Four For Friday (33)

Nearly everyone has an opinion on “robots“. My nerdier friends get excited and talk about the latest advances; my sociologist and anthropologist friends shake their heads and bring up issues of inbuilt prejudices and morality; some of us STEAM types, who operate on cusps of disciplines, see the possibilities and the risks and get alternately curious, elated, worried.

This week’s links — far more numerous than four! — are about artificial intelligence, robotics, consciousness and machine ethics.

If you have ever used Cortana, or engaged in pointless back-and-forth with Siri, you already know that speech recognition platforms are getting better at context recognition. Bigger developments are in the works.

A leading unnamed bank in the UK is testing Amelia to help its staff assess mortgage lending suitability of applicants. Amelia is an AI and machine learning driven cognitive platform, a machine agent, to assist or perhaps, replace human agents in some customer interactions. Colloquially, a “robo-advisor”.

… traditional automated response systems, which are pre-recorded menus, equipped with speech recognition software that guides customers through a range of options, are cumbersome.

Amelia, however, has contextual filters which allows it to understand loosely stated problems and recognise sentences that have the same meaning but are structured differently.

When faced with foreign queries, the system will call upon a more experienced human agent to help resolve the issue. It will then listen in to the human-to-human interaction and create new steps in its process ontology, which will enable Amelia to address the same type of issue with subsequent callers.

Transactive memory ably assisted by cloud sharing may be a reality by 2030, according to Ray Kurzweil who spoke earlier in the year about it.

Kurzweil predicts that humans will become hybrids in the 2030s. That means our brains will be able to connect directly to the cloud, where there will be thousands of computers, and those computers will augment our existing intelligence. He said the brain will connect via nanobots — tiny robots made from DNA strands.

“Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking,” he said.

The bigger and more complex the cloud, the more advanced our thinking. By the time we get to the late 2030s or the early 2040s, Kurzweil believes our thinking will be predominately non-biological.

Many of Kurzweil’s predictions have been on the ball. So this one is worth watching. Meanwhile a new startup is working on transferring people’s consciousness into artificial bodies or deceased humans. Considering the question “what is consciousness?” is still unresolved, this will be fascinating to watch. Not least because of the many questions of medical ethics arising from the way they word their value proposition now.

“We’re using artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to store data of conversational styles, behavioral patterns, thought processes and information about how your body functions from the inside-out. This data will be coded into multiple sensor technologies, which will be built into an artificial body with the brain of a deceased human. Using cloning technology, we will restore the brain as it matures.”

Is our fascination with machines and making them “human-like” new?

Far from it. This beautiful essay looks at medieval technology and human fascination with things invisible but powerful. It is hard to imagine now how exciting it must have been back then to see a galvanometer needle move.

In the 19th century, scientists and artists offered a vision of the natural world that was alive with hidden powers and sympathies. Machines such as the galvanometer – to measure electricity – placed scientists in communication with invisible forces. Perhaps the very spark of life was electrical.

Even today, we find traces of belief in the preternatural, though it is found more often in conjunction with natural, rather than artificial, phenomena: the idea that one can balance an egg on end more easily at the vernal equinox, for example, or a belief in ley lines and other Earth mysteries. Yet our ongoing fascination with machines that escape our control or bridge the human-machine divide, played out countless times in books and on screen, suggest that a touch of that old medieval wonder still adheres to the mechanical realm.

Finally, machine ethics. The Human Computer Interaction Lab at Tufts University is tackling an important problem in robotics: “How exactly do you program a robot to think through its orders and overrule them if it decides they’re wrong or dangerous to either a human or itself?

This is what researchers at Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab are tackling, and they’ve come up with at least one strategy for intelligently rejecting human orders.

The strategy works similarly to the process human brains carry out when we’re given spoken orders. It’s all about a long list of trust and ethics questions that we think through when asked to do something. The questions start with “do I know how to do that?” and move through other questions like “do I have to do that based on my job?” before ending with “does it violate any sort of normal principle if I do that?” This last question is the key, of course, since it’s “normal” to not hurt people or damage things.

