All posts made in Jan. 2011:

In defense of machines, by George Boas: We are first told that though man invented [machines] to be his servants he has become theirs. ... This argument is a gross exaggeration. Man is no more a slave of his machines than he has ever been, or than he is to his body ...

We must each establish a system of values for ourselves or absorb that of our social group, and judge machines by it as we do everything else. There is no other way of evaluating anything.

(Found in Visions of Technology, edited by Richard Rhodes.)

Domestic robots

Wikipedia maintains a list of domestic robots. I knew of the Roomba, the autonomous vacuum cleaner, but I hadn't realised quite how many autonomous vacuums there are. I guess vacuum cleaners are the Hello World of robots.

There's a beautiful comparison of their patterns of movement that Russell Davies references in his post on 'designing behaviour': the top shot shows the pattern the Roomba used. The second one down shows the Neato. The Roomba pattern may be more efficient, but it just doesn't look right to a human brain. It's not how a human would do it. The Neato pattern looks more like how I would clean. The Roomba pattern is organic, but an alien organic. The Neato cleaner's pattern is rectilinear.

Russell continues: That's going to be a thing - not just designing efficient, effective behaviour - but designing behaviour that's emotionally satisfying to the owner and appropriate to the character of the object.


Wikipedia claims that the first successful attempt to produce and sell a domestically-aimed robot was the Furby, launched in 1998. It was a toy - a plush owl with aesthetics that frankly creep me out, now I look back from the safety of this side of the millennium - and it had the illusion of intelligence. Get this:

  • Furby has sensors for day and night, tummy tickles, back rubs, noises, and motion. No buttons. To wake Furby up, you pick it up. Also Furbys can move to express emotion with their faces, and a little with their bodies. But, HELPFUL TIP: Furby is a state-of-the-art electro-mechanical robotic toy. The mechanical sound you hear when Furby moves is normal.
  • Furby speaks a special language called Furbish: For example, when I wake up, often I’ll say Da a-loh u-tye which means Big light up. This is how a Furby says Good Morning! But as Furby grows up (there are four stages of development), English words and phrases come in. There's a simple kind of reinforcement learning: if you pet a Furby while it says a new phrase, it will say that phrase more often. Ditto tricks. Furby learns!
  • Furbys communicate with other Furbys (via an infrared port located between the eyes). Put several together and they'll dance and chatter.

Furby was crazy popular. (1.8 million units in 1998, 14m in 1999; 40m over the first 3 years.)

There's so much going on here. Furby's language of interaction is human and physical (light and movement). It responds to the environment. It develops. It learns and can be taught. It communicates with humans and its own kind. It doesn't do anything of these things in a hugely sophisticated way, but it does everything just enough and it never, never breaks frame.

There's a checklist of the bare minimum you need to make something feel sentient, even if it's just in a fractional way, puppy-smart, and that checklist may have been discovered by Furby.

There's something that happens to your relationship with an object once that threshold is crossed, and that's why we use the word robots instead of saying products or objects.

(A short thought experiment: a kettle product that doesn't boil properly needs to be replaced. A kettle robot that doesn't boil properly will piss you off, or will need to be made redundant, or otherwise elicit an emotional reaction.)

Robots aren't merely artifacts that move. They're the fourth kingdom of nature.

The several kingdoms of nature

Here, by the way, is my personal list of kingdoms of nature:

Rocks. Rocks are slow life. When Ursula Le Guin mused on the language of ants, penguins and plants in her (beautiful) short story The Author of the Acacia Seeds, she speculated about how rocks would talk: the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

By rocks I mean all kinds of matter, from clay to stars. And I don't entirely mean that stellar nebulae are sentient but I do mean there's a universe of interacting, unfolding things that can be understood only on their own terms -- like all of these kingdoms I have in my list. The rules of this kingdom we call physics.

Organic life! DNA-based, RNA-based, carbon based. Plants and animals and lichen. This is a kingdom of stuff which is able to control probability: the metabolic pathways are highways of catalysed, otherwise-unlikely chemical reactions. And it is able to alternate between the two worlds of information and matter, from protein machines encoded in the letters of DNA, to the fizzing chemical mushy flesh that the protein machines build.

The third kingdom is corporations. The philosopher Manual DeLanda, in A New Philosophy of Society, diagrams societies at multiple levels: social networks, organisations and governments, cities and nations. His book is a zoo of these inhuman macro buckyballs. Such massive animals have flows of money, power, and people instead of blood and nerves. In Platform for Change, Stafford Beer outlined the intrinsic behaviour of corporations: that they have a desire to continue their existence, and this dominates their response to stimuli. At the very smallest, cellular level, organisations are small groups of people, and their actions are dominated by group psychology -- at a national and planetary scale, economics. But cities and corporations cannot be understood in the same terms as dumb matter or organic life, so that's why they're the third of my kingdoms of nature.

Robots are the fourth kingdom. By robots I mean everything from inorganic information processing to smart matter. But I contend that, because of the following two qualities, it's not possible to understand robots in terms of any of the three other kingdoms:

  1. These are sentiences - simple like Furby or extraordinary artificial intelligences like Joshua in the movie War Games - that we can relate to as animals, but that are not rooted in organic life. They will have different motivations for survival, different priorities, and different psychologies.
  2. These are creatures that live natively in cyberspace. Pragmatically, they talk through the Internet. A world made out of information, not atoms, where we don't have regular things like momentum, distance, heaviness, conservation of matter. Other rules apply, rules of which we have only indirect experience.

And between those two qualities, it means we can't treat robots as artificial people, or magical moving puppets. They are, and will develop, their own new nature, which we - as members of the second kingdom of nature - have to explore, discover and understand fresh, on its own terms.

Back to Furby

Which brings me back Furby, the electronic talking owl.

Furby has a spin-off called Shelby. Shelby is a grumpy electronic talking clam: When I placed one of my Shelby's in a group with 5 furbys, greetings were exchanged and then, for no reason I could discern, my Shelby started babbling at the furbys, then slammed its shell shut and stayed closed up. As if somehow it had been offended? The furbys ALL stopped talking at once when this happened and remained silent.

Nattie has a Shelby and tells her story: Shelby doesn't stop talking unless it doesn't get any response for five minutes or something... and ignoring it is agonizing, because it's being cute, and you just feel so awful when it says it loves you, or it tries to tell you a knock knock joke, and you know you can't respond. He'll outright say things like, "I want to PLAY!" and you feel like the worst person in the world.

Nattie named her Roomba 'Ricky.' They had a more loving relationship: When Ricky got stuck in a corner and started furiously backing up and rotating, backing up and rotating, we'd frown and stand watch over him, concerned: "What are you doing, Ricky?" When he couldn't get himself unstuck, we'd sigh, pick him up -- "Oh, calm down" we'd say when we whirred in the air -- and put him back down, like he was a toddler learning to walk. And when he finished cleaning the room and sang that -- er, emitted that triumphant little chime, his joy was our joy.

And then of course, one day Ricky will die and then where do you put your feelings? Robots, man. They're nothing but heartbreak. Robots ain't shit.

The question is, as it always is, how do we live together?

