This week’s Six Signals contains several speculative explorations, from a rethinking of the operating system to biometric tattoos to augmented art, as well as some even weirder things happening in the actual present, like genetic tourism marketing.
If you want to get future issues in your inbox, please sign up for our newsletter.
1: Humans pretending to be machines pretending to be humans
Google Duplex, a service that places automated calls on the behalf of people, was recently rolled out to a larger number of users. Duplex can perform tasks like making restaurant reservations and other appointments, and is predicated on having bots that are nearly indistinguishable from real people. Well, it turns out that about 25% of supposedly automated calls are actually made by real people working in a call center. We’ve seen this before with services like Facebook M, and it demonstrates that it’s still remarkably hard to make machines seem believably human in social contexts. It also means that, once again, the supposed cost savings of automated systems is often offset by the need for human intervention and support.
So this is happening now. Last week, Airbnb announced a partnership with 23andMe to recommend “heritage travel destinations” based on your genetic profile. This is likely just the first harbinger of many services that will use your DNA to market personalized products to you, and it brings up ethical questions about how to handle genetic data responsibly. Obviously, consent is key, as well as approaches like forgetful databases that don’t store your information forever. But there are lots more meaty questions, like how to prevent genetic data being used in discriminatory ways and how to communicate the scientific validity of genetically personalized services.
3: A city is not a computer
Huge thanks to Christopher Kent for sending this wonderful piece my way! Shannon Mattern dives deep into the premise of smart cities and explores the complexity of how information and lived spaces intersect.
We have to grapple with the political and ethical implications of our methods and models, embedded in all acts of planning and design. City-making is always, simultaneously, an enactment of city-knowing — which cannot be reduced to computation.
4: Speculative biometric tattoos
In a recent episode of the Flash Forward podcast, Rose Eveleth dove deep into a possible future where medical tattoos can continuously monitor and visually respond to various biomarkers. While these speculative tattoos are probably a decade or more away, there is a lot of research being done in this area. The episode delves into the myriad potential benefits for monitoring health conditions, but also explores the ethical conundrums and possible abuses of this kind of technology.
5: Rethinking the OS
RISD student Jason Yuan has developed a compelling approach to rethinking the operating system user experience. The concept he developed, called Mercury OS, is based on the the building blocks of Flows, Modules, and Spaces, with the intention of creating “something that users could move through without friction or boundaries.”
6: When your watch tells you how to socialize
Bloomberg reported last week that Amazon is in the midst of developing a wearable device that is intended to sense your emotional state based on your voice input. The project is in early research phases and may never actually get produced, but brings up a number of complex design and ethics questions. The internal documents that Bloomberg reviewed suggest that “the technology could be able to advise the wearer how to interact more effectively with others”, which brings up huge questions about what social norms the technology would encode. Not to mention that tone of voice as marker of emotion assumes that you express yourself in a standard way, which doesn’t account for folks who aren’t neurotypical, for example.
One beautiful thing: Augmented art
Artists Claire Bardainne and Adrien Mondot created Mirages & Miracles, an installation that uses AR and VR in stunningly beautiful ways.
Ranging from small to large-scale work, this corpus of installations offers a delicate coincidence between the virtual and the material using augmented drawings, holographic illusions, virtual-reality headsets, large-scale projections. It offers a unique ensemble of improbable scenarios that takes root in both the mirage and the miracle, and plays with the boundaries between true and false, the animate and the inanimate, the authentic and the deceptive, the magical, the wondrous, and the indescriptible.
That’s all for this week! Again, sign up for the newsletter to get future issues in your inbox: