SXSW2019; teaming up with the machines

This was the 7th time that I traveled to Austin to experience the center of the (US) tech world. 2011, 13, 15–19 to be precise. As I always tell fresh attendees: it is not so much about the next new app anymore. SXSW got that name in 2007 when Twitter was launched and in 2009 with Foursquare. After that there was never such an impactful launch. You can however see how certain themes emerge. From social media to blockchain to service design and AI. And like last year AI was the most important trend of this year. Last year and also in 2017 it was more the new possibilities and the discovery what AI actually is and what is a possible future. Now it was much more all about the impact on society. Even without super specific examples.

Ethics and inclusiveness were the key themes. It indicates how much SXSW focuses on the society and the impact of technology nowadays, more than the one-off successes (or failures). It is something Bruce Sterling referred to in his closing remarks on Wednesday: we have entered a world that is ruled by the G-maffia, the GAFAM that is dictating our reality. And our reality is changing, so much is clear.

Truly inclusive

In the panel session that INFO organised together with Philips and UNstudio inclusivity was connected to the smart city, looking into design strategies.
– Design contextually and with equity, letting people make decisions, not just assuming they only want to give opinions
– Good interventions are based on a thorough understanding of the user experience in the eco-system
– All inclusive city processes should include ‘negotiations’ between citizens/users

At SXSW there are always several themes and focus points in parallel. For me the theme I focused on was automation, robotics, relation man-machine and AI. And also what it means for the designer.

There was enough to see and hear about that, as AI was in all other tracks too, it was hard to filter the right sessions even more.

So, before diving a bit more into this, here a TL;DR; a look back in a couple of bullets

  • AI as societal impact, triggering societal questions as key to discuss. As we entered a tech-reality ruled by big tech SXSW will be less on startups and more on impact in society
  • As soon as AI is ready for use, it stops being AI, it starts being a tool or a machine
  • Living with tech needs computational contracts as understanding, and computational design as future of design
  • With AI, computational contracts, etc, we will not design, we will be designed, and need to find the right way to cooperate with the machines
  • To make technology inclusive we need to focus on the outcomes on a different human level and we need to dare to choose if necessary for slow technology. And to quote Bjarke Ingels: don’t follow the dogma of thinking outside of the box, be obsessed by the restrictions
  • Podcasts are the hopeful promise for media
  • Scooters (electric steps) are a nice and handy drive but a huge clutter for the sidewalk when you let competition get loose
New type of roadblock this year to prevent passing of scooters

Social home appliances

There were a number of social robots in the LG house. A few large versions with screen for events, but the most interesting was CLOi, a SocialBot as they call it. This is a handy robot, about the size of a Google Home or Alexa, specially developed for emotional interaction. The design looks a bit like the recently ‘deceased’ Jibo robot.

I saw Jibo for the first time on SXSW, at the time at a presentation by the creator Cynthia Breazeal. It then remained silent for a long time, until last year. Jibo appeared to have been overtaken by the law of the inhibiting lead. The robot was extremely good at displaying human behavior, but not intelligent enough to compete with the Alexa and Google Home. Jibo was also far too expensive.

Interesting how LG follows a similar path in the development of its SocialBot, with the difference that attention is a bit more focused on the eyes than on movements. In the LG house also other automated machines were displayed, such as a beer machine and an ice machine. The SocialBot is not a bone in its own right, but must be seen as an intermediary for household appliances from LG, which of course will all become much more intelligent.

The role of such bots is interesting. I often use the Chinese Nio Nomi car in presentations that has built in a similar interface to shape the contact between functions and occupants.

Relationship between man and machine

A lot of discussion at SXSW is about the relationship between man and machine, our intelligence and AI and the ethical aspects thereof. It is super interesting that Asian companies choose social robotics instead of the more functional way of Amazon or Google Home.

Douglas Rushkoff mentioned the collaboration between robots and non-humans too. Rushkoff has a mission that he calls Team Human; “We don’t need a substitute for real life.” He argues that robots should not be treated as slaves. We must not go back to feudal times, that brings us down as people: “Respect non-human rights.”

