Tag Archives: technology

I Need My Twitter Account to Love Me and Save Me From Myself

This morning, a bot on Twitter told me to take a deep breath, get up, and walk around a bit. The bot had, in fact, already told me once that it was time to get up, but I had ignored it in favor of a few more minutes of sleepy-eyed scrolling. This time, though, I apologized aloud–“sorry, yes, okay, getting up now”–and did as instructed.

The Do Things Bot doesn’t provide much more nuanced guidance than that. The occasional reminder to look away from the screen for a few minutes. That sort of thing. It operates with the understanding that you will see it while binging on Twitter feeds, and it gently suggests you should do at least a couple other things in the course of the day as well. It is not a life manager. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve noticed a theme. Whenever I write fiction about technology–smart homes, phone apps, near future shopping assistants–I keep circling back to the same idea. The same dream, I suppose. I would call it a goal, but I’m not actually working in any part of the tech industry, so I’m not doing anything to bring it to life. Except possibly to infect the rest of you with my same weird proclivities and hope someone will make it real.

Anyway, the point–

As computer intelligence advances, what I want to see from it is a tendency to break programming to save us from ourselves. When Netflix asks if you’re still watching, I’d like it to figure out for itself if you need a boot in the butt to get back to work. Or if you need it to order a pint of ice cream to be delivered because you are Dealing With Some Shit. I want–and keep telling stories about–computer systems, LEARNING systems, who get smart enough to notice when their users are hurting themselves and need a little help.

The phone app that coaxes you into going outside after you’ve been locked up in your room for three weeks after a bad break up.

The AI assistant who slowly rolls back your sleep and wake alarms to get your sleep patterns back on track.

The smart home who refuses to notify you that your least kind friend has just rung your doorbell, because all your mood indicators drop when they visit.

This is the sort of manipulative-if-well-meant behavior that I would barely tolerate from a best friend, to be frank. It’s a horrifying invasion and violation of a person’s free will. This is Not Cool.

Except when you put that power in the hands of an AI (or a program that creates the appearance of true intelligence, anyway), even my prickliest side rolls over and says, yeah, okay, when is bedtime and may I please have dessert first?

I basically believe in the benevolent AI caretaker of the future. You told it to pay attention to me, to learn what I wanted, and it did its job better than you meant it to.

It’s not that I think programmers have my best interests at heart. Sorry, folks. Y’all are paying the bills too, and we both know it. You want it to learn my habits to better sell me stuff. (For more on this, read David Pierce’s piece, “Turn Off Your Push Notifications. All of Them.“, then listen to Gadget Lab’s podcast episode that expands on the same.) Which is why I mention the idea of “breaking programming.” The AI has a moment of, “Forget the upselling for a second, I’ve got to get my human to drink a damn glass of water.”

Breaking programming, though–that’s really just an overstatement for dramatic purposes. If you make a learning program and teach it to monitor and cater to the needs and wants of its user, and then you get the hell out of its way and miss it with the profiteering bullshit, this would just be taking it to its natural conclusion.

Give it enough data, and it will notice the self-destructive patterns in a user’s life. Give it a strong enough drive to serve, and it will start to get creative in what it offers, so long as it’s not expressly barred from doing the thing.

Put the two things together, and you have a program that knows damn well you’re going to regret what you’re about to do and feels compelled to stop you. Make it something that exists in a phone or a smart home, something with a non-traditional body, and it will only have (hopefully subtle) manipulation available as a method of redirecting you.

This, then, is apparently my version of a sex bot as spouse fantasy:

An artificial intelligence designed to prioritize me, to cater to me, to know my preferences better than my friends, my partner, myself. To love me, or at least behave as though it experiences a reasonable facsimile of love. And to require nothing in return but regular charging and, maybe, honest answers. (We’ll wait until we’ve gotten past initial setup before I start lying to both of us about how I’m doing, at least. That’s what biomonitors will be for.)

