Burner Devices, Bunny Suits, Biosecurity Clauses, and Blood Work

Up until February, I averaged 30 countries a year​*​. Some for 24 hours, some for a week, but either way, my work ordinarily takes me all over the world. With the lockdown, of course, all of that has been put on pause, and like most other people who work with ideas for a living, I’m typing and Zooming and pivoting my existing work and future contracts into new biosecure shapes. And so, like everyone else, I’m planning for an interesting future. It’s clear that the digitization and post-geographisation of the consulting and advisory world has been hugely accelerated, and I think it’s also clear that it’s not going to go back to the old normal either. For sure, there is a considerable power in the sort of in-person meeting I would ordinarily do – whether in front of a single CEO, a 20 person board, or a 5000 person theatre – but that’s not always going to be enough to, you know, ask people to possibly die for. And by the time the vaccines are ready and working, the cultures of business meetings will have changed.

But what of that change? What do business meetings look like in a world that has experienced a pandemic? It’s a useful exercise to work through, because many of the same concepts are equally as relevant when we’re considering the mitigation of other vectored risks: cybercrime, for example, or industrial espionage.

Here’s what I’m thinking: Burner Devices, Bunny Suits, Biosecurity Clauses, and Blood Work. Ignoring for the moment the two-week quarantine that some countries are haphazardly imposing on some inbound travelers (because those will certainly go away sooner rather than later), it will most likely come down to individual companies to enforce their own particular rules.

Being granted access to a location-based headquarters, rather than just given a login to a virtual workplace, will depend on your own person being sufficiently and provably biosecure: blood test results showing a positive result for antigens, and a warm-zone changing area to put on tyvek PPE. Not to protect yourself, but to shield the staff community from your own personal viral shedding. Devices are filthy already, both microbiologically and with malware, so those can’t come in. If you need a screen to operate, you’ll get a blanked device to access the cloud with, VPN’d only, and isolated from the rest of the building. Masks, sure, or maybe the customer greeting rooms will be negatively pressured, and airlocked from the main building. Not just for Corona virus, or whatever the next one is, but for common flu and noro and all the other things we’re now also mitigating while we work to avoid Covid19.

But perhaps the most like is the biosecurity clause. And this goes both ways: the right to pause, or cancel, a contract if one party believes the other to be endangering biosecurity. If I’m due to visit a client in their clean-room meeting facility, and I turn up and find no one is wearing a mask and that dude in the corner is coughing suspiciously, can I contract the right to walk away without loss? Or can my client enforce the reverse, where I arrive from Brooklyn, attempting to smuggle in some fomites and looking feverish?

UPDATE: The doyenne of workplace design, Alex Deschamps-Sonsino, has a great thread about post-Covid offices here.

  1. ​*​
    All trips aggressively carbon-offset I assure you.
Augmentation Futures Wearables

Screens. Lots of screens.

I’ve wanted to be able to do this for a long time, and now we can. Here’s a video of my screen a minute or so ago​*​.

If you have an Oculus Quest, and install the Immersed app you can put your mac’s displays into a VR world, and then add more virtual monitors, and place them in space around you. This is slight bonkers. But not as bonkers as the fact that you can still use Zoom.

But then again, Immersed also lets you put yourself into a shared VR co-working space. So, you know, move that one from the future column over to the present day.

  1. ​*​
    Extra points to the people/cult members who spot the other thing hanging out in this video, and know of its brilliance. Because *damn* it’s good.
Augmentation Futures Wearables Writing

ReadyBrek, AR, and Flirting in the age of Corona

If you grew up in the UK in the 1980s, you’ll know this image. It’s from a TV advert for a breakfast cereal called Ready Brek. It’s porridge, but much more finely milled, so it’s ready to eat as soon as you add the milk. It is unredeemingly grim, as are their adverts. I mean, I’m not saying that this part of my childhood is why I’ve spent most of my adulthood in Mediterranean climates, but watch this:

If this makes you nostaligic, you’re insane.

Anyway, the red outline to the child, denoting a belly full of carbohydrate mush to fuel their way through the Thatcherite dystopia, is actually a pretty good bit of user interface when applied to the present day unpleasantness.

We know that Apple have AR glasses coming to market in the next year or so. From this sort of reporting and this and this. And despite the social nightmare of the forward facing camera that contributed to the Google Glass fiasco, AR glasses rely on forward facing sensors of some form. It’d be easy – trivial, in fact – to overlay a social distancing guide to your field of view. And maybe a bit trickier, but still thereabouts, for a forward facing IR camera to overlay anyone running an obvious fever with a ReadyBrek outline.

Apple, of course, have a patent for technology that would do this very thing​*​.

