks with me.

A spime is an ongoing means, not an end, like a thing.

As I say, I enjoy things, and working in a company where there are real product designers (I am not one).

A while ago, back when people used to write comments on blogs, rather than just spambots, I wrote about the dematerialisation of product through the expansion of service-models into domains previously centred around product ownership.

It was partly inspired by Bruce’s last Viridian note, and John Thackara‘s writing on the subject amongst others.

But now I feel ‘Unproduct‘ is a bit one-sided.

The stuff I was struggling towards in negroponte switch has become more important.

The unmet (and often unstated) need for a physical ‘attention anchor’ or ‘service avatar’ as Mike Kuniavsky puts it in his excellent book ‘Smart Things‘.

Matter is important.

For Bryan Boyer

To which you quite rightly cry – “Well, duh!”

It is something we are attuned to as creatures evolved of a ‘middle world’.

It is something we invest emotion, value and memory in.

Also, a new language of product is possible, and important as the surface of larger systems.

Icebergs & Photons

I tried to pick at this with ‘Mujicomp‘.

A product design language for the tips of large service-icebergs: normalising legibility, fluent and thresholding.

Making beautiful seams.

Things that are clear, and evident – unmagical (magic implies opacity, occulting of meaning, mystery and hence a power-relationship) but delightful, humble, speaking-in-human, smart as a puppy.

And perhaps, just perhaps – by edging them toward being spimes, they can become fewer-in-number, better made, more adaptive to our needs and context, better at leaving our lives and being remade.

Another thing I’m re-evaluating are glowing rectangles.

I’ve long held somewhat of a [super]position that the more we can act and operate in and on-the-world rather than through a screen – the better.

I’m not sure it’s as clear as that anymore.

The technological and economic momentum of the glowing rectangle is such that, barring peak-indium or other yet-unseen black-swans getting in the way, personally-owned screens full of software and sensors reacting to a ‘dumb’ physical world seems to be a safer bet for near-to-mid-term futures, rather than ‘ubiquitous’ physical-computing based in the environment or municipal infrastructures.

A lot of friends are at an event right now called “Laptops & Looms”, debating exactly these topics.

Russell Davies, who organised it, wrote something recently that prompted this chain of thought, and I wish I could have been there to chat about this with him, as he’s usually got something wise to say on these matters.

Work commitments mean I can’t be there unfortunately, but I know they are querying and challenging some of the assumptions of the last decade of interaction design, technology and punditry as much as possible.

The hype about 3d printing, ubiquitous computing and augmented reality could really be grounded by the personal experiences of a lot of people attending the event, who know the reality of working within them – they have practical experience of the opportunities they afford and the constraints they present. I really hope that there will be lots to read and digest from it.

Personally, returning to the source of some of these thoguhts, Bruce’s Shaping Things – has been incredibly helpful. Just reminding oneself of the wikipedia clift-notes on Spimes has been galvanising.

Physical products are fantastic things to think about and attempt to design.

And, bloody hard to do well.

But a new type of product, a new type of thing that begins and ends in data, and is a thing only occasionally – this is possible too – along with new modes of consumption and commerce it may bring.

The network is as important to think about as the things.

The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.

The phrase “Internet Of Things” will probably sound as silly to someone living in a spime-ridden future as 1990s visions of “Cyberspace”, as distinct realm we would ‘jack into’ seem to us now as we experience the mundane-yet-miraculous influence of internet-connected smartphones on our ‘real’ geographies.

In that sense it is useful – as a provocation, and a stimulus to think new thoughts about the technology around us. It just doesn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the Spime did.

You don’t have to agree. I don’t have to be right. There’s a reason I’ve posted it here on my blog rather than that of my company. This is probably a rambling rant useless to all but myself. It’s a bit of summing-up and setting-aside and starting again for me. This is going to be really hard and it isn’t going to be done by blogging about it, it’s going to be done by doing.

This is just what I what I want to help do. Still.

Better shut-up and get on with it.

Ben Bashford’s writing about ‘Emoticomp‘ – the practicalities of working as a designer of objects and systems that have behaviour and perhaps ‘ intelligence’ built-into them.

It touches on stuff I’ve talked/written about here and over on the BERG blog – but moves out of speculation and theory to the foothills of the future: being a jobbing designer working on this stuff, and how one might attack such problems.