It's something to consider. A different bit of the brain activates when we're dealing with sentiences -- or, as it turns out, even when we imagine we're dealing with sentiences (I use sentiences to mean "intelligence things," of varying levels of intelligence, but not necessarily human or animal). It doesn't take much: just a human-like appearance or even, as in The Media Equation (Reeves and Nass, 1996), painting the computer the same colour as its user's t-shirt.

When we imagine something is intelligent, we simulate its mind inside our own, in order to anticipate it. We begin to think a bit like it, in some small way. We socialise with it, takes cues from it.

On the one hand, this is very clever. Robots don't need their own brains: they can parasite on ours. Be intelligent simply by appearing to be intelligent.

On the other, do we want to relate to robots in this way? Sherry Turkle points out the risks of sociable machines: If convenience and control continue to be the values we hold uppermost, we will be tempted by sociable robots which, just as slot machines attract a gambler, promise us excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game. ... We come to a point where we are so smitten by the idea of conversation with computers that we forget what human conversation about human problems is about: human meaning through the first-hand knowledge of the human life cycle, something of which robots will be forever innocent, no matter how "expressive" we make their faces or voices.

We don't get to choose what personality robots have

When Ben Bashford writes about Emoticomp he talks about objects with behaviours and personalities - robots - but questions how we should design those personalities. What is the watch-word we're after? He proposes politeness. A polite thing... is interested in me; is deferential to me; is forthcoming; has common sense; ... Etc.

...which is a great way to approach it. Polite robots would be the best! But I don't think we get to choose. Polite robots would be lovely. But the nature of the fourth kingdom - their equivalent of evolution - is that they reproduce in the sales figures of technology corporations and the womb-factories of China. The testes of robots are the shelves of Toys-R-Us. Humans don't get to choose the personality of robots, the market does.

And judging by Furby and Shelby, our robots won't be polite but will be needy and paranoia-inducing, resembling helpless infants.

The half-breed children of robots and humans

I'll wrap on a final weird-future slippiness between kingdoms two and four, and the story starts with a phenomenon called Hello Little Fella, which is the human habit of recognising illusionary faces in objects and the environment. Here's a favourite.

It's not just faces. There's a widespread habit of believing things having feelings, and, because we're human and because this is the 21st century, there's a community of people who fantasise about having sex with these inanimate things, then write stories about it, and it's called anthropomorfic.

All of which, finally, brings us to an iPhone game in which you have a virtual girlfriend to woo. Each girlfriend comes from a barcode. This is Barcode Kanojo: I'm currently dating a can of Heinz tomato soup in Barcode Kanojo, but it wasn’t my first choice. I wanted Heinz Beanz or a box of Shreddies, but both have already been taken by faster scanners.

It's an offensively brilliant idea. Barcode Kanojo's free iPhone app will scan any product you have knocking around your house and turn it into a delicate anime girl over whom you can obsess, masturbate, and fight. The game in Barcode Kanojo's game comes when another player scans the same bottle of bleach you just scanned ... In a sad parody of real life sexual politics, Kanojos will date only their creator until someone else who scanned the same tin of beans gives them more money and attention. Mostly money. (via)

All hail our weird new robot overlords indeed. Welcome to the fourth kingdom of nature, folks.

Vintage Future collects wonderful old images of futures that never happened. It's all fins and jets and space. (via)

And maybe it's something about the treatment or the promise of something wonderful that comes across in both sets of images, but the World of Soviet Groceries (via) gives me a little tingle too.

@rstevens says: Dogs with thumbs would make you coffee, cats with thumbs would steal your car.

It feels true! But I wonder. Every so often I think about whether cats are Good or Evil. And last time I gave it much thought, I concluded that they don't have original sin. There is no eternal stain on the soul of cats, and therefore nothing against which they can be measured. They are without Heaven or Hell, they can be neither Good nor Evil (it is only we who interpret their actions one way or the other). Anyway, cats.

UFO on Tape has become - in seconds - the iPhone game I want to show everyone. It's simple (you're trying to follow a UFO around the sky with a video camera), it's photorealistic (it looks like UFO videos ought to look), it's X Files (the aesthetic is grainy, darting), it's sort-of augmented reality (you have to literally move around to keep the UFO on camera, which makes it totally physically immersive), it never breaks frame and it's simple to understand (like Nick says, it's Steadicam Canabalt). Play it now!

All of which reminds me of Dance Central for my XBox Kinect. Mostly it takes a while for me to reach flow state, that mode what you're immersed and there could be a brass band in the same room and you wouldn't notice. It sometimes happens after a couple hours coding. It takes about 20 minutes reading, and about 5 minutes to get into it when dancing (if the music's right). But the UFO on Tape and the game Dance Central both get me into flow in seconds, like snapping your fingers and bam I'm under. Five minutes later the game ends and I'm like, hey where did the time go. It's maybe something to do with the physical involvement that the Kinect demands, something that I've previously called body thinking. The Kinect is this freaky device that stares into your front room with its infra red eyes, and snares your body into an equivalent virtual representation on the screen. You can't help but tumble into cyberspace. (It helps that my screen is a 4 foot tall projection on the wall.)

Swords to ploughshares

And so I conclude with two thoughts. First, that the Kinect is magical technology. As WW2 and ballistics gave us digital computers, and Cold War decentralisation produced the Internet, the technologies of mass surveillance and anti-terrorism gave us Kinect. It's swords to ploughshares for the 21st century. (src)

(Though let's attempt to forget Operation Plowshare from the 1960s, which proposed the re-use of nuclear warheads to create canals and make road-cuts.)

An interface can be a sandy beach, not a cliff

Second, this mode of interacting with technology - call it tangible or augmented reality or whatever you like - is worth watching now because it's low key and everywhere, and only likely to become more significant.

It's talking to your XBox to play a DVD. It's nudging your laptop to skip to the next tune. It's pinch-zooming photos on your iPhone to look closer and rotate them. It's spinning in your chair to point a pretend camera at a pretend UFO. It's a bit like acting. And it's a bit like playing Let's Pretend and being 6 years old. And it's restrained, non-superfluous, sensitive and attentive. And it makes a gentler edge between the world of computers and the world of my front room, less like a cliff between worlds and more like a sandy beach. And it's a lot of fun.

But it's not super high tech or dramatic or woo-woo-flashy like the Minority Report interface. I don't know what to call it. But it's nice and humble and human, and I like it.

Two provoking ideas:

People with 1 million dedicated 'can contact them at any time' followers simply weren't around two years ago, -- from this article about Kevin Smith trying a new film distribution technique: he's taking his movie round just one city at a time, and charging $70 a ticket. This feels like a new kind of money. The pub game used to be imagining what you'd do if you had a million bucks. Now it's: imagine if you had a million people who had decided to pay you attention. What the hell do you do with that? Are you a philanthropist, or a social currency entrepreneur; do you invest it for your pension?

Fish are the only acceptable animal in the world of interior design, but, and here's the awesome bit: I want to see steakhouse- and fried-chicken-joint-variants, where you dine amidst cows ambling up Guggenheim-like ramps and chickens wriggling through Habitrails.

