Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Stop Scaring the Kids!



Of two approaches to design—1) reacting to the urgent and 2) responding to the important—this is about the second:

Please stop anthropomorphizing plumbing systems! Frankly, you’re scaring the kids! We need to talk.

Computer systems are plumbing systems for electrons and photons, similar in behavior as plumbing systems are for water and waste. During my training to become a guided missile technician in the Navy I was told to use my understanding of plumbing systems to understand the more complex electronic systems I would be working with. It worked. Both systems were logical following the laws of physics. I was soon trouble shooting, fixing and maintaining complex electronic systems that at first had appeared to be incomprehensible.

‘Artificial intelligence’ systems, like plumbing systems, have proven to be immensely useful in the lives of human beings. Despite the ever-growing hype around artificial intelligence systems—AI—these systems are not sentient. They are actually life-less. They are not composed of living matter. Physicist and biologists are very clear about the difference between dead matter and living matter. Computers are not organic brains or nervous systems and are certainly not minds. They can be said to be ‘like’ (analogous to) some aspects of biologic systems but, they do not obtain to any higher order of human capacity. Some AI researchers have begun to try to provide a more balanced perspective of their technology but obviously much more needs to be done.

Computer systems do not think, have consciousness, make judgments, display intelligence, engage in creativity, learn, communicate knowledge or wisdom, or have intuitions, or insights. They do not harbor grudges, eat too much, nor look at themselves in the mirror. They cannot make an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ or navigate ‘epistemic freedom’. They do not have ‘free will’. They are composed of dead matter—silicon, plastic, metal, rubber... 

 
The Banana Junior 6000 Computer

The integrated actions of these functional assemblies of dead matter is impressive, even awe inspiring, and have proven to be invaluable assets to the human enterprise. The contributions of the complex computer assemblies to human endeavors have proven to be essential in obtaining improvement in the human condition, increasing well-being and promoting progress. However, this assistance has not come from the agency of another human-like being. 

Customers and consumers are the purported beneficiaries of AI while the electronic plumbers are the technical designers behind AI. Artificial intelligence forms an interface between the two groups while serving the interests of the owners of AI.


AI Interface

AI digital assemblies are animated by human ‘design intelligence’ that creates rules of sequencing—algorithms—which, on occasion, display a functional capacity called artificial intelligence. But, the outcomes of animated computer algorithms are the direct results of the design decisions made by electronic plumbers—their visions of what is desirable—on behalf of owners, and not of any independent machine’s ‘intelligence’. 

We—society in all of its manifestations—need to have serious conversation about who gets to formulate the design briefs for AI systems. We need to engage in serious conversations about the development of performance specifications of AI systems and the concomitant prescriptive specifications as related to stakeholders, customers, future generations et. al. We need to talk about who loses and who gains in the production and actualization of AI systems. We need to talk about how these systems are designed and for whom. We need to talk about who is responsible and accountable for unintended consequence. We need to talk realistically about the true nature of artificial intelligence systems. 


AI is being hyped using terms and meanings that do not realistically apply to it. This mode of hyping—a form of marketing on steroids in the computer age—was more tolerable in the days of vapor-ware. Back then, it was understood that this kind of hype was essential for attracting money—investments or grants that would facilitate selling the ideas undergirding high tech services or the hardware needed to develop AI. Today, however, AI has created enough wealth to afford to let serious discussions emerge about its realistic nature and potential. It will be difficult to initiate such discussions given the power, prestige, wealth and control that comes from exploiting AI’s selected potentials—but the conversations need to take place.

The hype around AI has not supported the emergence of discussions about serious issues concerning the relationship between human agency and technology, or this technology’s impact on individuals, societies and the world at large. Although we are hearing more and more apologies from AI billionaires for the damage their technologies have inflicted—what we need right now are more serious discussions with them—without the hype. We need to spend less time and energy dealing with apologies from successful technologic innovators concerning what damage their products have done unintentionally, and more time engaged in critical discussions about how to design AI systems that work for the benefit of living matter—e.g. human beings. In order to have these serious conversations we first need to stop attributing qualities and attributes of human nature to dead matter.

A branch of my ancestry tree includes people, who at one time, believed that natural features and forms were dwelling places for spirits. The enlightened world forcibly dissuaded them from their set of spiritual beliefs. Early missionaries zealously offered a more realistic perspective that replaced animism with rationalism. Anthropomorphizing rocks, trees, or mountains was considered to be pagan and uncivilized. Where are the rational missionaries in today’s digital communities of artificial intelligence—offering objective and reasoned discourse for why one should not anthropomorphize dead matter such as electronic plumbing systems? 

