Weeknotes 135; looking back at an online SXSW

Last week was packed with external events. I was a bit disappointed not being able to follow a lot of Mozfest. I attended two sessions last week in the end. The program looked very interesting but also overwhelming and a challenge to make the right choice.

That is typical also the case with SXSW. Last year it was canceled on late notice, this year it was fully online. With a huge amount of sessions to chose from but also with some flaws.

Reflections on SXSW

Looking back at the online version of SXSW, I concluded that it was quite a different edition that missed a lot of the energy and inspiration you normally have, being away from home, in a giant bubble of people making the stuff you use, with random meetings, etc. It was a pity that the setup of the platform did not manage to have only a bit of the special community feeling in the system. It was a straightforward set of live and on-demand talks. The on-demand one stays even online till half of April so the need for the rush is not there at all.

I was invited to contribute to a Dutch group blog and that created a sense of urgency to follow it last week and share impressions. I wrote three posts (all in Dutch), the first on the trends presentation of Amy Webb, the second on a combination of talks reflecting on Chinese and Western design culture, and the last one an overall reflection with a short overview of a couple of talks.

People tend to ask what you have learned from the conference when you are back. This time I found that harder than ever. It is not about one big trend, but often it is about a set of weak signals, combined with confirmations of developments you were watching already. The last time I was in Austin in 2019 it was already very prominent that inclusivity and ethics should play a role in thinking about tech. That was still very present in the program, even more maybe. Also, AI is still very everywhere. But it was more combined maybe with cultural backgrounds.

I have a slight feeling that topics as synthetic media and filtered and extended realities are upcoming, touched upon but not yet as big as AI. I might expect that will be a hint to next year though. Moving away from a human-first focus to a humanity-first, or even beyond; ecology-first, popped up in a couple of presentations. Combined with the You of Things, a shift of focus is on its way.

So maybe if I should take-out one thing; that it would be that there is a quest for the new reality. A reality that is both artificial, filtered, but also embodied again as we might get confused about what reality is after all…

And further…

The rest of the week was packed with meetings and plan-making. It is not healthy for your night rest to have these evening conferences…

The news of the week

On to the other news of last week. I thought for a moment that there was nothing on NFTs this week to reach the bar, but it did in the end. Of course a round-up of new applications of robotics and specific robot-doggies.

Robot roundup

Shape-shifting robots in the wild: the DyRET robot can rearrange its body to walk in new environments
This was the hot robotic news item early last week: “This robot can learn how to traverse unforeseen terrain by changing the length of its legs.”
Ford partners with U-M on robotics research, new building
A new collaboration of a mobility company that can not deny the last mile robotics. This is a bit generic goal though: “Together, they will work to develop robots and roboticists that help make lives better, keep people safer and build a more equitable society.”
MIT robot doctors see patients, fight spread of COVID-19
The rise of robotic interventions in the health context started right after the pandemic. I am wondering if the dog-style is really necessary.
“Researchers from MIT collaborated with Boston Dynamics to design Dr. Spot – a four-legged mobile robot that helps reduce the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals.”
A New York Lawmaker Wants to Ban Police Use of Armed Robots | WIRED
I am almost at Peak Spot-robot dog news…
“Officers’ use of Boston Robotics’ Digidog intensifies concerns about the militarization of the police.”
Hyundai sets sights on autonomous home-delivery robot – News – GCR
It is a logical follow-up of acquiring Boston Dynamics and a more holistic support system.
Researchers’ algorithm designs soft robots that sense 
It feels like there is now weekly a new application of soft robots in the news. Where soft robots not only mean literally the nature of the materials but especially how the human can interact with the robot.
“MIT researchers developed a deep learning neural network to aid the design of soft-bodied robots. The algorithm optimizes the arrangement of sensors on the robot, enabling it to complete tasks as efficiently as possible.”
How to fight isolation in locked-down nursing homes? Friendly, furry robots.
Nice to see this application of furry robots. It cannot be an excuse for fewer visits, but as extra it is a good idea. Or at least an experiment. “A state program provides animatronic pets to Michigan nursing homes, where isolation has proved corrosive during the pandemic.”
NFT digital artwork by humanoid robot Sophia up for auction
Last week I wondered with another robot doing some artistic painting, what that would mean for the outcomes. And if it delivers an NFT-ready result. Apparently elsewhere this was already implemented:“Robot artist Sophia, whose first artwork goes up for auction on Wednesday, says she draws inspiration for her work from people and is open to future creative partnerships with humans. Digital artwork by the Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics humanoid, in the form of a Non-Fungible Token (NFT), is to be auctioned in the first sale of such pieces created jointly with artificial intelligence (AI).

