Welcome to episode 237 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast this week we’re going to take a look back on the year and highlight some of our favorites episodes. We had a lot of excellent guests this year in various fields of emerging technology, and so we’re going to talk about those a bit and some of the issues and themes that came up over the course of the past 50 or so weeks of 2017. Then next week we’re going to wrap up our end of year podcast series here with some predictions, some thoughts on what we might see in emerging technology in 2018 so stay tuned for that.
Let’s go way, way back to episode 199, so way back into the 100’s, and talk a little bit about our episode with our friend Tomer Perry who’s a research associate at the Ethics Center there at Harvard University. He was nice enough to come by our studio, and chat about ethics, and bias in artificial intelligence which is becoming more and more relevant topic everyday really. If you’re interested in hearing any of these podcast episodes when you’re done listening, we’re going to put together a collection of these different podcasts over on SoundCloud, a playlist of our favorites for the year so listeners, you can check it out there.
Let’s start with that episode because not only is it important, but it’s also this sort of coupling of the humanity’s right and technology which we’re always emphasizing on the show. If AI software is processing and analyzing data and providing decision making for core elements that are critical to our society, we’re really going to need to address these issues in the future.
For instance, the classic example of this is the risk assessments used in our correctional system. It’s been shown that there are biases against minorities sort of built into these pieces of software that are basically determining whether people are eligible for parole which is kind of scary. Dirk, what did you take from that episode with Tomer and what were your thoughts on that?
The episode with Tomer for me was part of a longer thread of how important, how critical ethics are in the day-to-day operations of design and software creation let’s say. That’s something that five years ago, ethics would have been very low on my list of things I would say, this is something that needs to be talked about by people who are not ethicist, by people who are product, people be design engineering or product side marketing, yada, yada, yada.
More recently, and really sort of in a lockstep with the rise of artificial intelligence, and I use rise loosely there, the rise from the standpoint of the media, understanding the importance and potential of artificial intelligence as opposed to what it’s able to do now which remains still relatively modest. Just ethics being core to the things that we’re doing, and that ties in to, you know we had a show on dark patterns awhile back as well, it’s sort of these things coming together.
For me, Tomer’s being on in the conversations that we had explicitly around ethics with him as an ethicist, but also ethics conversations we’ve had on shows that weren’t about ethics. It just really, really solidified that for me. It’s interesting for me personally because as I was going through my undergraduate and graduate school philosophy was the department that I was most interested in and spent the most time in. Of course, ethics is one of sort of the cornerstone topics in philosophy as an interesting higher education. For me, Tomer’s being on as an ethicist brings altogether how ethics have moved to the forefront of things that matter for practicing technologists.
Yes, I think ethics will become, if not already, become much more important in the field of design. Certainly there are a huge array of design decisions that can have ethical implications from sourcing where you get your materials, to the aforementioned systems that are sort of dictating how interactions are happening, all the way to the way in which technology is distributed and who gets to take advantage of it.
It feels to me like as we move from the more tactical craft into these larger interactions whether you’re talking about for the internet of things, or for something like genomics, or how we operate with and around robots. Ethics feels like a growing, trend is not the right word, but a growing elements within design that is only going to increase in stature as the years progress.
I like that you mentioned genomics because one of the trends that we’re seeing that hasn’t crusted yet but we’ve been talking about for a long time is science really coming together with product, with commercialization, with design in a very tight timeframe unlike the much longer timeframes historically. The issues that cutting edge science bring to bear are even more pressing and important than artificial intelligence and the other things we’re talking about.
I find it interesting, I think there’s an awful lot bubbling beneath the surface of our public consciousness in regards to genomics. For example, there are some awfully important discussions going around about CRISPR-Cas9 and how and when that can be used and sort of the ethics, the rule set, the systems that are going to govern that which is essentially enabling scientists and researchers to cut and paste DNA sequences, and giving the ability to correct defects, and possibly even enhance humans in one way or another.