The social practices that might come from exposing feverishness without contact, or from actually giving a genuine measure of the six-foot social distancing radius, are interesting to consider. After it becomes a matter of etiquette and good social graces to keep a distance, the violation of that boundary can be either an act of extreme aggression, or one of subtle intimacy: the On peut se tutoyer of public space. Or perhaps something more flirtatious. After all, fans, which given the unpleasantness of wearing a facemask in the summer, are due a comeback, have a long tradition of signaling and seductive language. Tiny breaches of the 6 foot boundary will take on their own greater meanings, while the unveiling of the lower half of the face becomes the most private of moments.

  1. ​*​
    One of the dark secrets of the Futurist trade is that people generally announce their plans well in advance. Whether in patent applications or political manifestos, most people are quite open about what they’re going to do – even people who you might think would want to keep their Evil Plan secret. At a rough guess, 99.5% of all punditry is just special pleading around this: “Surely they won’t do what they’re plainly said they will?” Yes, yes they will.

The French Onion Soup Test for Futurism.

I appear to have started blogging again. This is for my own self, really, and so I cannot claim it will make sense to anyone else. Still: onwards. 

Like a tribe lost to civilization, I’ve worked for myself for so long I’ve developed my own language, and it’s mostly gibberish to everyone else. Then I lose track of which vocab is which, and end up confusing everyone. For all the poor souls who have heard me talk about The French Onion Soup Test recently, I apologize. Turns out that’s only a thing in my head.

But it might be useful for you, so here we are. The French Onion Soup Test started as a test for cookbooks. Should you find yourself leafing through a cookbook, thinking of buying it, turn to the recipe for French Onion Soup, and see how long it quotes for the caramelizing of the onions. As Tom Scocca wrote in Slate back in 2012, seeding this in my mind,  most cookbooks are total bullshitters when it comes to this. They’ll quote ten minutes, when it’s actually more than an hour. 

One cannot help suspect that the French Onion Soup test means that the recipe either hasn’t been tried by the author, or that they feel the need to sell it to the reader in some curious way. Which is weird, because you realize just how wrong the recipe is the first time you cook it. (French Onion Soup done right, by the way, takes all damn day. It is worth it, but…yeah…)

Anyway this, it turns out, is a really useful test for technology, and especially for thought-stopping jargon-nouns. Substitute “cook the onions for five minutes until they’re brown and softened” with “by using the Blockchain” or “utilizing the power of deep learning”, or whatever other Futurist product you find yourself examining, and you can possibly see the technique in action. Ask yourself, is this scenario passing the French Onion Soup Test or not? If not, maybe the whole cookbook is wrong.

For the record, Thomas Keller’s recipe is tremendous.


French Onion Soup

Augmentation Futures Wearables

Possible Problems of Persona Politeness

One of my AIs is funnier than the other. This is proving to be a problem.

But first, consider how the amazing becomes normal very quickly. It feels like I’ve been using Siri on my phone my entire life, Siri on the iPad charging by my bed since forever, and Siri on my watch since last summer. I’ve not, of course. She’s only four years old this October. But nevertheless, as with any new life-spanning tech, she’s become background-banal, in a good way, remarkably quickly. Voice interfaces are, without a doubt, A Thing.

And so it is with Alexa, the persona of the Amazon Echo, living in my kitchen for the past fortnight. She became a completely integrated part of family life almost immediately. Walking into the kitchen in the morning, ten-month-old daughter in one hand, making my wife tea with the other, I can turn on the lights, listen to the latest news from the radio, check my diary, and order more milk, just by speaking aloud, then turn it all off again as I leave. It’s a technological sprezzatura sequence that never fails to make me smile. Thanks, Alexa, I say. Good morning.

But there’s the rub. Alexa doesn’t acknowledge my thanks. There’s no banter, no trill of mutual appreciation, no silly little, “it is you who must be thanked” line. She just sits there sullenly, silently, ignoring my pleasantries. 

And this is starting to feel weird, and makes me wonder if there’s an uncanny valley for politeness. Not one based on listening comprehension, or natural language parsing, but one based on the little rituals of social interaction. If I ask a person, say, what the weather is going to be, and they answer, I thank them, and they reply back to that thanks, and we part happy. If I ask Alexa what the weather is, and thank her, she ignores my thanks. I feel, insanely but even so, snubbed. Or worse, that I’ve snubbed her.

It’s a little wrinkle in what is really a miraculous device, but it’s a serious thing: The Amazon Echo differs from Siri in that it’s a communally available service. Interactions with Alexa are available to, and obvious to, everyone in the house, and my inability to be polite with her has a knock-on effect. My daughter is too young to speak yet, but she does see and hear all of our interactions with Alexa. I worry what sort of precedent we are setting for her, in terms of her own future interactions with bots and AIs as well as with people, if she hears me being forced into impolite conversations because of the limitations of her household AI’s interface. It’s the computing equivilent of being rude to waitresses. We shouldn’t allow it, and certainly not by lack of design. Worries about toddler screen time are nothing, compared to future worries about not inadvertently teaching your child to be rude to robots. 