The Tufts team has simplified this sort of inner human monologue into a set of logical arguments that a robot’s software can understand, and the results seem reassuring. For example, the team’s experimental android said “no” when instructed to walk forward though a wall it could easily smash because the person telling it to try this potentially dangerous trick wasn’t trusted.

The video in the link — please click through for the 1min long clip — shows a robot that is programmed for intelligent rejection of an order that puts it at risk or comes from an unauthorised person.

To the untrained eye, not concerned with either the technology or the ethical implications, this sufficiently advanced technology looks like Arthur C Clarke’s ‘magic’. However to many of us, this raises interesting and important questions about future developments. The algorithm embodies the biases and prejudices of the humans who design it. Including unconscious bias which doesn’t go away with “training”.

The year 1968 was not so far back in time but back then, 2001 was far out enough in time. This was fiction then, but as we close 2015, we are getting closer to making it a reality.

“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

“I am sorry, Dave, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

 

 

Four For Friday (32)

I occasionally play a game with my friends, where I rapidly say some words aloud and they respond with the first visual image that pops up in their minds. It is a rough version of the IAT and some fascinating conversations result from there.

With the word “creativity”. I hear responses ranging from names of luxury brands, to activities such as drawing or fashion design, to adjectives people associate with “creative people”. It is common though astonishing to me how so many people think creative people are different from them in ways they could not articulate.

This week’s readings are all about creativity.

While it is evident that announcing a creativity department does not help organisations, managing creative people has always been tricky. Not least when research finds how creative people are likelier to have dubious ethics.

However, being creative also has an undeniable dark side—one that can be very costly for companies if left unchecked. Research has shown that while creative people are adept at coming up with new ideas, they can also be more likely to engage in morally questionable behaviors. In a set of studies, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University found that creative thinkers are better at rationalizing dishonesty than uncreative thinkers. “Thinking outside the box” can lead to acting unethically.

The explanation sounds simple but worth pondering over.

The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others. Leaders reinforce this when they don’t hold creative people to the same rules as those who are less creative, or when they give them special treatment.

Can we all be creative? Are we all already creative and just don’t know how to give expression to it? Here is an interesting perspective on broken sleep as a creative window. The whole essay is worth reading.

Night also triggers hormonal changes in our brains that suit creativity. Wehr has noted that, during night-waking, the pituitary gland excretes high levels of prolactin. This is the hormone associated with sensations of peace and with the dreamlike hallucinations we sometimes experience as we fall asleep, or upon waking. It is produced when we feel sexual satisfaction, when nursing mothers lactate, and it causes hens to sit on their eggs for long periods. It alters our state of mind.

Prolactin levels are known to increase during sleep, but Wehr found that (along with melatonin and cortisol) it continues to be produced during periods of ‘quiet wakefulness’ between sleeps, triggered by the natural cycles of light and dark, not tied to sleep per se. Blissfully zonked out by prolactin, our night brains allow ideas to emerge and intertwine as they might in a dream.

Wehr suggests that not only have modern routines altered our sleeping patterns, they have also robbed us of this ancient connection between our dreams and waking life, and ‘might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies’.

Ekirch agrees: ‘By turning night into day, modern technology has obstructed our oldest avenue to the human psyche, making us, to invoke the words of the 17th-century English playwright Thomas Middleton, “disannulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies”.’

This is an oldie but a goodie by John Hagel that I re-read this week – the manifesto for a passionate creative person.

… we celebrate the passionate and dedicated individuals in all fields who have both led us to where we are now, and are creating and shaping the future. They are explorers, pushing back the limits of our current understanding. They pioneer new ideas, discover new truths, and tirelessly innovate. They actively seek out new challenges and connect broadly with others to solve them. Though they come from every occupation and background, they are unified by the sincere belief that they can leave the world a better place than they found it.

And lest we should think all this is airy-fairy bunkum, I came across this heartening story of Cuba’s creative voices are dealing with constraints.

