An intelligent car that can’t communicate with its driver is a dumbass car.

(image from https://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20141116/spectrum/motor.htm)

Let’s talk about body language.

DogBodyLanguage.1jpg.jpgA key property of body language is that it is almost always unconscious to both giver and receiver.

Image from: https://talbotspy.org/but-his-tail-was-wagging-understanding-dog-body-language-part-1/

This is not a problem in itself – in fact, it’s actually really good that body language happens mostly unconsciously. Body language is necessarily unconscious. The flood of signals from a talking body is vast, high-bandwidth, high-rate, and highly-parallel. It must bypass the higher-brain in order to do its work. The higher brain is too busy making decisions and trying to be rational to be bothered with such things.

The problem with the backchannel nature of body language is that it is often in competition with explicit, linear verbal language, which is a pushy tyrant. There are too many pushy tyrants in the tech industry that are poor at social signaling. Body language tends to be relegated to a lower priority in many areas of digital technology, including the design of software interfaces, productivity tools, kitchen appliances…and cars. This is just one symptom of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

High tech culture is obsessed with metrics; seeking to measure as much as possible, to be data-driven, to have tangible results and ways of measuring success. This obsession with data is a mistake. Tossing out what can’t be measured or converted into data is a very big mistake. And the digitally-designed world we live in suffers as a result. Let me try to explain what I mean by all this….

A computer on wheels

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The automobile was invented in the industrial age – an age defined by energy, force, mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and physicality.

We are  now fumbling through the information age.

Apple Inc. has managed to reduce the thickness of laptop computers – they have become so thin that you can cut steak with them. But it should come as no surprise that the surface areas of laptop screens and keyboards have not been reduced, compared to the degree that computer chips have been miniaturized. There is a simple reason for this: human eyes and hands are still the same size. This will never change.

The same applies to communication. The more digital our machines become, the more we have to communicate with them, and they, in turn, have to communicate with us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 2.15.32 PM.pngAn old-fashioned industrial-age car comes with natural affordances: communication happens simply as a result of the physical nature of knobs, wheels, wires, engine sounds, torques, and forces. There are many sensory stimuli that the driver sees, feels, hears and smells – and often they are unconscious to the driver – or just above the level of consciousness.

Driving is a very different experience now. It is turning into a video game…a simulation. There is a disconnect between driver and car that seems to be growing wider.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s the problem:

Body language between driver and car has become an arbitrary plaything, mediated by cockeyed displays and confusing controls. It is up to the whims of user interface designers – too many of whom have their heads up their asses. Idiots who call themselves designers live under the illusion that they can invent visual language on the fly and shove it into our long-lived lives, expecting their clever interfaces to fall naturally into use.

Or maybe they don’t actually think this – but don’t care anyway, because they are paid well. I’m not sure which is worse.

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According to Matt Bubbers:

There’s nothing wrong with the volume knob. It does not need reinvention, nor disruption, nor innovation. The volume knob is perfect the way it is. Or, rather, the way it was.

Get into a new car in 2018 and you’re faced with a multitude of complicated ways to adjust the stereo volume: buttons or dials on the steering wheel, voice commands that rarely work, fiddly non-buttons on the centre panel, touchscreens that take your eyes off the road, even gesture controls that make you wave your hand as if you’re conducting a symphony.

Cars are too complicated. The volume knob is indicative of the problem. Call it feature bloat or mission creep: Cars are trying to do more, but they’re not doing it all well. These infotainment features can be distracting, therefore dangerous, and they cost money.

A new generation of digital designer is out of touch with nature. It is infuriating, because here we are, fumbling to bake a cake, turn on the AC, or change a channel on the TV: “Now, which of these 2,458 buttons on this TV remote do I need to press in order to change the channel?…”

“Oh shit – no wonder I’m confused: this is the remote control for the gas fireplace! Is that why it’s so hot in here?”

Driving under the influence of icons

Britania Rescue, a firm providing a breakdown service in England, conducted a survey, interviewing over 2000 drivers. The revelations are quite startling. It revealed that more than 52 per cent of drivers cannot correctly identify 16 of the most common symbols.

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Interpreting a bunch of unfamiliar icons invented by out-of-touch dweebs is not how we should be interacting with our technology – especially as technology sinks deeper into our lives.

Just this morning, my 87-year-old mother and I spent about a half-hour trying to figure out how to set my sister’s high-tech oven to bake. To make matters worse, my mother, who is visually-impaired, can’t even feel the controls – the entire interface consists of a dim visual glow behind slick glass. We eventually had to read a manual. WE HAD TO READ A FUCKING MANUAL TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN ON AN OVEN. How long must this insanity go on?

A car’s manual should be the car itself

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Dan Carney, in the article, Complex car controls equal confused drivers, quotes Consumer Reports:  “You shouldn’t have to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the shifter.”

He says, “The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.”

My Prius experience

services.edmunds-media.jpgMy first experience with a Prius was not pleasant. Now, I am not expecting many of you to agree with my criticism, and I know that there are many happy Prius owners, who claim that you can just ignore the geeky stuff if you don’t like it.

I don’t like it, and I can’t ignore it.

I have found that most people have a higher tolerance for figuring-out technology than I. It’s not for lack intelligence or education; it’s more that I am impatient with stupid design. It makes me irate, because these fumblings are entirely unnecessary.

We all suffer because of the whims of irresponsible designers, supposedly working in teams which include human factors engineers and ergonomics engineers, whom I assume are asleep on the job.