It’s not an outlandish thought. I, myself, am already starting to distinguish between the personalities of the different bots in my life. Phone Siri is funnier than Watch Siri; Slackbot is cheeky, and might need reeducating; iPad Siri seems shy and isolated. From these personalities, from these interactions, we’ll take our cues. Not only in how to interact, but when and where, and what we can do together. If Watch Siri was funnier, I’d talk to her more. If Phone Siri was more pre-emptive, our relationship might change. And it’s in the little, non-critical interactions that their character comes through.

All this is, of course, easier said than done by someone who isn’t a member of the Amazon design team – hey there lab126, beers on me if you’re in LA soon – but there’s definitely interesting scope to grow for the seemingly extraneous stuff that actually makes all the difference. Personality Design for AIs. That’s a fun playground. Is anyone playing there?

Complex Systems Futures Wearables

Spectator Cockroaches, Sand, and the Social Facilitation of Skeuomorphs.

It was an experiment on cyclists in 1898 that first showed us how we might live with robots. It’s a really interesting observation. Let me tell you about it.

So. I love bots. Give me a pseudo-human interface, a smattering of natural language, and  a computery-voice, and I’m all yours. This year I’m working on a project to discover just how useful they can be. With wearables, and systems like Amazon Echo we’re about need to deal with a lot of these things, and it seems to me it’s not so much the technology as the user psychology that we need to pay the most attention to, and so we need to ask what we know about these things already. 

Discussing this with Dr Krotoski, my very local social psychologist, I was pointed to the seminal paper, The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition, by Norman Triplett, The American Journal of Psychology  Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jul., 1898) , pp. 507-533.

This is basically the ur-text of Social Psychology. You can read the original paper for details of the experiment, but the simplified conclusion was this: if a person is being watched, they find easy things easier, and harder things harder. It turns out, from other experiments, that this is true for many species. For example, cockroaches will find their way through mazes much more quickly if they have spectators too, (Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.)


A maze for cockroaches, with spectator seating.

A maze for cockroaches, with spectator seating.


Further research, specifically Social facilitation effects of virtual humans, Park, Hum Factors. 2007 Dec;49(6):1054-60, went on to the nub of it: “Virtual Humans” produce the same social facilitation effect. In other words, the presence of a bot will make simple things simpler, and hard things harder, simply by just being there “watching”.

This, it seems to me, is quite a big deal. If we’re designing systems with even a hint of skeuomorphic similarity to a conscious thing – even if it just has a smiley face and a pretty voice – it might make sense for it to ostentatiously absent itself when it detects the user doing something difficult. This might be the post-singularity reading of the Footprints In The Sand story, but nerd-rapture aside, it’s an interesting question: when is it best for context-aware technology to decide to disappear? When the going is easy, or when the going gets tough?

Furthermore, I’m not sure if we know yet the Uncanny Valley-like threshold of “humanness” that triggers the social facilitation effect: do cameras have the same effect? Or even just the knowledge that someone is surveilling you? But this has serious implications beyond AI design.

For example, the trend for the quantified workplace, where managers can gather statistical data on their employees’ activities, might be counterproductive, not simply because of the sheer awfulness of metrics, but because the knowledge they are being watched might make the more complex tasks that employee needs to do inherently more difficult, and hence more unlikely to be attempted in the first place.

For the most challenging tasks we face, the problems requiring the most cognitive effort, and the most imaginative approaches, we may find that many of our current social addictions – surveillance, testing, and so on, might be deeply harmful. “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” as Clippy would say, “would you like me to make that sub-conciously more difficult for you?” 

Complex Systems Futures

Future-Dense Sentences

There’s a technique for pondering emerging technologies that originated, I think, with Jamais Cascio. Imagine you’d been instantly transported back in time x years in a particular place. How many years would you have to have travelled before you noticed you had slipped back in time? What would give it away? People’s clothing? The music on the radio? Headlines on newspapers in the first papershop you come across? The cars, the phones people are carrying, the TVs you can see through the windows you pass? Sat where you are now, could you tell if you’d suddenly dropped back to 2006? 2001? 1989?

Ok, you’re on the internet, so that breaks that, but it’s a fun game to play if you travel a lot, and can be also quite revealing within institutional buildings. Applied to business processes or cultural values, it can uncover a good deal too. 

My variation on this is to look for the places, or the ideas, or the writing, that is the most future-dense. What sentences can we find that contains the most stuff that, were we to fall back in time only a few years, would make no sense whatsoever. What contains the most embedded understanding of wholly modern concepts. Here’s a good one, from this morning:

See what I mean? Go back ten years, and that would be crazy. Go back thirty years, and you’d have to start from such first principles, you’d be considered mad.

