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

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.

Google Reader improvements

The new Google Reader trends page

I hadn’t touched Google Read­er since tak­ing a brief look at its ini­tial launch in Octo­ber 2005. I’m now using it as my pri­ma­ry read­er, hav­ing grown tired of Rojo’s poor per­for­mance and fre­quent inter­face over­hauls. There’s a few things that have real­ly improved since that first release. I’ll sum them up briefly here:

  • Unclut­tered, sim­ple inter­face. They’ve gone back to basics and mim­ic a plain desk­top appli­ca­tion UI. Hard­ly any super­flu­ous web 2.0 fea­tures demand your atten­tion.
  • Trends page (I’ve book­marked a few arti­cles on this); which allows you to look at the feeds you’ve been read­ing the most but, more impor­tant­ly, allow you to weed out the ones you nev­er look at or have died. Essen­tial for some­one who has over 200 feeds to track.
  • Mul­ti-fold­er organ­is­ing, not quite free tag­ging (which is a shame) but still nice for the folk­so­nom­i­cal­ly inclined.
  • When scrolling through a list of expand­ed new feed items, Read­er auto­mat­i­cal­ly marks items you’ve scrolled past as read. Which great­ly reduces the excise oth­er web-based read­ers force on their users when want­i­ng to mark a feed as read.
  • Per­for­mance is accept­able to good. It’s not as fast as Gmail, but vast­ly supe­ri­or to Rojo for instance, despite the con­sid­er­able use of AJAX.
  • There is an unof­fi­cial Mac OS X noti­fi­er that uses Growl.

Most of these fea­tures are not includ­ed in one or both of the pre­vi­ous two web-based read­ers I used for a length of time (Blog­lines and Rojo). Google have real­ly come up with some­thing nice here. I won­der when it’ll move out of the lab.

Why am I not using a desk­top based read­er? I’d like to (Net­NewsWire’s great for instance), just as I’d love to use a prop­er desk­top email client, but my mul­ti-plat­form, mul­ti-machine per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al use doesn’t allow me too. I work on at least two sep­a­rate PCs at work (a desk­top and a lap­top) and have a cute lit­tle iBook that I use at home. This all means I am a real web OS user. Fire­fox as brows­er (with Google Brows­er Sync to keep it the same across all installs), Google Read­er for RSS, Gmail for email and (until recent­ly) Google Cal­en­dar for, well, my cal­en­dar. Is it coin­ci­dence I seem to pre­fer Google prod­ucts for these things? Prob­a­bly not, Google seems to be doing a very good job at these kind of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty appli­ca­tions (just as Yahoo! seem to be lead­ing the way in social appli­ca­tions).

Google Reader

While I was still wait­ing for Feed­Lounge to launch and release me from the agony that is Blog­lines’ user expe­ri­ence — Google launch­es their Read­er. I quick­ly import­ed my feeds, and am toy­ing with it now. At first sight, their inter­face encour­ages quick brows­ing of new entries. I’m still not sure about how easy it is to label spe­cif­ic feeds though…

Google Reader

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