It was also discussed in the “Academia and the Rise of Commercial Robotics” panel. We are now on an engineering platform, the next step is to use social science to enable cultural interactions.

Another panel spoke about Active and Passive AI, where passive stands for serviceable AI that you can call to execute an assignment, while Active AI itself takes the initiative. You can deduce from the questions from the audience that people are not completely comfortable with it. In addition to concerns about privacy, there is a great deal of fear that robots and AI will take over the world.

When it comes to applications, it also makes sense to zoom in on ethics. A good example was the last session I attended with Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Wolfram Alpha. This is a computational search engine that is widely used in science and education. Wolfram believes that a new language must be developed, the computational language, and he spoke about computational contracts.

His tool is a smart machine that contains a lot of AI. His story ties in with the discussion about blockchain, so it is not surprising that his talk was called The Future of AI in Blockchain. That title has a high buzzword density, but Wolfram knows what he is talking about. His presentation was therefore not a list of empty words or superficial views. With his tool he showed how we can communicate with machines in a different way.

Computational design

Wolfram was not the only advocate of computational thinking. John Maeda, also a regular SXSW speaker, commented on this during his Design In Tech update and he also writes a book about this: How To Speak Machine Many stories came along in his story, but an important starting point is his focus on Computational Design, a discipline that he puts alongside Classical Design and Design Thinking.

Maeda also makes clear how design changes if you take the dynamics of computer-driven services (of which AI is part) as a starting point. Where Wolfram concentrates on the new language and functions, Maeda is concerned with the impact of AI on design practice. His report on this goes deeply in depth and contains many examples.

Ethics is a theme that was explicitly discussed during SXSW this year, especially when it comes to AI and robots. Both Johan Maeda and Stephen Anderson pointed out, for example, how the designer’s field of work is changing. Not one artefact is the subject of our work, it extends much further. The underlying system is key. Both the DesignInTech report by Maeda and the Framing model by Anderson are recommended for those who want to know more about this.

How are we going to collaborate with AI? How are we going to understand each other. SXSW is much about dangers and the role of robotization and AI, but also about how we will experience our world under the influence of new forms of intelligence, tools and interfaces. It was noticeable that AI is currently high in the Gartner hypecycle. Certainly, last year it was a lot about AI, but then as a concept. This year the relevance was discovered and AI was visible in new services.

War of Cyberpunk

SXSW is the place where you hear new themes for the first time, or where the themes that matter in the coming years are confirmed. As the closing speaker of the interactive festival, Bruce Sterling summarized the state of affairs with a literary statement entitled “War of Cyperpunk”. Sterling concludes that high-tech is now definitely the dominant factor in society.

This has a number of consequences, but one is that there is no room for startups anymore. Whether this is so certain is the question. What is certain is that fewer “things” were shown at SXSW this year. The most important talks were about major changes. Themes such as computational language (the new language that we must learn to speak) and computational design, reflect the change that is taking place. These are developments that call for what Anderson calls a Design 3.0 with which we will relate differently to the things that we design.

This theme coincides in an interesting way with the developments in robotics. It will be another interesting year!

Melting of human and technology to helpful companion

[in Dutch]

Parallel aan het doorbreken van de wearable als nieuwe vorm van interactiemiddel verandert onze houding met technologie. Met het dichter op de huid kruipen (of soms zelf in de huid) van de devices krijgen we een hechtere relatie. Het device is niet meer het losse gereedschap dat we bij ons dragen en gebruiken als we het nodig hebben, het wordt een verlengstuk van ons lichaam. Daarin gaan we technologie ook anders inzetten, als hulpzaam maatje waar we een directe relatie mee hebben en samen optrekken.