Ten Obscure Factoids Concerning Albert Einstein: Fond of animals, Einstein kept a housecat which tended to get depressed whenever it rained. Ernst Straus recalls him saying to the melancholy cat: 'I know what's wrong, dear fellow, but I don't know how to turn it off.'

A few links today.

Surface detail, a video of a computer-generated 3D fractal surface, like an animated Romanesque broccoli.

A wonderfully targeted shop this, tiny things are cute, an emporium of little lovelies and wily whatnots. For example, tiny things you never knew you wanted.

Pinoko's collection of inspiring artwork. Generally, sort-of computer generated but existing in a physical way. Butterflies, a toy car racing track with astounding complexity, and heavy metal shovels cut in lace patterns.

Shoaling and schooling are different things: any group of fish that stay together for social reasons are said to be shoaling, and if, in addition, the group is swimming in the same direction in a coordinated manner, they are said to be schooling. (If the fish are together but not for social reasons, for example because of a common food source, this is called an aggregation.) It's interesting to think of communities of people in these terms, as they move from a gathering, to a group which has its own identity, to a work group with some kind of common purpose.

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? Answer: Everyone should agree that in such a case there will be acoustic vibrations but no auditory experience, and be done with it. The facts have all been laid out, after all. Bosh! Done.

I buy my home glassware from a French company called Duralex. In particular the Duralex Picardie tumblers. The Picardie is a design classic, good for wine, coffee, scotch and water. They remind me of holidays to the south of France, and of primary school. The company has been in and out of receivership these past few years so I have a couple boxes spare I bought on eBay. I'm pleased to hear that Duralex is in safe hands once again. Not mine though. The glass is toughened, the tumblers are supposed to be almost unbreakable. But I smashed one into ten thousand tiny pieces over the weekend. Whoops!

Google appears to have a problem with its search results this month. They're filled with rubbish, and people are beginning to notice. Google acknowledge the problem. What I hadn't realised is that many of the rubbish results come from a small group of companies. Each of these companies is a "content farm" -- they identify what people are searching for online (eg, "winter tires") and then write articles relevant to that topic (eg, how to put snow tires on your car). Then they sell ads around those articles, and collect money. The biggest of these content farms is Demand Media.

This is the future of journalism!

It's so incredibly responsive. Imagine if Hollywood could turn out emo horror romance films immediately the vampire craze started. Or that, leafing through the Times or the Guardian or the Economist, the newspaper could magically sense your interests and create analysis and reportage dedicated just to you.

What's lame (of course) is that Demand Media's articles are no good. Here's their low-down on buying snow tires: Invest some time in comparison shopping. Prices for snow tires differ by retailer as well as region. Make use of the Internet, clubs and department stores in addition to tire dealerships. Well no shit. There's technically nothing wrong with what these articles say, but you get a vague sense of wrongness when reading them, like when you're talking to a super articulate idiot and you can't quite put your finger on why they're an idiot. But you know.

Google's search technology uses 200 signals to rank one result above another. Signals like "page rank" (how many important web pages link to this page) and title text are important. But these signals evidently aren't enough to weed out the dross.

One big new Google innovation is Social Search. This is the idea that your friends will have more relevant answers for you than the average of the entire rest of the web. Social is big! It's why Facebook is so exciting.

But there's another signal Google need: taste. The difference between a good article and a sophisticated spam article is no longer anything simple like number of linking, or quality of spelling. It's something weird and human. It's the quality that editors of newspapers have, and that every single person has very strongly in very individual areas, and some of it is personal and some of it is universal.

And I've no idea how they'll do it, but it's required. Search engines need to acquire a sense of taste.

Bruce Sterling's essay The Last Viridian Note is only partly the final message from a design movement -- although it is that: the Viridian movement is an approach to sustainability that eschews the hair shirt and belt-tightening. Viridian is bright green environmentalism. Sustainability through technology and design. No, the Last Viridian is a manifesto for a way of living.

Sterling identifies four categories of products to allow into your life:

  1. Beautiful things. Beautiful things he says are important. They should be on display, he says. He says this: Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.
  2. Emotionally important things. Sterling says there are sentimental keepsakes that you want to pass to your grandchildren. Hang onto these.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function. Tools that aren't beautiful or emotionally important should be held to exacting standards. Collecting semi-functional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny is a vice. So: perfectly functional.
  4. Everything else. Everything else, says Sterling, you should throw away.

(I spoke at the Luxury Briefing conference yesterday about the stories that products tell, and about illusionary faces and little robots. Everyone was well dressed and wonderfully friendly. It was interesting to see how closely many "luxury" products align with the Last Viridian manifesto. Of course, many don't. My key takeaways: there exist online artificial personality constructs for the purposes of market research; there is a drug in the Amazon that makes you see god, and another that lets you see camouflaged animals, and yet another that heals your mouth; the future of retail is charm. The idea of charm has stuck with me.)

From this list of 6 Tiny Things That Have Mind-Blowing Global Impacts I discover that every living thing in the ocean combines to move enough water to stir things up as much as the moon and wind. More info at this article: Jellyfish Are the Dark Energy of the Oceans. Basic story goes like this: scientists were trying to figure out where ripples and movements of the ocean come from. The moon is an obvious one, as is the wind. And they assumed that all the movements of fish and krill and whatnot would cancel out. But no -- the effects of all these tiny living things add up to about the same as the pull of gravity of the one great big moon. That's a lovely metaphor for something, I'm sure.

Another good fact: most of the ocean - excepting the top 300 feet or so - is so placid that a couple hand-held kitchen mixers could stir a cubic mile of it.

Gorgeous mechanism: Japanese tea-serving automaton from the 19th century (photo).

The Digesting Duck was created in France in 1739. It would eat and defecate grain.

Around 450 BC, the ancient Greek island of Rhodes was so well known for its robots that the poet Pindar wrote of it:

The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.

Imagine a robot you can control from 1,000 miles away. You feel like you're there. People near the robot treat it like it's actually you in the room -- they include you in conversations. You can speak back, see, maybe point at things, and move around. This is a telepresence robot. There are a bunch on the market.

QB from Anybots (tagline: Your Personal Avatar) looks like a broom standing up on wheels. At the top of the broom handle is a head which contains: a microphone and speaker; a webcam; a screen (that shows a video feed of you); a laser to point at things. On the back of the head is a web address. You visit that website to drive the robot around, and: The robots eyes go dark to indicate to that you are no longer logged in.

AVA from iRobot (tagline: Robots that Make a Difference) has three wheels and is between 3 and 5 feet tall. It has laser and sonar sensors and is semi-autonomous: it can explore a room on its own and build a map. An iPad plugs into the neck and can run different applications. One app might be telepresence. iRobot's first run at telepresence robotics was the ConnectR, (Virtual Visiting Robot) back in 2008. This was a robot vacuum cleaner the shape of a dustbin lid that travelling businessmen would dial into from their hotel rooms to spend quality time with their ignored children. Like this.

The Giraffe video conferencing robot (strap: robots that let you be in two places at once) looks like a mirror on a tall, sturdy, plastic, purple stand with wheels. Uses include remote team management, teletourism and elder care. The Giraffe is not on sale in the USA.