Excellent.

I really think we should be working on developing new tools for doing this. One idea I’ve had is system/object personas. Interaction designers are used to using personas (research based user archetypes) to describe the types of people that will use the thing they’re designing – their background, their needs and the like but I’m not sure if we’ve ever really explored the use of personas or character documentation to describe the product themselves. What does the object want? How does it feel about it? If it can sense its location and conditions how could that affect its behaviour? This kind of thing could be incredibly powerful and would allow us to develop principles for creating the finer details of the object’s behaviour.

I’ve used a system persona before while designing a website for young photographers. The way we developed it was through focus groups with potential users to establish the personality traits of people they felt closest to, trusted and would turn to for guidance. This research helped is establish the facets of a personality statement that influenced the tone of the copy at certain points along the user journeys and helped the messaging form a coherent whole. It was useful at the time but I genuinely believe this approach can be adapted and extended further.

I think you could develop a persona for every touchpoint of the connected object’s service. Maybe it could be the same persona if the thing is to feel strong and omnipresent but maybe you could use different personas for each touchpoint if you’re trying to bring out the connectedness of everything at a slightly more human level. This all sounds a bit like strategy or planning doesn’t it? A bit like brand principles. We probably need to talk to those guys a bit more too.

After the BLDGBLOG lecture at UCL last week, Mark, Russell, James and myself retired to the Malborough Arms for post-match analysis; and Russell dropped on us the fact that Roll-Royce’s jet engines are now prolific bloggers.

They twitter about what they are doing back home to Derby from wherever they are above the globe, 33000 feet up.

At the risk of sounding a bit like one of the guest publications on “Have I got news for you”, here’s a quote from Aviation Maintenance Magazine that Rusell found to back-up his pub-fact

“Engine diagnostics, and predictive analysis that our technical people are doing, feed into the operations control room, the hub of global fleet support for large engines, to see how they are performing, combined with flight log monitoring.”

The company is able to monitor 3,000 engines in real time, collating technical data streamed via satellite in flight.”

Of course, there must be an entire swathe of giant things that blog, and have been blogging since the dawn of telemetry; but it still seems faintly magical.

gmm

Many have commented on Google’s new version of Google Mobile Maps, and specifically it’s “My Location” feature.

Carlo Longino homes in on the fact that it provides, finally, a somewhat humane and useful basis for a lot of the location-based services use-cases that mobile service providers and product marketers have salivated over for around a decade.

“I know my own zip code, but I don’t know its boundaries, nor do I know any others here in Vegas. So if I’m out looking for something, I’ve got little idea where to start. That’s the big problem with local search – we tend to spend a lot of our time in the same places, and we get to know them. We’re most likely to use search when we’re in an unfamiliar area – but often our unfamiliarity with the area precludes us from even being able to divine a starting point for our search. You don’t necessarily need GPS to get a starting point, as this new feature highlights.”

GMMv2.0 is sufficiently-advanced technology, not because of the concept behind it (location via cell network is pretty known) but the sheer, apparent quality of execution, simplicity and joy injected into the thing. This is something till now missing from most if not all mobile software, especially Symbian software.

Janne once said to me: “no-one codes symbian apps for fun”, and it shows. It’s enough to get the things working for most developers, and as they’re mostly doing it for a salary rather than fun, they walk away before the joy gets injected, or don’t argue when it gets de-scoped.

GMMv2.0 has some of the lovely touches that we’ve seen from the iPhone implementation carried over – like the location pins dropping into place with a little restitutional bounce. Just. So. It seems quicker and more focussed that v1.0, with location search features working to give the bare-bones info right there on the map rather than breaking-frame to a dialog.

The main, huge, thing though is MyLocation.

Chris gave a talk a few years ago at Etech 2004 called “35 ways to find your location”
, which argued against relying on GPS and ‘satnav’ metaphors for location services.

I don’t know if they downloaded his presentation in Mountain View, but GMMv2.0 delivers on Chris’s vision by not only using cellular location fiding, but how it interprets and displays it. By ditching the assumption that all location tasks are about a -> b in a car, and presenting a fuzzy, more-humane interpretation of your location – it gives a wonderful foundation for wayfinding, particularly while walking, which hopefully they’ll build on.