Those discussions are happening, though they’re happening at genomics conferences, they’re happening across the world right now. They’re not popularized in the press in a way something like AI is a more public discussion, but they are happening and they are important.
I think that gives us a good bridge to our next favorite episode of 2017 which was episode 213 about bio-inspired product design, and that’s with our special guest Nick Hogan who’s a computational designer who’s focused on the creation of design and fabrication techniques that emulate or implement biological processes. He’s worked at Harvard iLab and on bio-inspired technologies that are currently being developed at the Wyss Institute which is a Boston Area institution, a number of academic groups and universities that contribute to that.
I think that bio-inspired product design is probably the Silicon Valley of this century. This is where you’re going to see the revolutionary technologies emerge from the biological processes and designing the products that are going to really influence the next 100 years or so. Much in the way that computer technology from the 1950’s until now has sort of upended our understanding and our abilities and the way we access information in ways that in the 50’s nobody was really anticipating. Those same game-changing and revolutionary aspects I think are just waiting for us. There’s a Bill Gates, and there’s a Steve Jobs of bio-inspired product design.
For us to have Nick on the show I thought was a real treat because I’ve always really enjoyed biology and design, but putting those two things together I think takes a certain amount of scientific rigor and understanding that I’m jealous in some ways of the folks at a university now who get to jump onboard this emerging tech wave because I think it’s going to be very exciting. What did you takeaway from that episode with Nick?
I love the shows where somebody comes on and we’re talking about a topic that I really know nothing about, and delving into it just sort of makes my job drop a little, it makes me smile and say, “The world is cool.” This was one of those shows. Bio-inspired design is not something that I’m well-versed, and obviously nature as an inspiration for design is a very old idea and is very core to the training of designers. This notion where there’s almost a fusing of the natural and the artificial as the science and the manifestation of biology become present and immediate in the creation of things.
It’s just cool, it is not something that I have training or background on. It was really fun to talk with Nick and hear the things that he had to say, it reminded me that there’s always more in the world to be just surprised and delighted and inspired by.
Yes, hopefully we’ll dig into bio-inspired product design more in 2018, you can definitely expect that from future episodes at the Digital Life. Moving on to episode 223, this was about artificial intelligence and music which are both to me sort of very important areas. Music especially and the composition of music has always been very important to me personally, and that was a huge part of my life growing up. To see technology be applied to music, that’s always been a theme throughout the years whether you’re talking about sequencing, or sampling, or synthesizing music, I’ve always followed that with a lot of interest.
We were lucky enough to have Pierre Barreau who’s the CEO of AIVA that stands for Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist. It’s a AI system that essentially has used machine learning to learn from the composing greats and is now producing and composing music that is being used in game design and in films, and it’s been recognized by at least one association. I believe it’s European composers association as a composer, so you have this artificial intelligence which is now in official composer of music, obviously derived from the great composers of the past.
The opening jingle or musical intro to the Digital Life is an AIVA composition, so we’re incorporating that particular music into our podcast. It’s funny because I’ve started composing at the piano, so it’s very very much a human and analog instrument. I mean the pencil and staff paper, and recall being in the practice from writing those things down and then showing them to band members or whatever, and sort of composing music that way. Very, very human, emotional express of activity.
To think a few short decades later it’s possible for a machine to more or less mathematically derive musical composition which sounds like music that a composer could create, a human composer could create. That’s sort of mind-blowing to me in a way just because I’ve been so close to this particular craft. Dirk, what are your takeaways from the AI composer episode?
That was another one that was just fun for me because you and both on the show, but outside the show talk a lot about what are the latest and greatest technologies, what’s going out there. This composition is something we had talked about similar to original works that computers are doing in art as another example. So having Pierre on who is one of the pioneers in this space who’s created a company and has an AI that is just doing original composition was just a [inaudible 00:16:02]. It was cool to be able to interact with somebody who’s actually doing it instead of being on the outside as an analyst and just kind of talking about it with you.
