High-skill robots, low-skill workers

Some notes on what I think I understand about technology and inequality.

Let’s start with an obvious big question: is technology destroying jobs faster than they can be replaced? On the long term the evidence isn’t strong. Humans always appear to invent new things to do. There is no reason this time around should be any different.

But in the short term technology has contributed to an evaporation of mid-skilled jobs. Parts of these jobs are automated entirely, parts can be done by fewer people because of higher productivity gained from tech.

While productivity continues to grow, jobs are lagging behind. The year 2000 appears to have been a turning point. “Something” happened around that time. But no-one knows exactly what.

My hunch is that we’ve seen an emergence of a new class of pseudo-monopolies. Oligopolies. And this is compounded by a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic that technology seems to produce.

Others have pointed to globalisation but although this might be a contributing factor, the evidence does not support the idea that it is the major cause.

So what are we left with?

Historically, looking at previous technological upsets, it appears education makes a big difference. People negatively affected by technological progress should have access to good education so that they have options. In the US the access to high quality education is not equally divided.

Apparently family income is associated with educational achievement. So if your family is rich, you are more likely to become a high skilled individual. And high skilled individuals are privileged by the tech economy.

And if Piketty’s is right, we are approaching a reality in which money made from wealth rises faster than wages. So there is a feedback loop in place which only exacerbates the situation.

One more bullet: If you think trickle-down economics, increasing the size of the pie will help, you might be mistaken. It appears social mobility is helped more by decreasing inequality in the distribution of income growth.

So some preliminary conclusions: a progressive tax on wealth won’t solve the issue. The education system will require reform, too.

I think this is the central irony of the whole situation: we are working hard to teach machines how to learn. But we are neglecting to improve how people learn.

Waiting for the smart city

Nowadays when we talk about the smart city we don’t necessarily talk about smartness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few reasons why.

To begin with, the term suggests something that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actually, current day cities are already smart to a greater or lesser degree depending on where and how you look.

This is important because too often we postpone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Furthermore, ‘smart city’ suggests something monolithic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of interconnected things. It resists topdown design.

History is littered with failed attempts at authoritarian high-modernist city design. Just stop it.

Smartness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a shorthand for ‘technologically augmented’. A smart city is a city eaten by software. All cities are being eaten (or have been eaten) by software to a greater or lesser extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvious examples. Smaller more subtle ones abound.

The question is, smart to what end? Efficiency? Legibility? Controllability? Anti-fragility? Playability? Liveability? Sustainability? The answer depends on your outlook.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures networks. It obscures intent.

I’m not saying don’t ever use it. But in many cases you can get by without it. You can talk about specific parts that make up the whole of a city, specific technologies and specific aims.

Postscript 1

We can do the same exercise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is making cities smart (software eating the world) is also making everything else smart. Smart towns. Smart countrysides. The ends are different. The networks are different. The processes play out in different ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monopoly on ‘disruption’.

Postscript 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebastian Quack say at Playful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Amsterdam.

Artificial intelligence as partner

Some notes on artificial intelligence, technology as partner and related user interface design challenges. Mostly notes to self, not sure I am adding much to the debate. Just summarising what I think is important to think about more. Warning: Dense with links.

Matt Jones writes about how artificial intelligence does not have to be a slave, but can also be partner.

I’m personally much more interested in machine intelligence as human augmentation rather than the oft-hyped AI assistant as a separate embodiment.

I would add a third possibility, which is AI as master. A common fear we humans have and one I think only growing as things like AlphaGo and new Boston Dynamics robots keep happening.

I have had a tweet pinned to my timeline for a while now, which is a quote from Play Matters.

“tech­no­logy is not a ser­vant or a mas­ter but a source of expres­sion, a way of being”

So this idea actually does not just apply to AI but to tech in general. Of course, as tech gets smarter and more independent from humans, the idea of a ‘third way’ only grows in importance.

More tweeting. A while back, shortly after AlphaGo’s victory, James tweeted:

On the one hand, we must insist, as Kasparov did, on Advanced Go, and then Advanced Everything Else https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Chess

Advanced Chess is a clear example of humans and AI partnering. And it is also an example of technology as a source of expression and a way of being.

Also, in a WIRED article on AlphaGo, someone who had played the AI repeatedly says his game has improved tremendously.

So that is the promise: Artificially intelligent systems which work together with humans for mutual benefit.

Now of course these AIs don’t just arrive into the world fully formed. They are created by humans with particular goals in mind. So there is a design component there. We can design them to be partners but we can also design them to be masters or slaves.

As an aside: Maybe AIs that make use of deep learning are particularly well suited to this partner model? I do not know enough about it to say for sure. But I was struck by this piece on why Google ditched Boston Dynamics. There apparently is a significant difference between holistic and reductionist approaches, deep learning being holistic. I imagine reductionist AI might be more dependent on humans. But this is just wild speculation. I don’t know if there is anything there.

This insistence of James on “advanced everything else” is a world view. A politics. To allow ourselves to be increasingly entangled with these systems, to not be afraid of them. Because if we are afraid, we either want to subjugate them or they will subjugate us. It is also about not obscuring the systems we are part of. This is a sentiment also expressed by James in the same series of tweets I quoted from earlier:

These emergences are also the best model we have ever built for describing the true state of the world as it always already exists.