Deze ontwikkeling was sterk terug te vinden op afgelopen SXSW conferentie, vaak een graadmeter van welke sluimerende trends op doorbreken staan. Zo doet Aduén Darriba Frederiks onderzoek naar sociale aanraking op afstand via de TaSST sleeve. In zijn onderzoek is fascinerend hoe je het gevoel van aanraking opvangt en omzet naar een simulatie van een menselijke interactie. In zijn presentatie bij de Firestarters Haptic Revolutions avond liet hij zien hoe deze versmelting wordt bereikt via het toevoegen van structuur en beweging. Je moet diep kijken naar de eigenschappen van de menselijke huid om het gevoel te benaderen.

Bij de Myo vertalen ze spierbewegingen naar computer interacties. Het levert een soort van samensmelting van mens en computer zonder dat we daarmee cyborgs worden, is de stellige overtuiging van Stephen Lake van Thalmic Labs, de maker van de band. Het is interessant dat de Myo een omgekeerd haptic interaction-principe hanteert. Het is niet de technologie die aanraking als communicatie gebruikt, maar haptisch gedrag is input voor de technologie geworden. Uiteraard geeft de band feedback waardoor een dialoog zou kunnen ontstaan, zeker als de band meer gedifferentieerde haptisch gevoel geeft.
De Myo is een magisch device maar blijkt het nog wel lastig te vinden om bij een mens goed aansluiting te vinden. Als je geluk hebt leert het je gedrag in een paar uur kennen, maar het kan ook langer duren. Je kunt er op wachten dat het leren van de technologie van ons persoonlijk fysieke karakter een belangrijk onderdeel wordt hoe we de technologie gebruiken.

 Het gebied dat zich bezig houdt met de verregaande versmelting tussen menselijke en technologische interacties heet social robotics. Bij die versmelting van mens en technologie wordt een partnership aangegaan met de technologie. Onze relatie is anders, en we zullen ons gedrag langzaam aanpassen aan de aanwezigheid van deze nieuwe hulpjes. Net zoals we dat bijvoorbeeld hebben gedaan met de telefoon.

Associate professor bij MIT Cynthia Breazeal gaat in haar onderzoek in op de mens-computer interactie en bekijkt de dialoog tussen mens en robot die daarbij ontstaat. Het is de persoonlijke kant van robots, sociale robots die ‘high-touch’ met ‘high-tech’ verbinden. Dit is interessant omdat via emotioneel contact de meest effectieve interacties tussen mensen plaatsvinden. Technologie heeft door het ontstaan van social interacties veel kracht gewonnen in het communiceren. Samen met het emotionele contact ontstaan devices die je kunt zien als een ‘hulpzame maatje’.

Het onderzoek van Breazeal leert ons veel over de interacties met onze nieuwe partner. Centraal bij de interactie tussen partner robots en mens is het maken van adaptief gedrag. Daarvoor is een combinatie nodig van cognitief en emotioneel aspecten. Het onderzoek richt zich helemaal op de interactie tussen mens en robot, en de dialoog die daarbij ontstaat.
Een centraal thema is ‘humanized engagement’, hoe menselijk moeten robots zijn om bruikbaar te zijn?
Menselijk is niet hetzelfde als het zijn van een mens. Het ondersteunen van een menselijke ervaring gaat via een combinatie van sociale, emotionele, cognitieve en lichamelijke aspecten. De ervaring is meer menselijk als meer van deze dimensies worden ondersteund.

Een eerdere onderzoeksrobot genaamd Kismet communiceert niet in taal, maar in reactief gedrag en geluiden en bereikt daarmee een connectie bereikt.
De volgende stap is het laten leren van de robot door het spiegelen van gedrag. Het lijkt daarin heel erg op de manier waarop we zelf leren, wat veel beter werkt dat van te voren robots gedrag aan te leren.

De sociale robots bieden veel waarde als ze worden ingezet als partner van de mens, niet als vervanging. Sociale robots gaan over persoonlijke versterking, ze helpen om als mens beter te worden. De sociale robot is een hub tussen de digitale data en de professionele hulp.
Belangrijk daarbij is om sociale robots eerlijk te laten zijn in wat ze wel en niet kunnen.