Tilr from RoboDynamics (no tagline) is a flatscreen monitor held aloft a sleek, red, industrial stand. The wheels are concealed under an angular base with black rubber bumpers. A video camera is slung under the monitor. The robot appears to wear a backpack. It is made for factories. It wants to be Iron Man.

From InTouch Health (extending your reach) comes the RP-7, an oversized iron built up to human height, with a TV screen and double video camera on top. "RP" stands for Remote Presence. In the photo, the screen shows a video portrait of the operator - their entire head - which makes it look rather like a laughing doctor is stuck inside the body of the robot. Surely the screen should show just the face of the person?

There's a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand. The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat. I'm unable to describe telepresence robots in such terms.

Evan Williams' Ten Rules for Web Startups:

  1. Be Narrow
  2. Be Different
  3. Be Casual
  4. Be Picky
  5. Be User-Centric
  6. Be Self-Centred
  7. Be Greedy
  8. Be Tiny
  9. Be Agile
  10. Be Balanced
  11. Be Wary

Each is unpacked, read it. The list is from 2005 -- Ev's big success then was Blogger. Since then, his new thing is Twitter. Not bad!

Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

(Found on the A Whole New You blog.)

Music for shuffle mode, by Matthew Irvine Brown: a series of short, interlocking phrases (each formatted as an individual MP3) that can be played in any order and still (sort of) make musical sense. There's a video of it playing in iTunes. Genius. (Disclosure: I have the pleasure of working with Matt Brown.)

Ten rules for writing fiction, from many authors (and here's part two). I met Gareth W. this morning who recommended these, and he's picked out some favourites. Worth a read! In particular, he pointed me at this one: Write every day. That way, the book you're working on is never out of your awareness for long. It will always be percolating in the back of your mind, growing on its own. No part of writing is as hard as getting the engine warmed up, so try not to let it cool down. Amen.

Video of cats in zero gravity. It has the rigour of a scientific experiment. First, take two surprisingly good natured cats and drop them upside-down in regular gravity to prove they land on their feet. Next, remove gravity and observe.

3D facemaking machine for dolls. It prints photographs onto tiny moulded doll faces. As Alice says, Beautifully specific and weird. Brilliant pictures.

It comes from (where else?) Zhejiang, China's captured warp core of industrial capitalism.

Bruce Sterling, in Taklamakan, has a vision of how products could be not invented but generated. Why not evolve them in virtual worlds then print them out: you could just set up a giant high-powered virtuality with a bunch of virtual cans inside it. Then you make some can-opener simulations, that are basically blobs of goo. They're simulated goo, but they're also programs, and those programs trade data and evolve. Whenever they pierce a can, you reward them by making more copies of them. You're running, like, a million generations of a million different possible can-openers, all day every day, in a simulated space. [...]

Finally, you evolve this super weird, super can-opener that no human being could ever have invented. Something that no human being could even imagine. Because it grew like a mushroom in an entire alternate physics. But you have all the specs for its shape and proportions, right there in the supercomputer. So to make one inside the real world, you just print it out like a photograph. And it works! It runs! See? Instant cheap consumer goods.

And then you see the 3D doll face machine, and browse Alibaba, where everything's cheap so long as you buy a thousand of it, and think maybe our way of inventing things isn't that different.

Roll up your sleeves and do the following: starting at the main door and moving clockwise, clap strongly into each corner of your house. Clap from the lowest level to as high as you can reach to the ceiling. You will feel a huge difference in the quality of energy as the sound of clapping will be different depending on the accumulated energy. Be sure not to omit any corners in your house, and be sure to clap as much as necessary; some house corners will require more time. (This is a technique called space clearing.)


The Situationists adopted the technique of the dérive, to drift through the city without a goal and notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.

I used to spend my lunch breaks in London taking constrained walks following simple algorithms: first right, first left, repeat. (Or: second left, second left, first right, repeat.) I found myself on familiar roads, turning down side-streets I'd never noticed before. Thinking about why, I found that the architecture of the city, when I stood at a particular spot or walked in a particular way, would bend my attention towards some places and away from others. All it takes is a gentle curve to the right and a busy junction at the end, and the street in shadow to my left is unobserved and never taken. Every day. And then the habit is formed, and so, to me, it's as if the side-street never existed. And if everyone who walks down the street has the same experience, then the side-street is ignored and the main street is bustling and new shops open, and so positive feedback occurs that locks the city into this form. The psychogeography reinforces itself.

Constrained walks and the dérive both reveal the city's psychogeography, and force the city to give up more of itself. It's funny to find, right on my doorstep, the streets I didn't know that I didn't know, the ones I'd got the unknown habit of avoiding. The city grows.


Space clearing makes visible and disrupts the psychogeography of my home. By standing in far corners, I find new perspectives. I strengthen rarely visited spots in my own mental map. Later, I find myself noticing the corners more. My house looks larger. The changed shape of my rooms encourages me to walk differently about the space. I stand in slightly unfamiliar spots, look at my bookshelves with a new-found unfamiliarity, and this prompts new combinations of titles to come to my attention, and new ideas.

I wonder if I could make something to do this for me? Maybe a robot vacuum cleaner programmed to find rarely visited corners and play an attention-grabbing sample, hey, over here, over here.

The last time I wrote on my blog with any kind of regularity was early 2008. January 2008 was pretty good. I had an easy fluidity.

I've tried to write since. It's not come. I was finding myself over-thinking my words. They'd seem to me try-hard poetic, and I prefer to write the way I speak. Or I didn't have anything to say. Anything I said was obvious. Or I'd over-explain. Everything I tried to say, I'd step back and back and back, and suddenly I'd have written a wall of backstory without getting to any kind of point. Mainly, I was scared of being boring.

I've not been writing anywhere else much. I've kept a few notes, written a few letters to myself as ways to structure strategy or life decisions, and I don't believe I've written many emails of any substance. I've also not been reading much, or browsing much new on the web. These things are possibly connected.

So far in 2011, I've written consecutively for 14 days. That's the most I've done for three years. What happened? I'm trying to not care about being boring.

For me, writing seems to be a muscle. Without doing it regularly, I feel I've lost my ability to express cogently complex ideas in interesting ways.

And, because I haven't been regularly talking about the ideas that interest me, I've not given myself the time to reduce down those ideas into pithy, understandable statements.

Writing seems to be associated with my sense of pattern recognition. I'm missing the structures of abstraction it gives me, and the room for wiggly play I get while I do it.

So I'm trying to start writing regularly again. It's frustrating and a bloody pain. I feel incapable of expressing what I mean to say. There's no glitter to my words, and I have to force them out. I can see everything that's wrong with what I write. I don't like the structure, but improving it doesn't come naturally because I don't know what to do. I can't figure out how to vary the sentence length or increase variety and rhythm without it sounding like I'm doing rubbish teenage spoken word poetry. There are no insights. I can't start or end things. I don't even sound like me. I'm boring. Okay, fine, do it anyway.

I've got the latest Google iPhone app. Using it, I took a photo of a Sudoku puzzle. Google recognised the puzzle. I tapped again, and it gave me the solution. See a video here.

