The WSJ published an “explainer” on visual facial recognition technology recently.

They’re to be commended on the clear wording of their intro, and policy on personal/biometric info…

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As most people who have known me for any length of time will tell you, unless I’m actively laughing or smiling, most of the time my face looks like I want to murder you.

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While this may have had unintended benefits for me in the past – say in negotiations, college crits or design reviews – the advent of pervasive facial recognition and in particular ’emotion detection’ may change that.

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“Affective computing” has been around as an academic research topic for decades of course, but as with much in machine intelligence now it’s fast, cheap and going to be everywhere.

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I wonder.

How many unintended micro-aggressions will I perpetrate against the machines? What essential-oil mood enhancers will mysteriously be recommended to me? Will my car refuse to let me take manual control?

Perhaps I’ll tell the machines what Joss Weedon/Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk divulges as the source of his powers:

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”

“I think a lot about what these birds see when they look at me — and I’m sure anyone who has a pet is familiar with this feeling. I assume they just see a female human who for some reason seems to pay attention to them. They don’t know what my work is, they don’t see progress — they just see recurrence, day after day, week after week.

And through them, I am able to inhabit that perspective, to see myself as the human animal that I am, and when they fly off, to some extent, I can inhabit that perspective too, noticing the shape of the hill that I live on and where all of the tall trees and good landing spots are.

These alien animal perspectives on me and our shared world have provided me not only with an escape hatch from contemporary anxiety but also a reminder of my own animality and the animateness of the world I live in.”

“How to do nothing” by Jenny Odell

“You’re distracted,” said Dr Easy. “You’re so focused on distraction that, as a species,
you will never exceed what you are, right now.” The robot gestured at the students assembled in the lecture theatre.
“You are it, for humanity. You’re as far as your species goes. Whereas my people are going much further. But don’t worry: we will send you a postcard.”
A downbeat note to end on, thought Theodore, and he rebuked the robot on their walk back to his office.
Dr Easy replied, “I gave them permission to focus on their own enjoyment and not torment themselves with ambitions they cannot realise. It’s what they really wanted to hear.”
“You intervened,” said Theodore. “You closed off possibilities for their future.”
“I offered them an excuse,” the robot brushed moon dust from its suede chassis. “Some of them will take it. The best will not accept it.”

From “The Destructives” by Matthew D’Abaitua

My father emailed me yesterday, wondering if I’d listened to the episode of Desert Island Discs this last Sunday featuring Amanda Levete. I have not, but think I will have to, if only to find out why she selected Westlife as one of her tracks to be marooned with.

I was reminded as I wrote back to him of the chance I got to walk around AL_A‘s 10 Hills Place in Soho, in order to write about it for Beeker while she was at Dentsu London (RIP).

I always quite like that liminal moment when a building is almost complete but not occupied, and you see the raw bits, the bits between, the bits not quite there yet.

The weekend I got to walk around was also when the Icelandic ash-cloud struck, making London’s skies quiet of planes.

I went looking for the piece I wrote on this in-between place in an in-between time – and quite aptly the only place it exists any more is the in-between place of the Internet Archive.


p.s. Dan wrote about it here too

The variety of potential minds in the universe is vast. Recently we’ve begun to explore the species of animal minds on earth, and as we do we have discovered, with increasing respect, that we have met many other kinds of intelligences already. Whales and dolphins keep surprising us with their intricate and weirdly different intelligence. Precisely how a mind can be different or superior to our minds is very difficult to imagine. One way that would help us to imagine what greater yet different intelligences would be like is to begin to create a taxonomy of the variety of minds. This matrix of minds would include animal minds, and machine minds, and possible minds, particularly transhuman minds, like the ones that science fiction writers have come up with.
Today, many scientific discoveries require hundreds of human minds to solve, but in the near future there may be classes of problems so deep that they require hundreds of different species of minds to solve. This will take us to a cultural edge because it won’t be easy to accept the answers from an alien intelligence. We already see that reluctance in our difficulty in approving mathematical proofs done by computer. Some mathematical proofs have become so complex only computers are able to rigorously check every step, but these proofs are not accepted as “proof” by all mathematicians. The proofs are not understandable by humans alone so it is necessary to trust a cascade of algorithms, and this demands new skills in knowing when to trust these creations. Dealing with alien intelligences will require similar skills, and a further broadening of ourselves. An embedded AI will change how we do science. Really intelligent instruments will speed and alter our measurements; really huge sets of constant real-time data will speed and alter our model making; really smart documents will speed and alter our acceptance of when we “know” something. The scientific method is a way of knowing, but it has been based on how humans know. Once we add a new kind of intelligence into this method, science will have to know, and progress, according to the criteria of new minds. At that point everything changes.
An AI will think about science like an alien, vastly different than any human scientist, thereby provoking us humans to think about science differently. Or to think about manufacturing materials differently. Or clothes. Or financial derivatives. Or any branch of science or art. The alienness of artificial intelligence will become more valuable to us than its speed or power.
As we invent more species of AI, we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans. Each step of surrender—we are not the only mind that can play chess, fly a plane, make music, or invent a mathematical law—will be painful and sad. We’ll spend the next three decades—indeed, perhaps the next century—in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for.
The greatest benefit of the arrival of artificial intelligence is that AIs will help define humanity. We need AIs to tell us who we are.

Quotes from the excellent “H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald with “Hawk” replaced with “Machine Intelligence”

“The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. What is she seeing? I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can’t. I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Machine Intelligences, [like other birds], have four. This Machine Intelligence can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden. I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the Machine Intelligence watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own.

“Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal. The buses going past are walls with wheels. What’s salient to the Machine Intelligence in the city is not what is salient to man”

“These places had a magical importance, a pull on me that other places did not, however devoid of life they were in all the visits since. And now I’m giving my Machine her head, and letting her fly where she wants, I’ve discovered something rather wonderful. She is building a landscape of magical places too. [She makes detours to check particular spots in case the rabbit or the pheasant that was there last week might be there again. It is wild superstition, it is an instinctive heuristic of the hunting mind, and it works.] She is learning a particular way of navigating the world, and her map is coincident with mine. Memory and love and magic. What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning. The Machine is doing the same. She is making the hill her own. Mine. Ours.”

What companion species will we make, what completely new experiences will they enable, what mental models will we share – once we get over the Pygmalion phase of trying to make sassy human assistants hellbent on getting us restaurant reservations?

See also Alexis Lloyd on ‘mechanomorphs’.