We kennen dit lerend gedrag al in mindere mate van spraakgestuurde systemen. Nuance Communications ontwerpt deze interacties en hanteren een aantal eigenschappen. Naast het begrip van verwachtingen en de overwegingen wanneer spraak toe te passen in combinatie met andere interactievormen.  Adaptieve feedback is ook cruciaal;  gebruik ook ‘fouten’ in de communicatie als mogelijkheid om te leren

Een van de ultieme voorbeelden van een robot-maatje is Jibo, gemaakt door de startup van Breazeal. Het is een gezinsmaatje die probeert via de dialoog een intermediair probeert te zijn in allerlei gezinsdynamiek. Interessant is hoe via simpele gedragingen van de robot non-verbale communicatie wordt ondersteund.

De Jibo robot maakt nieuwsgierigg maar voelt ook over the top. Het is de vraag of we op deze manier een hulpje in huis zullen nemen. Hij is ook behoorlijk statisch. Een ander uiterste zagen we gevisualiseerd in de film Her waar het computersysteem letterlijk tot leven komt. Het onderzoek met Jibo leert ons het belang van het combineren van fysieke en digitale communicatie. Dit zullen we gaan merken in het haptisch gedrag van onze wearables.
Als conclusie van haar onderzoek stelt Breazeal dat er een nieuw gebied ontstaat in de interactie tussen mens en machine die veel weg heeft hoe we met onze huisdieren communiceren. Het is een mooie metafoor van het moment in de evolutie waar we nu staan. Slimme en draagbare technologie als partners van de mens, onzichtbaar maar altijd aanwezig, ongemerkt versmelten we met onze techno-assistenten en passen we ons leven aan. Het ontwerpen van digitale producten krijgt hiermee een nieuwe dimensie. Meer dan ooit is de psychologie van de mens nodig om zinvolle diensten te maken. Daarbij komt dat we ruimte moeten inbouwen voor een continue lerende dialoog tussen mens en techno-maatje.

Thinking on the #sxsw buzz

I do not attend South by South West interactive (SxSW) this year. The conference is becoming even more popular, and will definitely something to be missed, but I will make it up later this year with some other places. Still I was thinking on what buzz we can expect. Just for the fun of it, let’s try to predict this, see what will come true. And at the same time, these are of course also some of the things I hope it will buzz. I did not dive into the program, these are just some of my feelings.

Last year we had (big) data and behavior design. And the introduction of the Glass. That is the first buzz I expect. A lot of Glasses in the wild, it will be probably the most glassed place ever.

I attended some interesting talks on machine learning and intelligent systems last year. I expected more on that this year. The internet of things will buzz SxSW with connected products galore.

Quantified self was hot too last year. More as overall theme maybe. It will be buzzing in a more mature manner, connected to health stuff for instance. On the other hand we will have a buzz on data literacy. With Snowden doing a keynote and all that has happened last year, it could not be other than that this topic will be important. Morozov believers and deniers will be both present.

I can’t remember true breaking apps or services or categories from last year. Wonder if we would get one this year. It could be very well that it is not an app but a wearable this time. The hottest interactive stuff is sensor-based today.

See what Bruce will say.

My first time at SxSW

This year I attended togehter with colleague Joris for the first time the conference South by SouthWest Interactive (SxSW or South by in short) in Austin Texas. It was quite a experience, a huge number of attendants (about 20.000 they say) and more than 1000 sessions to choose from. It felt more of a festival than a conference sometimes, which certainly add to the experience.

The conclusion from the sessions I saw and heard about from others is that the big trends are still on track. The things I preach for some time were confirmed: moving from web-experience to ecosystem of apps, big data (science, visualization), and above all: gamification, which can be seen as the buzz word of this edition. Location and context are still big, just like social media dynamics. Group services apps turned out very popular.

The focus in the conference seems to be a bit more on one app wonders than building a complete service experience, so let see if that will get more focus the coming year. The mixing up of digital and real world is just touched a little. It will be a good check if these trends will have landed next year.

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