Science, technology & design

Tell me what I’ll do next

Here is something you might not know. At the end of 2009, Google began to personalise your search results, according to what you were already doing. This means your search results are different from somebody else’s! This move heralded the personalised internet and it turns your computer into a kind of mirror reflecting you.

The internet is no longer anonymous. The Wall Street Journal said the top 50 internet sites install about 64 data cookies and personal tracking beacons each time you search. If you search for “depression” on one site, you’re likely to be targeted with an antidepressant ad on another. The cost of a free service like Gmail or Facebook is that companies know a lot more intimate details about you and they want to use that information to sell you stuff.

At the same time, the internet becomes a unique universe of your own. Eli Pariser calls this the “filter bubble” and it’s a new experience. There are three elements to it. First, we are alone in it so the bubble separates us from others. Second, it is invisible, so you don’t know what they know or don’t know about you – or why. Third, you didn’t choose to go into your bubble but you’re in it. This is the bargain that we make with companies providing us with personalisation and a free service.

There are more wide ranging consequences for the filter bubble. Rather than bring people together, as social networking is supposed to do, the internet potentially tears us apart and breaks down social capital, both bonding (meeting college friends) and bridging capital (attending a council meeting). Yet the idea of the internet was to turn the world into a giant village. The challenge then is to create a more relevant internet without losing its mammoth abilities to bring us together.

Ref: The Observer (UK), 12 June 2011, 'Should we be scared of the made-to-measure internet?' By E.Pariser.
Search words: Google, search results, cookies, Facebook, Gmail, iPhone, BlueKai, Acxiom, “Behaviour market”, “click signal”, Netflix, filters, personalisation, social capital, Creative Commons.
The filter bubble, by Eli Pariser, Penguin, 23 June 2011.
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Seven things you might do one day

Imagine if you could send a robot version of yourself to a meeting while you go to the beach. This is just one of seven things you might do one day. Telepresence robotics (tellies) already exist: simple video screens on wheels with camera and microphone, operated via a web browser. It is supposed to foster better connections than video conferencing and can even be used with people who are housebound.

One day when walking round the city, you will see information you need hovering in the air or written virtually on a wall. This is called augmented reality. It allows you to see restaurant reviews as you walk past, ads in the grocery store, or even learn about someone approaching you. Outdated virtual information will be called “digital litter”. Meanwhile, you will spend your money using a digital wallet – just your mobile phone. Digital wallets are already well established in South Korea and Japan and coming soon in the West.

Next you might design inventions using genetic algorithms, that is, specify each parameter of a desired invention in the same way as natural selection works. The best results can be “bred” together. Interestingly, researchers say using these algorithms creates more refined inventions that a person alone could have thought of. If that sounds odd, one day you will be able to “fab” anything, using a 3D printer. Printers will use flexible and strong ABS plastics and photopolymers to print an object and are, in fact, already used to make customised industrial parts and jewellery.

Machines of the future will link to your brain via brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and scan your electromagnetic signals. People who are paralysed will be able to do things just by using their brains. BMIs might also be used to boost mental function, but there will be ethical questions to consider: who is acting – you or the machine? Last is another invasive technique – data mining, which is nothing new but can be used in new ways. This is where researchers draw on blog posts, tweets, Facebook, Google searches etc, to make informed forecasts. It has already been used to measure national anxiety (sentiment analysis) to be able to forecast stock price movements.

So which of these ideas prompts you to think of others? Anything is possible.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 May 2011, 'The next wave' by H. Knight et al.
Search words: telepresence robot, augmented reality, evolved invention, 3D printing, brain-machine interface (BMI), text mining, digital wallet.
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Take your tablets

Cloud computing is already transforming the way we do things and making PCs increasingly obsolete. The next wave of tablet computers and mobile phones is coming, according to Adobe at London’s Open Mobile Summit. A visitor to the Tate Modern, perhaps, will be able to borrow a tablet computer, which senses where you are, tells you where to find what you want, and then interprets the painting in front of you. You can then use the tablet to pay remotely for lunch at the cafe.

This trend will spur publishers in entirely new directions, for example, “printing” digital editions using multiple formats so they can be stored on any device, whether mobile, iPad or other tablet. It is already possible to “read” the American edition of Wired as a multimedia experience. For example, readers can touch and spin a very high quality picture of Mars to see detailed information about explorations so far.

Kevin Lynch of Adobe has described reading a magazine on an iPad as “a crazy world of interaction” – and there’s more to look forward to. The future is screens, whether roll-up, foldable, or projected and, if Adobe is right, tablets. So better take your tablets before you forget.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 11 June 2011, 'When gadgets sense what you’re doing' by M. Warman.
Search words: tablets, Tate Modern, Adobe, iPad, Wired, publishing, screens.
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How we can help robots do their job

This is a fascinating idea: we can help robots do a better job of helping us online. This is because, no matter how sophisticated our robots, there are still so many things they can’t do. They can’t do crosswords, for a start. They do a poor job of translating from language to another. And they can’t recognise fuzzy images nearly as well as we can.

This is about to change, thanks to crowdsourcing – using the abilities of crowds – and new projects like reCaptcha, MonoTrans, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. ReCaptcha was born to overcome the difficulties of machines accurately reading books and magazines to digitise the content. Whenever the computer can’t read the text, it asks a person for help while checking they correctly identified a fragment already digitised.

MonoTrans software helps two people who don’t speak each other’s languages to communicate by translating back and forth to them until they are both happy with the final result. Mechanical Turk is an Amazon website that advertises small tasks for small payments. Average pay is about $US1.40 per hour. The idea is that people, mostly educated, do these tasks in their spare time, but the final result is that thousands of small tasks get done at a rapid rate all over the world.