Robotics without robots

How artificial intelligence can help curb traffic accidents in cities
AI-city planning as a partner of human designers: “Javier Borge pointed out that “artificial intelligence strikes us as a very powerful tool for finding out where problems might occur, but it’s not going to solve them on its own”. Thus, the team has developed a heuristic method for improving urban scenes which, according to Borge, “is worthless without a human behind it,” such as an urban planner, an architect or an engineer who is able to validate and implement changes based on the algorithm-driven data. “
Tesla’s “Full Self Driving” Beta Is Just Laughably Bad and Potentially Dangerous
Some discussion on the maturity of Teslas Self Drive car. Level 2 is far from that reality. 
NVIDIA’s AI Puts Video Calls On Steroids! 💪
Adjusting your eyes to the conversation partner in a call, instead of looking towards the screen, was already on its way of implementing. This one is going a bit further. It replaces all video with generated video after the first 30 frames to reduce stream-capacity needed.
Deep Learning Enables Real-Time 3D Holograms On a Smartphone
Losing touch with reality, or having new realities added to the current one, it is indeed happening.
The Algorithmic Auditing Trap. ‘Bias audits’ for discriminatory tools… 
To overcome the urgent problem of algorithmic auditing Mona proposes three steps: transparency, clear definitions, and holistic approach
“The last point underlines the importance of a holistic approach to algorithmic auditing, one that asks about the assumptions baked into the technology and allows room for the question of whether or not this technology should exist in the first place.”
Argument technology for debating with humans
More AI for starting a conversation (or debate) with humans..

Further futuring

Living Things Are Not (20th Century) Machines: Updating Mechanism Metaphors in Light of the Modern Science of Machine Behavior 
A long-read that seems a need to read. So on my list!
“We sketch a perspective that acknowledges the remarkable, unique aspects of life to help re-define key terms, and identify deep, essential features of concepts for a future in which sharp boundaries between evolved and designed systems will not exist.”
Continuing to think about research labs: 14 references 
Nice overview of different types of research labs. I think I miss a bit the format of INFO LABS; business-related but not corporate. Aiming to gain knowledge and create space for new explorations beyond incremental innovation (innovation is nowadays the same as product development that lasts).
Demiurgical Businesses 
Venkatesh Rao is known for his smart thinking and models. This might be one. Beyond product-driven and customer-driven
Explore Synthetic Futuring
It is a fun experience to let this AI generate future scenarios. It is also a learning experience how this kind of algorithms work.
“In our research into and experiments with Synthetic Media, we experienced, again and again, what we call the result-vs.-process effect. The current crop of generative-media technologies produces final results like a video or a text that doesn’t necessarily wow anyone because they are supposed to not appear any different from usual media. The contrast lies in the process.”

Looking into the coming week…

To close, a reading and listening tips. I like to mention here the new Getting Tech Right podcast of Peter Bihr, this week with guest Patrick Tanguay. The latter is the publisher of Sentiers newsletter, which is often a valuable resource for this newsletter too by the way.I am looking forward to a focus group session on autonomous driving, updates with the students, the inaugural speech of Martijn de Waal, and the symposium on Civic Interaction Design, and I might even attend some events. However, I expect I might have to skip these… :-)

Have a great week!

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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