I place the blame for my impatience squarely on Donald Norman, whose book, “The Design of Everyday Things” implored readers to stop blaming themselves for their constant fumbling with technology. The source of the problem is irresponsible design. He converted me profoundly. And now I am a tech curmudgeon. Thanks Don.

I once had to borrow a friend’s Prius because my Honda Fit was in the shop. I liked the energy-saving aspects and the overall comfort, but the dashboard was unfamiliar. My hippocampi threw up their hands in despair. What’s worse: after parking the car in a parking lot, I put the key in my pocket and decided to check the doors to make sure they were locked. The doors were not locking. Why? I tried locking the doors many times but every time I walked around to the other side, the opposite door would unlock. I called the owner, and told her that I am not able to lock the car. She said, “Oh – that’s because the doors automatically – and magically – unlock when you walk up to them. Smart, eh?”

Hello? Discoverability? 

Thank you Prius for not telling me about your clever trick. You are one step ahead of me! Perhaps I should just stop trying to understand what the fuck you are doing and just bow to your vast intelligence. You win, Prius.

My Honda Fit is relatively simple, compared to many cars these days. But it does things that infuriate me. It decides that I want the back window wipers to turn on when the front wipers are on, and I happen to be backing up. It took my car mechanic to explain the non-brilliance of this behavior. Thanks Honda for taking away my choice in the matter. My car also decides to turn on the interior light at night after I have parked the car. I have to wait a long time for the light to go out. My car knows how long. I am not privy to this duration. What if I don’t want strangers to see me – because I’d like to finish picking my nose before getting out?

Whether or not strangers can see me picking my nose is no longer my choice. My car has made this decision for me. Sure: I could reach up to the ceiling and turn off the light – but then I will forget to turn it on again when I actually need it. This never used to be so complicated.

Another gripe: sometimes my door locks when I’m driving, and then I have to unlock it to get out – but not always. There is no rhyme or reason (that I am aware of) for when and why this happens. Yes…I know – some of you will probably offer to enlighten me with a comment. But the fact that this has to be learned in the first place is what bugs me. I would prefer one of two things: (1) My car makes it apparent to me why it is making decisions for me, or (2) it stays out of the way and lets me be the decision-maker.

Am I old-fashioned? If wanting to be in charge of basic things like locking doors and turning on lights makes me old-fashioned, then…yes, I’m old-fashioned.

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(image from http://www.thehogring.com/2013/07/31/10-most-ridiculous-dashboards-of-all-time/

Confessions of a MIT luddite

People confuse me for a techy because of my degree. And then they are shocked at how critical I am of technology. The truth is that I am a design nerd rather than a computer nerd. I have nothing against information technology – after all, I write software – and love it. I just want the technology that I rely on to be better at communicating. For example: why do gas pumps still have a one-word vocabulary? ….

Beep.

Okay, I’m a neo-luddite. There, I said it. And I will remain a neo-luddite as long as the tech industry continues to ignore a billion years of evolution, which gave us – and the rest of the living world – the means to generate signals and interpret signals – the body language of the biosphere that keeps the living world buzzing along.

This natural flow of communication among organisms is a wonderful thing to behold. It happens on a level of sophistication that makes ovens and VCR’s look like retardation in a box.

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But then again, the evolution of information technology is extremely short compared to the evolution of natural language, which has kept the social ecosystems of Homo Sapiens running for a very long time.

Perhaps I am thrashing in the midst of the Singularity, and I should just give up – because that’s what you do in the Singularity.

But I would still like to understand what the future of communication will look like. This is especially important as more and more communication is done between people and machines. At the moment, I am still a little hesitant to call it “communication”.

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The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

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At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

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Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.

The Singularity is Just One in a Series

I’m reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.

It occurs to me that the transition that the human race is about to experience is similar to other major transitions that are often described as epochs – paradigm-shifts – in which a new structure emerges over a previous structure. There are six key epochs that Kurzweil describes. (The first four are not unlike epochal stages described by Terrance Deacon and others.)

  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology and DNA
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Human Intelligence Merges with Human Technology
  6. Cosmic Intelligence

When a new epoch comes into being, the agents of that new epoch don’t necessarily eradicate, overcome, usurp, reduce, or impede the agents of the previous epoch. Every epoch stands on the shoulders of the last epoch.This is one reason not to fear the Singularity…as if it is going to destroy us or render us un-human. In fact, epoch number 5 may allow us to become more human (a characterization that we could only truly make after the fact – not from our current vantage point).

I like to think of “human” as a verb: as a shift from animal to post-human, because it characterizes our nature of always striving for something more.

animal to posthuman

There are debates raging on whether the Singularity is good or bad for humanity. One way to avoid endless debate is to do the existential act: to make an attempt at determining the fate of humanity, rather than sit passively and make predictions.  As Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. We should try to guide the direction of the next epoch as much as we can while we are still the ones in charge.

In a previous article I wrote that criticizes some predictions by Nick Bostrom, I compare our upcoming epochal shift to a shift that happened in the past, when multi-cellular beings evolved. Consider:

Maybe Our AI Will Evolve to Protect Us And the Planet

tree-of-lifeBillions of years ago, single cells decided to come together in order to make bodies, so they could do more using teamwork. Some of these cells were probably worried about the bodies “taking over”. And oh did they! But, these bodies also did their little cells a favor: they kept them alive and provided them with nutrition. Win-win baby!

I am not a full-fledged Singularitarian. I prefer to stay agnostic as long as I can. Its not just a human story. Our Singularity is just the one that is happening to us at the moment.

Similarly, the emergence of previous epochs may have been experienced as Singularities to those that came before.

Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability

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It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)