Researchers are working on the idea of a Generalised Task Market (GTM) where tasks are divided up between machines and humans, depending on the skills of each. For example, a GTM for a missing woman might look around the web for recent images of her route home, recruit a pool of volunteers to look for her using smartphones to record sightings, or virtually scour blogs, Facebook or Twitter for news. GTM could also be used for disasters, such as dealing with an oil spill.

While “donating our brainpower to a hybrid intelligence” might seem like putting the cart before the horse, it seems to support the view of scientists in our story, Technology is too complex for simple thinking. Rather than be frightened of what technology can achieve, it can work for us in surprising, interesting, and efficient ways.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 25 June 2011, 'Brain donors' by J. Giles.
Search words: Google Voice, internet telephony, Babel Fish, Yahoo, Google Goggles, search engine, artificial intelligence (AI), language, ESP Game, crowdsourcing, optical character recognition (OCR), reCaptcha, Mechanical Turk, Amazon, MonoTrans, Generalised Task Market (GTM).
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You are not in control of yourself

Few of us are likely to admit that we’re not in control of our lives. But scientists have revealed that much of our thinking is based on illusions. We can’t even trust our eyesight, because our eyes aren’t even “looking” for about 4 hours a day because they’re blinking. Our brains simply edit out the blackout. Similar blackouts occur in our thinking: inattention blindness, naive realism, confirmation bias, false memories, “better-than-average effect”, “spotlight effect”, and the free will illusion. For an example of inattention blindness, see the study of viewers asked to carefully watch a basketball game, where half failed to see a person in a gorilla suit walk across the screen, beat their chest, and walk off again. As advertisers, well know, attention is a limited resource.

Naive realism is where you think you are the only one who can see things as they really are, and everyone else is biased. Of course, few people will admit they are biased, but they can see when other people are. How we think is revealed more in our actions than what we say; claims to be non-sexist or non-racist, are often scuppered in academic experiments. Confirmation bias is where we interpret evidence in the light of what we already think and only accept information that confirms our existing beliefs.False memories are an interesting phenomenon. While we may think we remember much of our lives, “autobiographical memory” is highly unreliable. “Flashbulb memory” is particularly suggestible, as it occurs during some kind of crisis. While memory is poor, it is also suggestible, so it’s possible to create a memory when it didn’t happen. Scientists now believe memory is not just a tool for remembering the past, but to help make plans for the future.

The “better-than-average” and “spotlight” effects are both forms of egoism. Everyone believes they are better than average, which is of course statistically impossible. Meanwhile, the “spotlight” effect is where, whatever you do, you think everyone else has noticed. Who has not felt mortified to discover green bits in their teeth after eating spinach? The whole world must have noticed! Finally, the idea we have free will is also an illusion. Some 30 years ago, neuroscientists discovered that, when you ask someone to make a voluntary movement, the brain initiates it before the person becomes aware of an intention to move. On a macro scale, the state of the universe now determines its state in the future.

This lack of control has very interesting implications for people in business negotiations, because each side will think they’re right. They are highly likely to rely on poor memories, confirmation bias, and think they’re better than average and everyone’s watching. Yet, each side is just as wrong as the other. The fact we are so deluded about ourselves challenges the wisdom of asking people questions in focus groups. Then again, we are all only who we think we are.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 May 2011, 'The grand delusion', by G. Lawton.
A mind of its own, by Cordelia Fine, Allen & Unwin, 2007.
Search words: imagination, free will, blinking, vision, saccades, attention, bias, beliefs, flashbulb memory, egoism, optimism, “spotlight effect”, attractiveness, control, neuroscience.
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Technology is too complex for simple thinking

We may instinctively feel that the world is becoming more complex and, far from a “knowledge society”, we know less than ever. Much of our thinking about technology is too simplistic. This means our actions are often misguided. A new book, The techno-human condition, by Braden R Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz, explains this in terms of different levels of thinking about, for example, nuclear energy.

Level 1 thinking says technology performs a certain function, for example, a nuclear reactor is a reliable system that provides electricity. Level 2 thinking sees technology as part of a network. So the reactor is part of the electricity grid that serves manufacturing, transport etc and makes people’s lives comfortable. Level 3 thinking recognises enormous complexity, where the reactor is part of the Earth, affected by tectonic plates, and subject to cultural and social forces, climate change etc. This level is very difficult and challenging to grasp, which is why we mostly consider technology with level 1 or 2 thinking.

The trouble with level 3 effects is, whether you concern yourself or not, they are still happening. By embracing technology of all kinds (called the “Five Horsemen” of nano- and biotechnology, robotics, ICT, and applied cognitive science), we open ourselves to complexity, uncertainty and inability to comprehend what is going on. Whether society applauds or fights the five horsemen makes no difference, as the real challenge is to work with the technological world we have created in a rational and ethical way.

The authors challenge us to move beyond level 1 and 2 thinking and learn to accept the uncertainties and contradictions of level 3. They claim ignorance and disagreement are the “source of imagination and agility necessary to act wisely”. This demands a change in perception about what is possible, similar to the story, Four ways to become more creative. Becoming more creative in the way we think about technology allows us to see there is much we just don’t know – but it offers more and richer opportunities.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 May 2011, 'We’ve made a world we cannot control' by B. R. Allenby and D. Sarewitz.
Search words: Nuclear power, technology, complexity, uncertainty, nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, applied cognitive science.
Trend tags: rationality, “knowledge society”.
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