In other possible advantages that “Do not use while driving” gives you is it become a resource you can use indoors, where I’d guess 90% discussions about where to go and what to do actually happen, and where 90% of GPS’s won’t ever work.

Other contenders in the mobile wayfinding world seem to be pursuing interfaces built on the metaphors and assumptions of the car-bound “satnav” world e.g. Nokia Maps. Probably as a side-effect of most of their senior management driving to work in suburban technology parks everyday!

Actually, Nokia Maps (at least the last version I used, I switched to GMM and haven’t returned) does something even more bizarre when it starts up and shows you a view of the entire earth’s globe from orbit! I cannot think of a less user-centred, task-appropriate entry point into an application!

Very silly.

The Google mobile team are to be congratulated not only for technical innovation in GMMv2.0, but also having the user-experience savvy to step beyond established cliche in a hot area and think in a context-sensitive, user-centred way about the problem.

As Carlo says:

“I continue to be slightly amazed at the speed with which Google gets these apps and services out, and the overall quality of them, though I guess it’s a testament to the amount of resources they’re throwing at mobile these days.”

Can’t wait to see what’s next.

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xspimetheory1, originally uploaded by brucesflickr.

I love Bruce Sterling’s fantastically lo-tech-halloween-Mayan-frightmask of spime theory.

However, he states:

“Look at the bottom of this theory object. You can see that I’ve killed off two very important ideas: Artificial Intelligence and panpsychism. Why did I get rid of those? Because they smell too science-fictional to me. I don’t think they have any real-world traction. I think they are superstition. I think they’re over and done.”

A few years back I raised the idea of a ‘digital spirit world’ being created by arphid-laden objects not being understood or transparent to end-users in a talk I gave at DesignEngaged.

As a subscriber to Clarke’s 3rd Law, I’m not sure superstition has ever been ‘over and done’ unfortunately.

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After reading Jane’s post about using time people spend fiddling with Facebook for solving problems with other (gaming) networks, I wondered whether there were other things you could do with all those idle hands.

What about Folding@home or Mechanical Turk tasks, as shown rather sketchily above.

Back in May, referring to Sony’s announcment that the folding@home client would be installed on the PS3, Alice wrote about “Games that do good”

“Are there games or game mechanics that could be used to fund-raise or awareness-raise?”

My quick mock up is not all that enticing or interesting, though touches like sparklines, league-tables and scoring could rapidly turn such things into more of a playful and engaging activity, turning all those idle hands to good causes.

Know of anything like this going on?

“I remember those nights, planning technologies that didn’t exist yet, outsider science, futurist dreaming, half-magical. The things I could do outside the unversity setting, now that I didn’t have to wait for the pompous fools at the college! I was building another science, my science, wild science, robots and lasers and disembodied brains. A science that buzzed and glowed; it wanted to do things. It could get up and walk, fly, fight, sprout garish glowing creations in the remotest parts of the world, domes and towers and architectural fever dreams. And it was angry. It was mad science.”

The words of Doctor Impossible, from Austin Grossman’s excellent “Soon, I will be invincible”

Warren Ellis, on his creation of another mad scientist: Doktor Sleepless:

“I was ready to do another big piece of political sf, and I knew what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the subsumation of authenticity into fiction. I wanted to talk about liars, on a grand scale. I wanted to talk about the end of the world, in the major and the minor. And I wanted to talk about where I think we are today, and where we could end up in ten or fifteen years. The motor of innovation and novelty is really kind of cranked up right now, but, in contrast, the general culture is still in a sort of post-millennial shock, just laying there and drooling over its nipples.”

The just-announced Call-For-Papers for Etech 2008:

At the 2008 version of ETech, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, we’ll take a wide-eyed look at the tech that’s just arriving and cast a cynical one at some that have been emerging for too long. From robotics, health care, and space travel to gaming, finance, and art, we’ll explore promising technologies that are just that–still promises–and renew our sense of wonder at the way technology is influencing and altering our everyday lives.

A theme (ahem) emerging?

Ellis’ Tony Stark took a pop at Etech (and I joined in, embolded by the lead taken by a fictional alcoholic billionaire superhero) and the somewhat introverted web-centricity of it in his run on Iron Man a few years back.

Perhaps with Shellhead poised for mainstream glory, it’s time for science heroes again?

Perhaps, at last, some genuine outbreaks of the future…

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