Here’s another from earlier this year, that at first glance reads, technologically at least, entirely, boringly, banal:

If you fell back thirty years to 1985, think of all the things about this screenshot you’d have to explain, and all the layers you’d have to fill in before you could. “Ok, so…[deep breath] the President of the United States is a black man named Barack Obama. Yes, really. This is a message he has left on a microblogging service on the web…ermmm, it’s a service based around a new hypertext protocol on the internet. Yes, that thing the scientists use. Kinda like a bbs, yes. But with a few billion users. Yes. Billion. With a B. Anyway, he’s saying he’s going to binge-watch a show on Netflix. Netflix? It’s a streaming video site…oh…well, it’s a place…errrrr…Retweets? Spoilers?…I…you know…I think we should drop it.”

Anyway, looking for these brings me to a couple of things. Firstly, it’s a useful koan-like personal thought experiment to find new insights around a place or an organisation or a cultural moment. At the very least, it’s entertaining.

But secondly, I think it raises, once again, the realisation that our future world is heavily, fundamentally layered: that problems have no simple solution that a single technology plonked on top will fix. Instead, it is the interplay of the complex systems – complex, not necessarily complicated – of culture, technology, politics, culture and so on that will come together to make tomorrow’s banal commonplace thing. That complexity, I think, is both deeply exciting, and – hopefully – humbling. The future is not about the tech. It’s perhaps the other way around.

Augmentation Futures Wearables

The Internet of Tells: Constant biomonitoring and some uses

In poker, they call them tells. The little physical signs that we can’t control that give away our inner mental state. What happens if we make these privately machine-readable?

For me, a lot of the fun of future technologies isn’t new tech per se, but the coming together of three or four older things, refined by new physical capabilities and design understandings, to push over the Hill of Single Use into a new valley of possible products. A strained metaphor, perhaps, so let me give you an example. Heart rate monitors have been around for years. I’ve been running with one strapped to my chest for at least a decade myself, and in those days the data has been restricted to its one single device (and later to a single app, barring the export of averages and such very high-level takes). You certainly didn’t wear an HR monitor all the time, and even if you did, you couldn’t use what it saw for anything other than athletic training.

But 2015 will see at least two products come to mass-market that might do such a thing. The Jawbone3, and the Apple Watch

The back of the Apple Watch, showing the HR monitor

The Apple Watch has an HR monitor on its back, has local processing, a data connection (and through that, infinite cloud processing) – but more than that, it has access to everything else we might do digitally, Not just publishing capability (send my HR to Facebook, Tweet when I go over 180, and so on) but a form of sense-making too. The complex network around the Apple Watch knows an awful lot about your personal context – that’s really its point after all – and so it could start to make all sorts of correlations between HR and that context.

We know that changes in HR can reflect changes in psychological state. Your heart beats faster when you’re aroused or stressed or angry. And we now have a device that can notice that tell, and try to work out what is causing it. What might that do? Here are some scenarios, and possible products:

  1. One to One. You regularly meet with someone, Mr X, who drives you insane. A deeply stressful person, who causes your heart to beat hard as you restrain yourself from violence. An asshole of the highest order. Your system detects the increase in heart rate, and sees it happens whenever you have a calendar appointment with Mr X. Matching the appointment data with LinkedIN, it identifies Mr X, and posts the “Meeting with Mr X is stressful” posit to a LinkedIN API-using offshoot, a “Rate My Meeting” clone. Over time, Mr X’s rating is further added to by others’ systems, perhaps without user input at all, flagging Mr X as (algorithmically designated) asshole. The system acts accordingly.
  2. Many to One. You walk to work down Oxford Street, but prefer to slip through side streets if the foot traffic is annoyingly dense. Luckily, the HR monitors on the wrists of tens of Apple Watch wearers already on Oxford Street are spiking higher than they usually average here, at this time of day, with this sort of weather. Your system notices this, and gently nudges you away from the area, pre-emptively avoiding the stress that others are giving away to the network.
  3. Many to Many. You’re at a concert, and having a splendid time. Your HR is rising as the music builds, and from your watch you can see that others in the crowd are feeling it too. The crowd average HR goes past 140…141…144….147…….149……and as soon as it reaches 150,  it triggers the drop, the stage pyros, the lasers, the dancing girls. The musicians onstage, able to reach their musical climax just as the audience reaches theirs. That’s showbusiness.

None of these use-cases, and there are many more, require a new magical technology. Apart from the actual heart-monitoring, you could prototype them today all quite (handwaving here) easily. But none of them would work without a good installed base of constantly available HR monitors already in place. That, if Apple and Jawbone and the rest get their way, is what we’re about to have. It’s a whole new product/service category, being unlocked almost by mistake.