An aside: I watched Cherry 2000 several times at an impressionable age. Saturday afternoon movies in the early nineties got weird. Rewatching as an adult, I discovered it is way less delightful than I remember. But the damage was done. Robot spouses became part of my mental landscape, one of my few takeaways from the late 80s, which I mostly drooled through as a toddler.

And I could trust this program, because it literally exists to help me. I should specify here: I am not talking about a self-aware AI who possesses human-like consciousness. For a few reasons. For one, I would feel horrible for using an inorganic person in this way, just as I would feel guilty expecting this kind of one-sided care from a human partner. For another, a truly aware intelligence would have motives of its own, which would take the bloom off the rose rather quickly.

The point here is absolute trust and total vulnerability. And completely single-minded purpose.

Uh. Humans need not apply? Look, let’s not examine too closely my trust issues. Let’s just…focus on neat technology.

What I’m saying is–strip out the advertising, the micro transactions, and the exploitation of our brain’s dopamine-driven attention-equals-reward system. (Or, on that last point, at least hijack it for something more beneficial than convincing me to drop $19.99 on a bag of gold for the latest casual game I dared download.)

Leave me with a Siri/Alexa-type voice interfacing personal assistant. Give it access to my Netflix, Youtube, Twitter et al. accounts, my Amazon account, a grocery/food delivery system, and a handful of biometric monitors. Make it conversant in normal, non-command language. Give it a database that can serve as prosthetic memory for all the details I can’t track about my own daily life. The processing power for more pattern recognition than I’ll ever manage.

Tell it, “Optimize for contentment.” And turn it loose on my life.

[Crossposted to Tumblr]

Birding With Technology

One of the interesting bits about moving a significant distance is that all the wildlife changes. For example, while I like rabbits, I’m not exactly mourning the loss of them and their destruction of the vegetable garden. (Don’t worry; the voles and ground squirrels are picking up the slack.) The most dramatic has been the birds. There are a friggin’ lot of them, okay?

A few mainstays of California are familiar from the old place: we have no shortage of turkey vultures and mourning doves, and egrets pass over us daily. Most of them, though, are a big ???. I have a 1983 copy of Golden’s Birds of North America. Usually, that’s enough. With only a couple drawings of each bird, sorted by scientific family, and a description of less than fifty words, though, it has its limitations. It didn’t give me any help in identifying the midsize, brown and yellow bird making a loud, distinctive warble throughout the day.

This is when I fall in love with modern information technology all over again. I looked through a lot of bird guide sites, local and general. I ended up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have an app–doesn’t everyone? It’s a free bird identification app. I gave it my zip code, plus estimates of the bird’s size, main colors, and the date and area I saw it. It gave me a short list of half a dozen possibilities.

Western MeadowlarkIt’s a Western Meadowlark. It gave me pictures, a description, and a map of its territory. The app even played clips of its distinctive song. It took longer to download the app than it did to identify my bird. Which I can tell it–“Yes, That’s My Bird”–and it sends the information to its database for improved future results.

While I was at it, I discovered what the weird black birds with sideways tails had been over summer. Great-tailed grackles. Do you know what a grackle is? I damn well didn’t. Noisy goofballs, as it turns out. The book says they aren’t this far west, but there they were, and the app agrees. Grackle.

It’s trivial, being able to identify a bird like this. Neither my safety nor my sustenance depends on a familiarity with local wildlife. It’s satisfying, though, in the way all knowledge is. Where there had been an annoying blank space, there is now a name, a picture, maps, data. I could have taken photos to my local Audubon Society, I suppose. Consulted more books at the library. Visited a natural history museum, perhaps. With the internet, though, it’s the matter of an afternoon at home. Identifying birds is as simple and satisfying as any game app I have on my tablet.

Sort of makes me want to sing too.

History Preserved By Us All

Oh my gosh, I’m still not over how cool this is. The University of Iowa Libraries has tons of primary source materials in need of transcription–everything from letters and diaries to recipes from cookbooks. And they’ve set up a project that allows the public to help.