The challenge for the champions of the anthropomorphized AI is the same as that which is shared by anyone working with complicated and complex systems—including human systems. The analysis of a complex system reveals its components and the relationships, links, and connection between components. But, given that the emergent whole is often something new to human experience, synthesis—in contrast to analysis—is more difficult to describe and name. A complex machine often shows synthetic qualities and activities, which are extremely difficult to name, because there are no meanings based on past experience that apply. Thus, the names and meanings of known and familiar activities are copped from other domains. Naming and framing new emergent realities is an extremely difficult and powerful challenge. Historically, we have leaned on compounding things we know from experience to simulate things that are new to us.

For instance, Native Americans living on the Great Plains called the horse a ‘sun dog’ when it first appeared in their landscape. They then called the steam engine, used by early railroads, an ‘iron horse’. A familiarity and understanding of ‘horseness’ was used by Europeans as well. The early automobile was called a ‘horseless carriage’ and the first bicycle was called a ‘dandy horse’. After some experience with these new things, the borrowed horse-related descriptors were dropped and more appropriate terms and meanings were applied to them. It is time for promoters of artificial intelligence to do the same.

An ask:
 Please don’t equate human capacities with the emergent behaviors of complex technologies and functional assembliesBe real about what AI is and what its potential is. Help promote realistic conversations around what would be desirable, prudent and possible for artificial intelligence to become.

Freud called humans ‘prosthetic gods’:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

Remember that a robot’s visions are actually our own visions. The robots—AI— are our prosthesis–they are a part of us, not apart from us.



 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Taking Design Seriously

It is very difficult introducing 'design' to audiences who have invested emotionally and financially in the 'design thinking' juggernaut. There is so much more to designing than the IDEO model and its imitators imply. Design thinking, aka creative problem solving, is fine for those situations that it best fits but it is not representative of the breadth and depth of serious design. The backlash against the IDEO model is growing. The challenge is to not let real design get dragged down in the process.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Democracy Files



Most social systems are embedded in various ‘designs’ for societal governance (i.e. ‘cybernetics’ from a systemic perspective) or are the dominate governing system themselves in some cases. One form of governance that is still in the process of development is ‘democracy’. Although very old, it is still under construction, repair or reformation and we are still exploring what is possible and desirable of democracy. Although many, if not most, organizations are not democracies themselves they are often entangled with democratic governance systems. The ‘democracy files'  being developed collaboratively by a colleague and friend, Birger Sevaldson, is an example of using a ‘design’ stance and approach to something that can be said to be ‘important’, contrasted to something ‘urgent’, or merely ‘gainful’. 

When ‘looking’ (see graphic below) at how ‘design’ is used within organizations, for example, it is equally important to look ‘around’ to see how design externally effects organizations—to look at the environments and contexts within which social systems and organizations are embedded. Democracy is one of those critical cybernetic systems that many organizations are embedded in. A systemic design approach facilitates adaption to, or improvement in, this seminal design for human governance.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

We are here to create or design...?

Well-formed questions are of immense importance to human progress. The wealthy and successful often reach a point in life where it is important to begin to ask bigger questions than those that made them rich and powerful. Often the question is “how can I fix or help people?” Occasionally it is “how can I serve people?” Less often it is questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of human existence. An example of the latter is a recent article by a very successful Chinese nationalist, Kai-Fu Lee, educated at some of the best schools in the United States. He asks the question “why are we here?” His answer is that we are here to create. But the question remains vague. Create what?

Maybe the answer is we are here to design preferred futures?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Putting Design in its Place

This is a video of a recent presentation I did explaining the different approaches to design and designing nowadays:



Sunday, February 25, 2018

Service vs Empathy



There has been an increased number of discussions about empathy on various platforms lately because of the increasing interest in human centered design and design thinking I suppose. I would like to introduce someone who dramatically changed my own understanding of the relationships between designers and those they 'serve' and those they 'empathize' with. Naomi Remen, a medical doctor, stated:
When you help, you see life as weak. 
When you fix, you see life as broken. 
When you serve, you see life as a whole. 
Rachel Naom Remen 
In The Service of Life 

Paraphrasing Remen: "When you fix or help people they feel that they are in your debt. When you serve them you treat them as equals—there is an exchange of equal value."
Design as a service is not empathy, nudging, coercion, manipulation...etc.