Check your assumptions

This week, we take a look at new paradigms for augmented reality, feminist urban planning, guides to ethical software, and one adaptive hack. A theme that resonates through many of these pieces is that it behooves us to examine our underlying assumptions going into any endeavor. It’s only by doing so that we can see hidden constraints and move beyond them in creative ways.

Alexis & Matt

1: Mirrors, not glasses: AR as a social experience

This essay on augmented reality by Matt Webb is thought-provoking, expanding the UX paradigms and possibilities for the technology. He takes on the presumption that glasses are the ideal interface for AR, and presents some interesting alternatives. Specifically, he investigates the assumptions and constraints that glasses bring with them — they assume that AR interactions are private and individual, which has in turn shaped the kinds of experiences being designed for the technology.

Matt posits that this is an inherently antisocial view of computing, and that a more compelling vision of AR would encompass interactions and augmented views that can be shared with others, and used for collaboration. “The metaphor here is that augmented reality doesn’t have to feel like a cyborg enhancement. It can feel like a companion, or friend, or team member.” He describes screens that can be membranes, connected to both the physical world and the people around us:

“Not looking through, which presupposes an individual perspective, whether you’re looking through glasses or looking through a phone. But instead reflecting what’s between you, as if the magic mirror screen is part of your team, or part of a small group of kids playing, just another group member adding their point of view.”

Augmented reality should use magic mirrors, not glasses (Interconnected)

Posted on Wednesday 2 Sep 2020. 1,069 words, 9 links. By Matt Webb.


2: Geolocation, geolocation, geolocation

As you may have noticed, we’re slightly obsessed with the weird hacks that people create to manage the constraints of technology. In our last issue, we described the “three A’s” of those techniques: adversarial, adaptive, and acquiescent. We’d probably file this one under adaptive, where people are shifting their behavior to optimize for machine perception.

Amazon drivers are apparently hanging cell phones on trees next to Whole Foods stores in order to get first dibs on delivery orders. Amazon’s algorithm optimizes who gets an order based on which driver is closest to the store or pickup location, so drivers are essentially spoofing their location to get assigned jobs. It’s like a DIY, gig economy version of high frequency traders locating computers closer to network hubs to get faster trades or doing latency arbitrage to beat out competitors.

Amazon drivers are hanging smartphones in trees outside Whole Foods stores

The phones’ proximity to the stores and Amazon delivery stations gives drivers first dibs on more orders — and money — in a struggling gig economy.


3: A crowd-sourced guide to building better tech

If you’re designing a new digital product or service, it can be difficult to identify all the ways that your new idea could be misused or exploited. While taking time to consider the possibilities of your idea is always good practice, it can help to have a guide that spells out common pitfalls and mitigations.

To that end, four designers, engineers and product managers who focus on ethical uses of technology have started, a free database of possible risks and mitigations in digital product development. For example, if your new app has a message board feature, the database would remind you that a “real names” policy can lead to doxxing, SWATing, and other harassing behaviors.

Just launched earlier this week, the database is currently a bit sparse, but contributions of new risks and mitigations is welcome. This simple reference tool could be quite useful to engineering and design teams as they seek to develop safe, ethical products. is a knowledge source of technological harms and mitigations to guide safer product development.


4: Google, the ethicist

Google is also getting in the game of helping developers wrestle with ethical issues. Over the years Google has been taken to task for ethical missteps and oversights in its own products, from stopping its Photos app from labeling “gorillas” to an employee uproar over its participation in analyzing drone photography on behalf of the Pentagon.

Following the precept “never let a good crisis go to waste,” Google has taken these lessons and begun advising clients on ethical uses of AI technology. For now this has been done on a one-off basis, but Wired reports that Google may soon productize these lessons. Beginning by releasing to the public training courses Googlers already use internally, the company hopes to offer consulting services to help companies review their AI projects and evaluate outputs of AI systems for signals of bias.

While we hope Google can learn from its mistakes and prevent others from making them, we have yet to see how successful, or thorough, these engagements may be. Google hasn’t yet decided whether they’ll charge for these services, but whether free or paid, a “Certified Ethical by Google” stamp is only as good as the trust Google can engender.

Google Offers to Help Others With the Tricky Ethics of AI

After learning its own ethics lessons the hard way, the tech giant will offer services like spotting racial bias or developing guidelines around AI projects.


5: How to be a good ancestor

We recently watched an episode of Star Trek: Picard that prompted a rabbit-hole conversation about the Sandia report, a document that described how to warn future civilizations about the dangers of nuclear waste stored in the Nevada desert. Work like this has become the purview of The Long Now Foundation, an organization of technologists, academics and writers who focus on a 10,000 year timeframe. Perhaps their most famous project is the design and construction of a 10,000 year clock.

This post from Roman Krznaric, a Research Fellow, gives some concrete techniques we can all use to develop longer-term thinking and consider the extended ramifications of our actions. We particularly liked the framing of being a Good Ancestor, creating value and improvements that we may not realize in our own lifetimes, but that our seventh-generation descendants may benefit from. In particular, we have long subscribed to the idea of Holistic Forecasting, one that evaluates a range of possibilities from a status quo extension to radical transformation, not just a single prediction.

While we love finding examples like this of other groups thinking and writing on better tools for imagining our shared futures, we would be remiss to not caveat our endorsement. From reviewing The Long Now Foundation’s site, it’s a glaring omission to not have more people of color participating in these conversations, particularly at the Board of Directors level. Perhaps we can offer Krznaric a seventh way to think long term: “include perspectives and experiences that sit outside your own, so that you can visualize a wider set of possibilities.”

Six Ways to Think Long-term: A Cognitive Toolkit for Good Ancestors

Human beings have an astonishing evolutionary gift: agile imaginations that can shift in an instant from thinking on a scale of seconds to a scale of years or even centuries.


6: Cities, but for women

This excerpt from Leslie Kern’s new book, “Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World”, takes a critical look at the way cities are designed, and for whom. While you may consider architecture and urban planning to be gender-neutral, Kern points to a number of ways that our built environments assume a white, able-bodied, cisgender man as the primary user / citizen. Specifically, she points to the complexities of caregiving (for which women are still largely responsible) and how that intersects with everything from public transportation to snow plowing schedules. While the book surely goes into deeper detail, this article outlines a few ideas—and existing initiatives—for what feminist urban planning might look like, and how cities could better accommodate a wide range of needs and people.

A Feminist Vision for Supporting Urban Caregivers

Decades after critiques on how cities fail caregivers, the same problems remain. The new book “Feminist City” calls for reimagining urban infrastructure.

One lip-syncing neural net

Really, a description won’t do this justice. Just watch the video.

Jonathan Fly 👾


Trying out Wav2Lip. It will happily try to lip lync sync a constantly morphing face.

9:59 PM - 1 Sep 2020

By Ethical Futures Lab

Six Signals: Emerging futures, 6 links at a time.

Tweet Share

If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here.

If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.

Powered by Revue