The first time I saw a phone solve Sudoko was an app called Sudoko Grab which uses a artificial neural network. Wha? Given a picture of the puzzle, the app turns it into black and white and finds the grid (computer vision) then overlays the identified numbers over the live video feed (augmented reality). Then, to solve the puzzle, it uses a toy model of how the brain works (this is the artificial neural network bit). Just a simple one - it only needs to do some maths - but it figures out what numbers should go where so they all obey the rules of the game. A toy model of the brain (the artificial neural network bit) is used to identify the numbers, and the puzzle is solved with yer more regular code. (Thanks Christian N for the correction!)

These's some hard math going on here. Cutting edge technology interests me only so-so when it's in high-end military tech. And then a little bit more when it shows up in games and toys (games and toys are automatically incentivised to pursue new shit, so they're good signals). But it gets super interesting when it's used for trivial things, but it means that it has become a commodity that large numbers of people can deploy, and that everyday platforms are powerful enough to run it. The interesting thing about Sudoku Grab is that the app is about puzzle solving, not showing off the algorithms, and that the iPhone - a regular, everyday device, widely deployed (ahem, in a certain social milieu) - is capable enough to do it. Hard math for trivial things.

Video visualisations of DNA, at the molecular level. See: DNA coiling into chromosomes, DNA replication, transcription into RNA, the reading of RNA instructions to assemble amino acid building blocks into a protein. Decently explained. I get a buzzy sense of vertigo to see how we go from the information of the genetic code all the way to proteins. (Proteins are the building blocks of life. They're transformers and logical signal processors: they react chemicals to make other chemicals, and can be switched on and off. So in that sense they're super smart transistors, networking together to make an information processing system that also channels flows of matter and energy. And proteins are also mechanical. They can provide rigidity, and actuation in muscles. It's as if the metal surface of your computer was made the same stuff as the silicon chip, and it could ripple itself to move around your desk.)

Autom is a robot weight-loss coach: Autom has a short conversation with you every day to help you keep track of your eating and exercise quickly and simply. She provides feedback, advice, and encouragement to keep you motivated.

Let's be blunt. It's a touchscreen interface to answer multiple choice questions about whether you've exercised or not, and for how long, and it adapts day by day to encourage you to lose weight. Only the screen is in the belly of a tiny robot with robot speech, and massive blue eyes which blink and wink slightly too slowly.

It's remarkable the difference the face makes. If Autom were an iPhone app, it would have to be like filling in a little form every day. But because it's a little robot, there's license for the interface to be conversational. It can ask you questions in a different order, request you to return the next day (and you'll feel bad if you don't!). A conversational interface can make suggestions where a conventional one can't.

(Healthcare's an interesting space. GlowCaps are medicine bottle tops that light up and play a tune when it's time to take your pills. Because they're connected to the internet, they can join up to larger services: you can have a cash incentive to complete your prescription, or work to achieve challenges in a game, or just an email to a family member if you forget. The market is insurance companies, not pill-takers. They'll pay for it because it's in their interest to keep you healthy. Autom and GlowCaps are "ubicomp" - ubiquitous computing - without being computing. They're helpful coaches first, and only secondarily technology/robots/magically connected devices.)

Dan Hill's firsthand report of the Brisbane flood weaves a personal story with excursions into history and politics. His vignettes are plainly told. A wonderful piece of journalism, easy to read, and something that's brought me closer to these Australian floods (from halfway around the planet) than anything else. Worth devoting your lunch hour to. (And it reminds me of nothing so much as John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, of which you can read an excerpt here, a telling of ancient geology via road-trips and stories.)

Also: a gallery of photos of the Australian flooding. It seems to me not so much a flood as a tiny but universal shift, as if the world declared a new reality where the water table is now here, thank you very much, a new matter of fact.

Back in 2003, Mike Kuniavsky gave a talk called The Coming Age of Magic in which he speculated about how to design for ubicomp.

Ubicomp? Ubicomp is ubiquitous computing, and it's the quick way of talking about what happens when computers are so small and so cheap that we put them in all kinds of products and environments. Like toys, and toilets, and clothing, and desks and buildings. Why? Because it can be handy and fun. In 2003 this was future. In 2011 it's everyday (just flick through a copy of the Argos catalogue), or at least getting that way. I mean everything from iPhones to digital photo frames to the Magic Wand TV remote control (swish zap) to Zhu Zhu Hamsters (artificially intelligent!).

Mike talked about animism and enchanted objects, which is where we interact with things like they have lives of their own. It's the difference between a screwdriver (a tool) and a puppy (a fuzzy autonomous being). Once products start behaving in ways that aren't totally predictable, maybe we need to start designing them to show off their magic.

Along the way he cited some research that stuck in my head: Folk Biology and the Anthropology of Science: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars (S. Atran, 1998). Mike summarises, Most world cultures classify all entities into one of four general classifications. ... Humans; nonhuman animals; plants; nonliving things.

It's a lovely little insight. And it's interesting because it happens across a bunch of cultures! The paper puts it pithily: Such taxonomies are not as arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials or social groups. These structures are routine products of our 'habits of mind,' which may be in part naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent 'habits of the world.'

Atran goes on to look at this folk biology in some detail. ("Folk" is the prefix given to pre-theoretic understanding of a bunch of different disciplines. For instance, folk physics says that we believe, like Aristotle, that objects fly through the air then drop suddenly when thrown, like Coyote charging off a cliff then falling only as he realises where he is, rather than falling with the smooth parabola that actually occurs in ballistics, and you can observe this innate belief when studying the reactions of babies. There is also folk psychology, which I don't know much about, and more.)

It turns out we treat plants and animals somewhat specially: we're really good at classifying and grouping them, and - as humans - we tend to all do it roughly the same way. This grouping ability doesn't carry across to things that aren't animals or plants. There's a neat bit of evidence for this that made me laugh: comparing constellations in the cosmologies of Ancient China, Greece and the Aztec Empire shows little commonality. By contrast, herbals like the Ancient Chinese ERH YA, Theophrastus's Peri Puton Istorias, and the Aztec Badianus Codex, share important features, such as the classification of generic species into tree and herb life forms.

Anyway, my question is this: as humans, we'll treat animals and not-animals differently. There are qualities of animals we'd be surprised to see in not-animals, like autonomous behaviour and memory, and maybe we're more inclined to learn from animals or treat them ethically? So how do we distinguish between the two? Would it be enough to put a smiley face on a doll? Or would it need to be a doll that said random things? Or a doll that wasn't random but reacted to you in some way?

How much spirit of life is enough spirit of life to make the difference?

For those who enjoy such things, you can now be notified on Twitter whenever there's a new post on this blog: follow @intrcnnctd.

In the UK, a public performance of hypnotism requires a government permit, as set out in the Hypnotism Act 1952. Which only makes you think: what public fear or media frenzy occurred in 1951 that the then-government leapt in to control mesmerism?