And there is overlap here with ideas expressed by Kevin in ‘Design as Participation’:

[W]e are no longer just using computers. We are using computers to use the world. The obscured and complex code and engineering now engages with people, resources, civics, communities and ecosystems. Should designers continue to privilege users above all others in the system? What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?

AI partners might help us to better see the systems the world is made up of and engage with them more deeply. This hope is expressed by Matt Webb, too:

with the re-emergence of artificial intelligence (only this time with a buddy-style user interface that actually works), this question of “doing something for me” vs “allowing me to do even more” is going to get even more pronounced. Both are effective, but the first sucks… or at least, it sucks according to my own personal politics, because I regard individual alienation from society and complex systems as one of the huge threats in the 21st century.

I am reminded of the mixed-initiative systems being researched in the area of procedural content generation for games. I wrote about these a while back on the Hubbub blog. Such systems are partners of designers. They give something like super powers. Now imagine such powers applied to other problems. Quite exciting.

Actually, in the aforementioned article I distinguish between tools for making things and tools for inspecting possibility spaces. In the first case designers manipulate more abstract representations of the intended outcome and the system generates the actual output. In the second case the system visualises the range of possible outcomes given a particular configuration of the abstract representation. These two are best paired.

From a design perspective, a lot remains to be figured out. If I look at those mixed-initiative tools I am struck by how poorly they communicate what the AI is doing and what its capabilities are. There is a huge user interface design challenge there.

For stuff focused on getting information, a conversational UI seems to be the current local optimum for working with an AI. But for tools for creativity, to use the two-way split proposed by Victor, different UIs will be required.

What shape will they take? What visual language do we need to express the particular properties of artificial intelligence? What approaches can we take in addition to personifying AI as bots or characters? I don’t know and I can hardly think of any good examples that point towards promising approaches. Lots to be done.

My plans for 2016

Long story short: my plan is to make plans.

Hubbub has gone into hibernation. After more than six years of leading a boutique playful design agency I am returning to freelance life. At least for the short term.

I will use the flexibility afforded by this freeing up of time to take stock of where I have come from and where I am headed. ‘Orientation is the Schwerpunkt,’ as Boyd says. I have definitely cycled back through my meta-OODA-loop and am firmly back in the second O.

To make things more interesting I have exchanged the Netherlands for Singapore. I will be here until August. It is going to be fun to explore the things this city has to offer. I am curious what the technology and design scene is like when seen up close. So I hope to do some work locally.

I will take on short commitments. Let’s say no longer than two to three months. Anything goes really, but I am particularly interested in work related to creativity and learning. I am also keen on getting back into teaching.

So if you are in Singapore, work in technology or design and want to have a cup of coffee. Drop me a line.

Happy 2016!

Nobody does thoroughly argued presentations quite like Sebastian. This is good stuff on ethics and design.

I decided to share some thoughts it sparked via Twitter and ended up ranting a bit:

I recently talked about ethics to a bunch of “behavior designers” and found myself concluding that any designed system that does not allow for user appropriation is fundamentally unethical because as you rightly point out what is the good life is a personal matter. Imposing it is an inherently violent act. A lot of design is a form of technologically mediated violence. Getting people to do your bidding, however well intended. Which given my own vocation and work in the past is a kind of troubling thought to arrive at… Help?

Sebastian makes his best point on slides 113-114. Ethical design isn’t about doing the least harm, but about doing the most good. And, to come back to my Twitter rant, for me the ultimate good is for others to be free. Hence non-prescriptive design.

(via Designing the Good Life: Ethics and User Experience Design)

Three cool projects out of the Art, Media and Technology faculty

So a week ago I visited a project market at the Art, Media and Technology faculty in Hilversum which is part of the Utrecht School of Arts and offers BA and MA courses in Interaction Design, Game Design & Development and many others.

The range of projects on show was broad and wonderfully presented. It proves the school is still able to integrate arts and crafts with commercial and societal relevant thinking. All projects (over 40 in total) were by master of arts students and commissioned by real world clients. I’d like to point out three projects I particularly enjoyed:


A tangible interface that models a cow’s insides and allows veterinary students to train at much earlier stage than they do now. The cow model has realistic organs made of silicon (echoes of Realdoll here) and is hooked up to a large display showing a 3D visualization of the student’s actions inside the cow. Crazy, slightly gross but very well done.


A narrative, literary game called ‘Haas’ (Dutch for hare) that allows the player to intuitively draw the level around the main character. The game’s engine reminded me a bit of Chris Crawford‘s work in that it tracks all kinds of dramatic possibilities in the game and evaluates which is the most appropriate at any time based on available characters, props, etc. Cute and pretty.


A game developed for Philips’ Entertaible which is a large flat panel multi-touch display that can track game pieces’ location, shape and orientation and has RFID capabilities as well. The game developed has the players explore a haunted mansion (stunningly visualized by the students in a style that is reminiscent of Pixar) and play a number of inventive mini-games. Very professionally done.

For a taste of the project market you can check out this photo album (from which the photos in this post are taken) as well as this video clip by Dutch newspaper AD.

Full disclosure: I currently teach a course in game design for mobile devices and earlier studied interaction and game design between 1998 and 2002 at the same school.