Yes. I think the music being composed right now by AI, it’s not John Williams or it’s not going to be iconic in a way that when you think of like the Star Wars theme, or the Superman theme, or the E.T. theme. When we’re talking about film music there are certain iconic compositions that-
Well, how do you know that it can’t do that?
I’m saying right now that it’s not-
How do you even know right now that it can’t do that?
How do you know? Come on.
It’s not that level of … I wouldn’t say our theme is comparable for instance.
Look, I mean that was a freebie that’s was done [inaudible 00:17:02] nice thing for us.
Sure. I’m just saying I don’t think that the AI composition is there yet.
So if Disney backed up the Star Wars bus with piles of money, your prediction is that the composition would be milk-toast, it would not be something awesome.
I don’t think it’s there yet, I think it’s more-
I don’t think we know though. I’m willing to accept that you believe it’s not there yet, but I don’t think you know, I don’t think you have the data to espouse that definitively.
I did go through the AIVA compositions and nothing struck me.
Fair enough, fair enough, fair enough, that’s legit, fair enough.
I dug through their SoundCloud album which is not to say that it’s not totally amazing that a machine can do that, and maybe one day there will be the AIVA John Williams. It feels to me more that the AI writing that we’ve seen, so more like the reporting that … Whether it’s on the stock markets or on minor league baseball, there’s AI doing writing around that. Those are readable but they’re certainly not the same level of writing I would say like more narrative and demonstrating a deep understanding of the subject matter. I’m not saying that that won’t happen, I’m just saying it’s not there yet.
Our final pick of our best episodes of the year 2017 is episode 232 on designing new experiences with Karen Kaushansky. She has a tremendous of depth and breadth of experience when it comes to emerging technologies working on autonomous vehicles, and then sort of working on experiences that sort of five to 10 years out from what most people are interacting with. Dirk, you got to know Karen over the course of a conference you’re at on discussing AI and design in the future. What were the things that really stood out to you about her practice and designing for new experiences.
Voice UI is something that she’s been working on for, I’m going to say decades which doesn’t mean 20 years, but I think it’s 10, 10 plus, around that in different ways and capacities. There’s a few things I want to say. First of all, it’s a reminder that a lot of the technologies that sort of crest, and we see them and think, “Oh, this is the latest and greatest” had a long gestation period where they’re not as good, they’re not ready for primetime. They’re getting up to the point, getting up to the point, getting up to the point, suddenly they’re here. In the process you have someone like Karen who has so much experience and knowledge of that domain, and that space, and that type of thing. That was cool.
I just like to hear Karen talk. Karen reminds me a lot of my buddy Jim Leftwich in Silicon Valley from the standpoint that she’s been doing it a long time and she’s really, really a craft person at heart. She is down in the weeds, she’s very senior but she will get down in the weeds and do the nitty-gritty of design out of love and out of an understanding that it takes getting your hands dirty at that level to get to the best stuff, to get to the right stuff.
She’s got that, the brilliance but also the passion for craft that I find inspiring, that I myself don’t always have. I really always admire that about Jim Leftwich, I could sit with Jim and talk forever and it would just make me happy. I have so much respect for that type of person, and Karen really feels cut from the same cloth for me. So I think it’s fantastic to hear Karen talk about her stuff because she’s the crème de la crème.
Looking back on 2017 I think we kind of looked at in terms of some of the guests that were able to come on the show. We’re obviously working on booking some interesting guests for 2018 which you can stay tuned for. I’m always surprised at the shape of the year, there’s no predicting who we’re going to get on the show. I think this year we looked at, it was great. This was our seventh year of the podcast which itself evolved over the course of time. I proud of this year, I think this year turned out pretty well all things considered.
I think you do a great job curating the show and I love doing it with you Jon, so thank you so much.
Thanks. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in realtime, just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L on the digital life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource that you can take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Go Invo which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for Episode 237 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.