Phil points out the history of hypnotism in the '50s and '60s: As far as the 1950's and 60's went there was only one interest in hypnosis by the general public. That was the practise of hypnosis for entertainment purposes, stage hypnotism. In 1952, the practise of stage hypnosis came under parliamentary scrutiny, in the form of a court case Rains-Bath v Slater. (Waxman 1989)

Ralph Slater was an American Hypnotist who performed in Brighton in 1948. During this performance, a lady accused Slater of assault and professional negligence. The case allowed for the professional negligence but did not find that an assault occurred. (Singleton, Lord Justice 1952). This incident led to a private member's bill to be passed in parliament. In August 1952, the Hypnotism Act was placed on the statute book. The Act conferred power to any local authority which granted licenses for the regulation of places used for public entertainment, to attach conditions to that license in relation to the demonstration or performance of hypnosis. (HMSO 1952).

And here's a very pertinent question to the Secretary of State, in Parliament in 1951! (Thanks Chris!)

It's weird to think that hypnotism was so serious and feared - a real power, a potential terrorism - that it had to be regulated. Which (of course) reminds me of the UN Weather Weapon Treaty (1976) which bans military use of 'environmental modification techniques' ... the deliberate manipulation of natural processes--the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space -- ie, artificial rain, hurricanes and earthquakes. Imagine attacking New York with an artificial earthquake. Or a hyper-thunderstorm. Shiiiit.

Geoengineering was quite a topic in the 1970s (Kurt Vonnegut's brother invented the modern process of cloud seeding, dropping silver iodide into the sky to produce rain), and there was a fear that there would be an arms-race as there had been with atomic weapons. So: a treaty to ban military geoengineering. And, I'm guessing, given no military investment, that's why we didn't get the spin-off benefits in farming and domestic use. Who knows what 35 years of investment in geoengineering would have got us! Tabletop volcanos! Genetically modified tomatoes that create their own microclimate! Super-local sunny days to always have blue sky for picnics! Pocket clouds! And instead, we got the internet. If I sound disappointed it's because I am.

If someone doesn't think you're hot, the next best thing for them to think is that you're ugly. -- OKCupid (the dating site) did some awesome research into the mathematics of beauty, by looking at hotness ratings and number of messages received. They looked at consensus over cuteness. You get more approaches if some people think you're hot and some people think you're ugly, compared to everyone thinking you're merely cute.

This is the conclusion: We now have mathematical evidence that minimizing your "flaws" is the opposite of what you should do. If you're a little chubby, play it up. If you have a big nose, play it up. If you have a weird snaggletooth, play it up: statistically, the guys who don't like it can only help you, and the ones who do like it will be all the more excited.

I used to draw the yay/nay/meh triangle when talking about people's reactions to brands. You can choose to be on one side of the triangle. And - my opinion - it's better to be a yay/nay brand than to be a yay/meh one. Yay/nay at least means everyone is passionate. But yay/meh? There's not much you can do with indifference.

The Experimental Nonlinear Physics Groups (University of Toronto) have made a spiral defect knitting pattern. This is the swirling chaotic pattern that arises with a heat difference across pressurised carbon dioxide. It's pretty when it moves.

(Apropos of nothing, a video of a baby monkey riding backwards on a pig.)

I'm currently in the middle of reading Journey into Space by Toby Litt, which is about a generation ship and includes some breathtakingly beautiful descriptions of meteorology and the Lake District.

And, like a perfect idiot, I went and started reading this review by Ursula Le Guin of the same, and of course, not many paragraphs in, ran into massive spoilers. So I'll go back and read that properly once I've finished the novel.

If you can't go faster that the speed of light and you're going somewhere far away, it's going to take more than a human lifetime to get there. People will have to be born (and die) on the same spaceship. Hence: generation ship. I like generation ships (and there are lots listed at that link). The concept raises some interesting issues: how do you maintain knowledge? Particular social values? Do people get bored? Does the 6th generation still care about landing? Do wars happens; do they care about Earth? Is it all just a metaphor for growing up and getting old?

Here are several more generation ship novels.

My favourite is Paradises Lost, a novella in Le Guin's collection Birthday of the World. Early on, she gets across the lack of danger (and variety) on-ship: The smaller-order world revealed here is an austere one. No amoeba oozing along, or graceful paisley-paramecium, or vacuum-cleaning rotifer; no creature larger than bacteria, juddering endlessly under the impacts of molecules.

And only certain bacteria. No molds, no wild yeasts. No virus (down another order). Nothing that causes disease in human beings or in plants. Nothing but the necessary bacteria, the house-cleaners, the digesters, the makers of dirt -- clean dirt. There is no gangrene in the world, no blood poisoning. No colds in the head, no flu, no measles, no plague, no typhus or typhoid or tuberculosis or AIDS or dengue or cholera or yellow fever or ebola or syphilis or poliomyelitis or leprosy or bilharzia or herpes, no chickenpox, no cold sores, no shingles. No Lyme disease. No ticks. No malaria. No mosquitoes. No fleas or flies, no roaches or spiders, no weevils or worms. Nothing in the world has more or less than two legs. Nothing has wings. Nothing sucks blood. Nothing hides in tiny crevices, waves tendrils, scuttles into shadows, lays eggs, washes its fur, clicks its mandibles, or turns around three times before it lies down with its nose on its tail. Nothing has a tail. Nothing in the world has tentacles or fins or paws or claws. Nothing in the world soars. Nothing swims. Nothing purrs, barks, growls, roars, chitters, trills, or cries repeatedly two notes, a descending fourth, for three months of the year. There are no months of the year. There is no moon. There is no year. There is no sun. Time is divided into lightcycles, darkcycles, and and tendays. Every 365.25 cycles there is a celebration and a number called The Year is changed. This Year is 141. It says so on the schoolroom clock.

Lovely words!

Marcel Mauss on magic: In practice, magic differs from religion in desired outcome. Religion seeks to satisfy moral and metaphysical ends, while magic is a functional art which often seeks to accomplish tangible results. In this respect magic resembles technology and science. Belief in each is diffuse, universal, and removed from the origin of the practice. Yet, the similarity between these social phenomena is limited, as science is based in experimentation and development, while magic is an "a priori belief." Mauss concludes that though magical beliefs and rites are most analogous to religion, magic remains a social phenomenon distinct from religion and science with its own characteristic rules, acts and aims.

Mauss provides, in A General Theory of Magic, a look and explanation of the rituals, actors, and lines of power (mana) involved, and magic's place as a collective phenomenon. I find myself particularly attracted to the systems of representation: there is a persistent relationship between a murderer and their victim, for example; there is a spooky action-at-a-distance between a flame and a fire; there are laws of similarity and so on.

There seems to be something really human about these magical associations, something that I share. Like: a stolen object carries bad luck. Or: an object dropped into a clean toilet (to be crude about things!) will always be dirty, dirtier even then a piece of food dropped onto an uncleaned kitchen floor. Or, try this: draw a picture of a friend, then burn the paper. It's difficult to do so, the paper has become sacred.

There are words that Mauss has picked up used to talk about these magical qualities and lines of power. Words like mana and orenda. The cultures in which these words are used understand the concepts completely. There are proscribed ways that mana flows and accumulates, the forms it can take, and the ways in which it interacts.