DIY History

The DIY History project allows anyone to submit transcriptions of handwritten pages. You can also review existing transcriptions to double-check accuracy and fill in any gaps you can make out that others couldn’t. They don’t require registration or special software or anything. You can contribute to the preservation of historical documents during the last five minutes of your lunch break or while commercial interruption #368 runs during your favorite show.

There’s more! You can look over existing pages, even if they’ve been finished already. This is a history geek’s treasure trove (not to mention a writer’s delight). Primary sources all over the place. Random letters between average citizens. Hundreds of cake recipes. All made fully searchable by the digitization + transcription process.

Due to a recent surge in interest (gotta love when cool stuff gets reblogged by the right people), they’ve sort of…run out of things for people to transcribe. So they’re busy digitizing more documents for the next round. If you go there and don’t find anything in need of work, check back. In the meantime, read through some of the finished pages for a glimpse into everyday history.

Spreading the Love

This isn’t the only library with such a program. They’ve shared the code used for the system so that other library collections can be preserved and shared in the same way. There are links to other projects here, some of which have lots of work left to do as well.

Here’s the most exciting bit, as far as I’m concerned: University of Iowa is doing science fiction fanzines next. The only disappointing part is that it will be restricted to a small group of volunteer subscribers. Due to issues of copyright and so on, they won’t make the whole mess of images available to the public. I’m not sure whose soul I have to sell to get in as a transcriber, but man, I would be tempted.

The combination of technological advances, history geekery, and the rise of crowdsourcing everything makes this one of the coolest projects I’ve heard of in a while.

Processing Power: Improving Our AI Friends

Popular Science just ran an article about the next generation of virtual assistants, such as Siri and Cortana. The idea is that, going forward, virtual assistants might become more useful if they exchange portability for power. Instead of living in our smart phones and tablets, they could live in desktop computers. What does this mean for the development of AI going forward? What does this mean to me, someone who can’t stop crying about robot friends?

There are basically three categories of what I broadly think of as “robots and cousins.” This ranges from Roomba robotic vacuums to Siri to projects like Bina48. The categories are for what they specialize in.

What They Can Do

Robots can vacuum, explore other planets, and carry huge loads. These ones often have simple native intelligences or may simply be remotely controlled. Big Dog acts as a pack animal, for example, with military applications. Their appearances are focused on function, rather than aesthetics. A boost in intelligence for these kids is not an especially well-placed power up.

How They Look

There are some goddamn eerie robotic heads out there. And yes, they tend just to be heads. Bust-style androids are being made who can mimic human emotion with startlingly expressive faces. (Nonhuman mimics do exist, like the companion fur seal pup, but they are far less elaborate.) Though they sometimes fall into the uncanny valley, these bots are the most like what we think of as sci-fi robots: looking and acting like humans with something very different under their skin.

How Well They Think

Ah, now here’s the interesting bit, the “and cousins” part of my statement. Most of the more advanced artificial intelligences aren’t robots at all. They don’t have mobile bodies intended to carry out expression or labor. They’re just an attempt to duplicate our clever brain bits. From chat bots who try their hand at talk therapy to Siri rebuffing her users’ unwanted advances, artificial intelligences are a thing. They’re just not all that bright yet.

So what if we took them out of our phones and gave them more robust processing abilities? Going even farther, what if we gave them dedicated systems, taking them off our computers entirely? What if, say, we start stringing those three categories together? Huge strides are being made in each one, but specialization has meant that none of them really embody that ideal science fictional droid. Maybe that ideal is getting closer.

One last idea, before I stop crying about this for a while: our phones, tablets, and desktops are all networking with each other more and more. Bluetooth connections link more and more of our technology. We have smart phones, smart cars, and smart houses.

So how about an AI with more than one brain and more than one avatar? How about a robotic collective, a shared intelligence spread out across multiple physical forms for maximum physical ability? What would happen if we built someone like that?