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”.