Mana is as abstract and real as momentum, kinetic energy, and magnetic flux density. These terms from physics aren't important because they let us make predictions about the behaviour of the universe (that's the job of technology), but because they reveal the structure of the universe we inhabit. We observe first and do not judge, and that's science, that's how the deep structure is revealed. Physicists are bloodhounds; Newton's Laws and all the rest are hidden lines of scent. And as with physics, so with magic. Mana is a thing to be observed, felt, not judged -- and then the hidden currents of humans and our place in the universe can be seen. The rich possibility of it all makes me giddy!

The AI Revolution is On, by Steven Levy at Wired: The Kiva bots may not seem very smart. They don’t possess anything like human intelligence and certainly couldn’t pass a Turing test. But they represent a new forefront in the field of artificial intelligence. Today’s AI doesn’t try to re-create the brain. Instead, it uses machine learning, massive data sets, sophisticated sensors, and clever algorithms to master discrete tasks. Examples can be found everywhere: The Google global machine uses AI to interpret cryptic human queries. Credit card companies use it to track fraud. Netflix uses it to recommend movies to subscribers. And the financial system uses it to handle billions of trades (with only the occasional meltdown).

Levy's point is that old school AI - human-equivalent computer intelligences - has been replaced by a new kind of AI: one that doesn't try to replicate the human mind. Lots of examples in his article.

Fractional AI

I've been calling this "fractional AI," a kind of domesticated, not-very-intelligent artificial intelligence, and you can find it in toys and in the algorithms in the tools that we use everyday. What I find interesting is that it's no longer high-end. Just as, in the early 1900s, the fractional horsepower engine took the power of factories into every home, and led to the washing machine, the hairdryer, the dishwasher -- fractional AI will put intelligence in our everyday products. And what then?

I've touched on the topic a couple of times in two very similar talks recently:

...but I'm not yet happy with how I'm stating the trend, or its opportunities. I have another talk in a month that I'm going to use for a deeper exploration, and that's the one I'll publish more widely.

A review of the best robots of 2010: balance, telepresence (it would be seriously creepy to replace Skype with a squirming robot fetus, but that's the future), robot cars, flying things (sadly nothing as beautiful as the robot air penguins), puzzle solving robot hands, and tree climbers.

From The Annals of the Heechee by Frederik Pohl, in which the consciousness of Robinette Broadhead (who has been "vastened" to live after death as a machine-stored personality) is asking the simulation of Albert Einstein about his continuity of being: You see 'me' in the sense that you see a waterfall. If you look at the Niagara Falls today, and come back a week later and look at it again, you will think you're seeing the same waterfall. In fact, not one atom of the waterfall is the same. The waterfall exists only because it is constrained to do so by the laws of hydraulics, and surface tension, and Newton's laws as they bear on the fact that one body of water is at a higher elevation than another. ... The water molecules are not Niagara Falls. They are only what Niagara Falls is made of.

The universe is the phenotype of physics.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost. I heard this over the Christmas break. (Do me a favour: instead of reading this yourself, have someone read it to you.)

Back in, shit, 1997, three bubbles ago, sixteen years ago, when "liberal" had just stopped being a dirty word on its way to being a good word before it was dirty again, I got into computer games for the second time. I'm now on my fifth: the first was the BBC Microcomputer Model B, which I liked at school, and the third through fifth were and are: Animal Crossing on Nintendo; iPhone casual games; Xbox after I got really hung-over last year, after my sister's wedding. I was into a game called Riven which was like walking around a beautiful place of trees and water and cliffs and cable-cars, with atmospheric music and puzzles. You would click around lush, rendered images, with occasional movies. Playing Riven is like PowerPoint meets Alice in Wonderland. It was as great a piece of world-building as I've ever seen in a video game. The sprawling world of Riven has an alternate history and an alternate physics (I'm not kidding: water has bizarre physical properties). You don't so much solve puzzles as wander around looking at the scenery and poking things until you intuitively understand the new world, and then you're not solving puzzles, you're just doing what comes naturally. I would spend time in Riven in the dark with headphones and scotch. In retrospective I could have spent more time with my friends in the college bar that term.

And now Riven is on iPhone! It's very pretty.

Oh happy day!

I feel old.

The Year of Practical Thinking, by Giles Turnbull: They say you learn something every day. TIL that every day in 2010, Giles wrote that thing down. Brilliant; funny; read 'em all.

See also: read more wikipedia, random stuff from Wikipedia, approximately daily.

One year in one image, by Eirik Solheim [thanks Timo]. This is a gorgeous, a time lapse pixel sliced photograph of a forest. It's funny to see how fast the seasons transition. It's like winter, winter, winter, winter, then boom, spring. Then spring is like watching something catch fire. It imperceptibly greens, a raising of temperature, a growing veriditas or orenda that suddenly ignites. I wonder how much this varying rate of change influences my own perception of time passing: January to July 2010 lasted ten centuries, but the second half of the year flashed by in a second.

Processing monsters is a collection of little interactive monsters made with Processing, the computer language for easily making images and animations.

The monsters are super cute. The scratchy black and white aesthetic is weirdly alive in this age of smooth gradients and drop-shadows. I like the grit.

Kinect-Like Gesture System for iPad to Be Demoed at CES (includes video). The product is Mimesign from Elipticllabs: When interacting with a toy or a gadget, the user shouldn’t have to change her state of mind. Rather than entering a mindset where high precision is required to locate the right button or icon, Mimesign seeks to create a different and more natural bond between the user and the device.

In the future we will interact with all our devices by doing tiny techno dancing at them.

Rory Hyde interviewed me last year, after I spoke at Thrilling Wonder Stories, and he's put the result online: Know No Boundaries.

I like interviews with people carrying voice recorders. I say things that I don't expect to say, but I also force myself to pause and think how to say it before I speak. And then somebody else turns it into proper English and asks another good question. So I surprise myself. A handful of decent things came out:

On products:

I think the idea of products is really important. I have these things I look for in our work; one is hope, I think our things should be hopeful, and not just functional. Another is that it should be beautiful, inventive and mainstream. I think mainstream is important because otherwise you're just affecting a few people. A product is a good gate because you start to ask 'how is this going to be consumed by the market?' We don't have many ways of judging whether something is really good, and money is one of them. And that's kind of what products do.

I will say something about why to invent as well. Because you could see our work as experimental, or science-fiction, or futuristic; but I would say - and others in the studio may not agree with me - that our design is essentially a political act. We design 'normative' products, normative being that you design for the world as it should be. Invention is always for the world as it should be, and not for the world you are in. By designing it, it's a bit like the way the Earth attracts the moon, and the moon attracts the Earth just a tiny bit. Design these products and you'll move the world just slightly in that direction.

On Fractional A.I.:

About 'fractional AI', I reference two things there, one is artificial intelligence as it is seen in movies of the mid twentieth century; human scale or larger intelligences as seen in books by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov for instance. But then there's this idea which emerged in the early 1900s of fractional horsepower. Horsepower used to be the thing that we measured factories by, but fractional horsepower says that instead of motors that are as big as buildings, we could have motors that were as big as fists. So we could take the fruits of these factories, make them really really tiny, and put them in our homes. Fractional horsepower enabled genuine improvements in quality of life, through appliances like washing machines, refrigerators and hairdryers. And we had half a million fractional horsepower motors in the US by the 1920s, it was an incredible explosion that made domestic life better.