Very early on the second day, when we were working together to think about how our group might concoct ongoing meetings, one member, a self-described pedagogue who helps lead Cuba’s school of design, said ‘Of course all Cubans are designers. Take for example my car: it’s an old Peugeot from France with transplants, an engine from Russia, a German carburetor and a steering system from Italy. To live here, one has to be a designer.’

Constraints lead to creative solutions, something known as Jugaad in India. Making such constraint-led creative fixes sustainable and scalable is the problem definition, the chasm between creativity and innovation.

Four For Friday (31)

This week’s links on design-thinking and design come right after I shared some observations made on a recent trip to India.

Apple is giving design a bad name, writes Don Norman, who established the User Experience Architect’s Office later becoming Vice President of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. His co author is Bruce Tognazzini, a usability expert. A long read that Norman first said in August 2015 he was writing.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care. Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

So, what is the special sauce that makes one an exceptional designer?

Exceptional designers have strong human values such as empathy, respect, and honesty. These values not only influence a designer’s approach to developing products, but also their approach to working with colleagues. After all, building great products doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Here is another twist on design. Our desire to design humans has a long and peculiar history. With a presentist lens much of it is quite squirm-inducing. But a worthy read.

Not all Americans who supported eugenics were racist and nativist. To a first approximation, everyone was a eugenicist in the early 20th-century US. But for the core of the movement, the eugenic tenet that any disability was all in the genes also put scientific teeth into laws setting racial quotas for immigrants. Reformers pressed for mandated sexual sterilisation of those deemed unfit, including the feebleminded, the criminal, the deaf, the crippled, those with venereal disease and other conditions.

Finally this eclectic collection of one hundred quotes on design caught my eye. Here is one:

Design is thinking made visual. — Saul Bass

Design stories from recent travels in India

This post has no photos. None that I took anyway. Because taking photos is hard, while we navigate badly designed situations.

When we don’t understand or care about customer experience.

My flight on the world’s favourite airline ran out of disembarkation and customs declaration forms for India. For now, I shall refrain from commenting on this not-infrequent occurrence.

At Bombay’s International Airport arrivals, one had to pass immigration and then seek the customs forms. Near the desk called Customs, I asked where the forms could be found. I was told, in Marathi, “Near the flag”. The “flag” turned out to be a 1 inch by 1.5 inch plastic or paper thing hoisted on a 4-5 inch high pole, kept atop the counter, surrounded by so many things it was hard to see.

As it were, I took the last form they had. Since I was amongst the first to disembark, there was bound to be trouble after as many of us were without forms.

It is hard to imagine how such poor design decisions — organisation, choice of language of communication, quantities made available — helps those, who are not Indian, visiting India for the first time, and likely unfamiliar with the “jugaad” element so common to nearly everything in India.

When we sometimes use fancy new technology, but mostly not .. well, who cares?

I used a bathroom in a swanky new-built commercial building in Bombay’s famous Bandra Kurla Complex.

When I entered one of the loos, the light turned itself on. “Clever use of motion sensor technology”, I thought. Pun unintended, and not applicable, as you will see next.

Then I saw a manual flush handle in place. So the user of the loo touches the flush with what may not be clinically clean hands. “Could this not have been a sensor driven flush?”, I wondered.

Needing then to wash my hands at the basin, I saw the tap needed manual turning on. “Another lost chance to use a sensor”, I thought.

To dry my hands, I couldn’t find either tissue paper or a dryer. The attendant in the bathroom had to show me a broken almost hidden sensor with which I was to turn on an air-dryer. The dryer was located just above a bin where people had been discarding paper towels. Uh, ok.

In a tropical country teeming with dust, dirt and possible infections, all opportunities for fomites have been left intact in this fancy bathroom. Random things have been sensor-ised.

Well done. Not. On the obvious incomplete thinking in designing the bathroom.

When we don’t care about accessibility and safety.. 

