OK, Computer

Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation I’ve harboured a dream of having a computer like the one on The Enterprise; one that uses natural language parsing to understand your question, can give you the answer to almost anything, and can reply to you audibly. Of course, today this is no longer a dream; with Siri, Google Now* and various similar internet-enabled applications the sci-fi dream is only the press of a button away.

But there’s one important aspect of the Star Trek computer that everyone seems less keen on: the voice command activation. The TV show computer is activated with a prefix: “Computer: …”. Now we have products like Google Glass, Motorola X, and Xbox One Kinect which promise the same functionality (“OK Glass: …”; “OK Google Now: …”; “Xbox on: …”), and the public reaction has tended towards doubt, fear or downright rejection. People I know who are otherwise fully-fledged technophiles have expressed worries about the always-on listener service.

It’s interesting that this reaction has persisted even though representatives of the companies involved have taken great pains to emphasise your privacy. In the case of the Motorola X there is a chip dedicated to only listening for your voice speaking the exact phrase “OK Google Now”, and the Xbox One Kinect behaves similarly, and in neither case is any data sent – or even, as far as I know, a network connection required. But that’s not been enough to reassure some people.

This reaction seems perhaps understandable, except that we carry around with us all day a device fully capable of listening to us and transmitting our words to unknown parties, and at home and work use other devices equally capable of doing the same.

Could this fear be down to timing? This news came at the same time as we heard about the full extent of NSA (or GCHQ here in the UK) spying, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that privacy was foremost in people’s minds.

Is it perhaps a general distrust about what big companies are doing with your data? Google in particular have been fighting many privacy cases in courts across the globe, and a $15 billion lawsuit against Facebook for cookie tracking is still ongoing (I think).

Or are people blanching just because this formalised voice activation now makes it explicit that we can be listened to?

I was genuinely going to make a ‘final frontier’ joke to end this piece, but luckily I thought better of it.

* So pervasive is the image of the Star Trek computer that it’s claimed that Google’s ‘obsession’ is to build their services in its image.

Living in the future

There’s a good interview with the writer Warren Ellis in the Paris Review. In it he talks about many things, not least the future of cities:

When I have my pessimistic head on, I think that everyone can see the future of cities coming down the road, and the people who will be able to afford to live in the secured arcology-like communities are just as afraid of it as the people who’ll be outside, wandering around in failing infrastructure and wondering exactly when the social contract dissolved.

I’m a huge admirer of Ellis for the way he thinks; like Russell Davies, who I esteem equally, he has a way of considering things that don’t seem at all obvious until he says them.  One of the most inspiring passages I’ve read in many years came from Ellis’ keynote address to the Improving Reality conference:

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.

Those sentences came to mind today as I remembered this: we live in a world where I can speak out loud to a computer and tell it I want to go to a specified destination, and my house can detect when I’m leaving and send a driverless car around to pick me up and take me there, and lock itself up securely after I’ve left.

All of this technology exists; it’s just not joined up yet. It’s the stuff of science fiction, yet because it came piecemeal we tend to treat it as fairly unexceptional. But sometimes I remember that we’re living in an amazing future, and it renders me momentarily awestruck.

Writing about thinking about thinking

So I’ve started another blog because I need a space to think. It’s like Russell Davies said: “writing more, for me, equals thinking more“.

I recently saw this talk by John Cleese which contains a great piece of advice on how to be creative: sit down for an hour and think about something. And I realised that I don’t think much; my time is always filled.

By the way, this is not one of those posts that bemoans information overload; the quantity of information I receive is pretty high, but that’s my choice, not an inevitable consequence of technology.

I don’t think a lot. When I have spare time at home, I work on a project; my other major block of free time, my commute, is filled with reading. I sometimes cycle, which is good for my health but not for creative thinking time. Occasionally, when I really need to think about something, I choose to take the bus instead of the train, as it takes longer and I find it easier to get relaxed for thinking (although this can quickly turn to sleepiness).

So I need more time to think, and writing more equals thinking more, so I sometimes tweet half-formed thoughts (in amongst the ‘jokes’). But while Twitter is good for many things, it’s less so for being able to revise or rephrase a thought. To use an allegory from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow: Twitter is System 1, for instinctive and emotional thoughts; blogging is System 2, for more considered, logical thoughts.

I already have another blog, Broken Links, but that’s where I prefer to do technical writing, which is a quite separate discipline.

All of which is to say: this is my blog for thinking.

Pictures intended to be read

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a huge fan of the comics artist Chris Ware. His art is extremely geometric and precise, full of straight lines and hard angles, and exceptionally detailed.

His sketches, however, are the opposite: rough, organic, and loose. Most artists show  significant differences between sketch and final piece, but rarely is it as shockingly distinct as in Ware’s work.

His explanation is that in comics “pictures are intended to be read“. He considered the distinction between ‘handwritten’ and ‘typeset’, where the former dictates a certain personality to the message, leading him to try to create a typeset style of drawing aimed at making the reader less aware of the art and more of the story.

He describes this as “seeing without seeing”.