My belief is that we're going to have the same explosion with artificial intelligence. And we won't see it as was depicted in films as controlling nuclear weapons (War Games), or controlling space ships (2001). Fractional AI means that the tiny things around us will be smarter. And the very first place you see this in a very tiny way is in children's toys. It used to be that children played with Meccano or Lego, now they play The Sims. The Sims is a representation of a world in which everything is intelligent in really tiny ways, and we'll be seeing more of that I think in conventional products. What does an intelligent car look like? It maybe only will be as intelligent as a puppy, so what does that mean?

On the shift from the industrial to the domestic:

We've experienced a shift in the last fifty years, in that the bleeding edge of technology used to be industry, so the objects we got in our homes were the off-cuts of industry; look at computers, or the mobile phone, or the internet; those came from industrial mainframes, or battlefield communications, or decentralised information systems. We've experienced a flip now, the technology we have starts on the desktop, in games consoles, or from texting your mates. That is the bleeding edge of technology, and it is leading the way. And it's quite unsurprising that the world we were trained to be in - the industrial one - was one that's a bit soulless, where you had to follow orders, be a cog in the machine. So maybe we're not quite trained right for the things we're being asked to design now, which start from the domestic sphere. Now that's incredibly exciting, because we get to look at other disciplines for where we should learn our craft, and maybe that's character animators, child psychologists, cartoonists, or architects of intimate domestic spaces instead of office buildings.

Thanks Rory!

Speaking of group dynamics (as I did, briefly), the Group dynamics page on Wikipedia has a really good References section that mentions Bion and Forsyth amongst others.

And on that topic, I didn't remember that Clay Shirky's (now classic) essay A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy references Bion's ideas so heavily. In particular, he runs through Bion's three patterns that groups enter when avoiding a more sophisticated purpose: sex talk; identification and vilification of external enemies; and religious veneration. (These are archetypes of more complex behaviours that you'll definitely recognise.)

Says Shirky: So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it's being used by humans.

In A Group Is, Shirky defines "social software," examines it, and sets out what to design for. This essay is nearly 8 years old and I'd forgotten how detailed and foundational it is.

There's been a lot about WikiLeaks recently: the leaked diplomatic cables, the discussion of the cables, the discussion of the ethics of releasing the cables, and news about the editor-in-chief Julian Assange and his way with women.

Bruce Sterling on WikiLeaks and Assange is a must-read: The Blast Shack. Not just because he digs into the sources of power, and not just because he always sees the human in the systemic (the fact Assange is a geek is not separable from the behaviour of his organisation) and vice-versa, but because Sterling's metaphor and language is incisive and heady, and reading it creates a feeling like eating too much monosodium glutamate. Get more of Sterling on his blog.

Assange's politics are themselves interesting. Aaron Bady unpacks them in Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy: he describes the state as authoritarian, and says that this necessarily produces conspiracy, a network of people who need to operate in secret. Then by attacking the internal information flows of the conspiracy (ie, releasing confidential diplomatic cables), you can provoke the conspiracy to act against itself.

Ted Chiang makes a neat distinction between science and magic in this interview:

Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres, and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there's actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. [...] I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it's how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.

Chiang's short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, is top-notch. The title story is available online: Story of Your Life. It's told by a woman to her daughter, about her life and an alien language that works kinda sideways to time. Definitely put aside a half hour to read this.

I didn't keep a comprehensive list of books I read in 2010 (as I did in 2007 and 2008), and I didn't make much time for reading. But here are the ones I can remember, in roughly chronological order.

There's a bunch of Hemingway in there. At the beginning of 2009, I read a couple of books about how to write: On Writing (Stephen King), and Steering the Craft (Ursula K. Le Guin). Le Guin includes passages that she encourages you to read out loud, so I'd take a hot bath and listen to myself speaking. Reading out loud is surprisingly tough. One or two of the passages were Hemmingway, and the beauty and many overlapping rhythms of his straightforward prose amazed me. So I read Fiesta (aka The Sun Also Rises) which blew me away, and then The Old Man and the Sea, which didn't so much. Then I rationed out several of his other novels and stories over 2010.

Men Without Women is rare: stories about men as men, not exploring the human condition, but the male condition: pride, legacy, obligation, competition, camaraderie, the inability to connect. Deep masculine preoccupations.

Anyway, Across the River and into the Trees and For Whom the Bell Tolls are two of the best books I've read, ever ever ever. So very real, deeply touching, frank. I don't know how to say this, but I don't want to read each word but eat it, savour it and consume it and never let it out. Across the River is heartstoppingly, achingly beautiful and mournful, every letter and every dot of it, and I swear on my life that I truly have to stop breathing after every chapter for a week until I'm able to digest it and hold it inside me.

I read a bunch of business books too. Business occupies a lot of mind right now because I'd like for the studio to achieve our lofty ambitions profitably and happily. So I think about how to do that, and read about it too, and it's good to see how other people approach marketing, or appraisals, or pitch presentations. I'd recommend pretty much all of the ones in the list (and one from 2009 too: The Pixar Touch: the Making of a Company, David Price). Getting to Yes is the best. I'm terrible at negotiation, even the first few pages of the book made me feel sick through nervous tension by association. But the book takes the sting out of it with a common-sense approach, so that's cool.

There's a lot of sci-fi. I use it to wind down, and to think. Anathem is a delight, so convincing, the weaving into reality of a whole world and a whole new physics (just as Illuminatus is I suppose). And you should check out Golem XIV, the novella at the end of Lem's Imaginary Magnitude. It's about two massive artificial intelligences, straddling the singularity, and how their concerns are not human concerns. Lem, as he showed in his collection The Cyberiad, is the Jean-Baptiste Lamarck of revealing and taxonomising and understanding this brand new kingdom of life, the non-human artificial intelligences.


The highlight of 2010 was Experiences in Groups (W. R. Bion). I made a piece of software called Glancing back in 2003 (read the conference presentation and more notes). It was simple desktop software with a glanceable interface, allowing non-verbal communication for small groups of close friends. Since then I've been convinced that a better understanding of small groups is key to good design of technology and services (for instance, and again), but research is hard to come by. Group Dynamics (Donselson Forsyth) is decent, but a little structural for my taste. Bion, on the other hand, is hot, spilly and wet.

Bion's approach to groups is psychiatric in origin, and he develops a theory of the various modes of behaviour groups adopt, and how they interplay. Personally I cross-breed Bion with what little I've picked up from Latour - that you should ascribe agency to non-human actors too - and so I regard products as part of a social group just as much as people, and that throws up interesting questions: when we design products, what modes are they introducing into the group mentality? Will they tip the balance towards a dependency mode, rather than promoting sophisticated creativity?

Like all good books, I've found Bion useful in my work, and insightful in my personal and professional lives. I won't say any more right now because I'm sure I'll come back to it.

Also you should read the Red Men, because it's about mirror worlds (whoa) and artificial intelligence and robots, and that's what 2011 is going to be all about.