Arriving from Bombay late at night, I was reminded why I avoid taking domestic flights to Delhi’s T1 terminal. As an able-bodied person, I was required to navigate a trolley amid 3-5 lanes of taxis and cars speeding toward the break in the Metro barrier, where I was to get out to wait for my car on the main road. Along with a gazillion other people.

Forget pedestrian priority, the awful road surface was its own challenge. Tough enough to push a baggage trolley till I saw a young airport staffer pushing — struggling with it actually — an old lady in a wheel chair towards the same exit, navigating the same cars coming at him and her at some speed.

When you get out, you find yourself on the road with many others, no identifiable markers anywhere. This means your driver has to inch closer, driving while on the mobile phone call with you till he visually locates you. Nice one, eh?

I thought about this airport experience for a while, but soon I had occasion to experience a new hotel and an orthopaedic hospital.

In India, nearly all bathrooms are wet rooms. This means that the probability of slipping is finite.

One might think this necessitates some mechanism for steadying oneself both in hotel and hospital bathrooms — not to mention a hospital, where people are suffering broken bones already.

None of the bathrooms had any grab bars or any support. In the hotel bathroom the shower area was treacherous, complete with black marble floor on which it is  hard to distinguish dry and wet areas, while the bathroom in the orthopaedic hospital had no grab frames around the loo seat. This is a picture of the bathroom in the hotel [(c) Cleartrip].

The Hotel BathroomThe absence of empathy in all these places, caring for neither accessibility nor safety, was quite disappointing.

Can we blame legacy?

None of these bad design experiences in these stories could be blamed on legacy. Each of them took place in a newly built, plush looking facility. The hotel is so new that as of October 2015, it had not formally opened. The hospital is about twenty years old. Bombay’s international airport opened for business in February 2014 while Delhi’s T1 is being renovated.

This was doubly disappointing.

So much money and material spent on building things comfortable and modern and pretty, but not a lot of time spent on thinking about making things that are fit for purpose!

There is a long way to go before the world is made at least comfortable for all of us.

 

 

Four For Friday (30)

This series took two weeks off due to urgent travels, but we are back now. This week’s readings discuss Purpose and Meaning.

Fast Company interviewed several entrepreneurs who believe they have created businesses that mean something to their customers.

These are not just stories about underserved consumers; these are stories about people who could not get on with their jobs or their family lives because brands were not thinking about their needs. “These are stories shared by millions of people,” Walker says. “We take a very consumer-centric approach to our innovation. It’s not about building it and seeing if they come; it’s talking to them and knowing that they will come.”

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman writes about the power of purpose at work. Purpose not perks.

According to Imperative’s research, purpose-oriented employees are:

* 54 percent more likely to stay at a company for 5-plus years
* 30 percent more likely to be high performers
* 69 percent more likely to be Promoters on Bain & Company’s eNPS scale, which measures employee engagement and loyalty

So how to find one’s own true purpose? Help is at hand from several corners, as curated by Maria Popova. Here, Paul Graham on the false metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

A lot of times, pursuing and even re-focusing on one’s own purpose means saying No. No is a full sentence. Here is an interesting, rambling piece by Tim Ferriss who is taking a break from investing in and advising startups, and may do the same for conferences, interviews etc.

To become “successful,” you have to say “yes” to a lot of experiments.  To learn what you’re best at, or what you’re most passionate about, you have to throw a lot against the wall.

Once your life shifts from pitching outbound to defending against inbound, however, you have to ruthlessly say “no” as your default. Instead of throwing spears, you’re holding the shield.

On that business of saying “yes” to a lot of experiments, here is a bonus link — for one year, Shonda Rhimes said “yes” to everything. Here is how it started.

“My oldest sister said to me, ‘You never say yes to anything.’ And by that she meant I never accept any invitations,” Rhimes says. “I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home. And she was right. My life had gotten really small. Once I sort of realized that she was right, I was going to say yes to all the things that scared me, that made me nervous, that freaked me out, that made me think I’m going to look foolish doing it. Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it.”