Six signals: Ethical design and bio bots

Six signals logo.

About seven years ago, Matt and I put together a presentation called “Atoms are the new bits”. This week’s signals show just how much the physical and digital have merged, and how much further that interconnectedness could go. On the human front, we were inspired by Anil Dash’s post on trustworthy organizations to share recent tools and analysis that document the impact software has on trust, psychology and relationships. We then took a deeper look at robots that mimic, manipulate, or even connect to living organisms. Read on for all this, and some very trippy GAN Simpsons characters…

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1: A field guide to manipulated video

The Washington Post published a detailed guide to identifying videos that had been selectively edited, doctored, or even faked altogether in order to manipulate public opinion. Unlike the recent focus on “deepfakes” that rely on advanced computational techniques, the Post’s piece informs readers about simpler techniques — like misrepresentation or isolation — that are just as deceptive. Further, the Post finds examples of manipulation in surprising places, including a documentary on President Obama’s mother and her struggles obtaining health insurance. 

The end of the guide gives readers a chance to submit their own suspect videos and request review from the Post’s fact-checkers.

Seeing isn’t believing: the Fact Checker’s guide to manipulated video

2: The tech industry Columbusing the social sciences

Lilly Irani and Dr. Rumman Chowdhury take Tristan Harris to task for suggesting a “new” field of study he calls Society and Technology Interaction. Beyond the fundamental problem of claiming to discover fields of academic pursuit that have existed for decades, they argue that his statements show how little attention Silicon Valley pays to the underlying ethical and cultural impacts of the technology they build. 

Irani and Chowdhury point to recent #techwontbuildit protests as a good first step in countering unethical technology practices, but suggest that collective action against these practices requires more community engagement and education, so that those most affected can understand the impact of these systems and unite their voices against them. 

To really ‘disrupt’, tech needs to listen to actual researchers

3: Dark patterns in online retail

As a step toward better consumer education on tech ethics, J. Nathan Matias built a guide he calls “Tricky Sites” that lists commerce sites and the manipulative design patterns they employ. The tool is based on research Arunesh Mather led at Princeton that scanned over 11,000 separate sites, cataloguing 15 distinct “dark patterns” like high-demand messages, “confirmshaming” (e.g. “No thanks, I like paying full price”) and visual interference. 

With Tricky Sites, you can quickly scan for your online shopping destination of choice and be warned of the tactics you’ll encounter there. By making visible these patterns, and through increased government attention to their impact, sites may be pressured into building more trustworthy interfaces.

Tricky Sites

4: Robots that really flex their muscles

Ritu Raman, an engineer at MIT, is creating robotic mechanisms that incorporate biological tissue and are powered by living skeletal muscles. She uses 3D printing techniques to pattern living cells that can then self-assemble into functional muscle tissue. Raman is hopeful that this hybrid approach can be used for interventions that range from bio-adaptive medical treatments to environmental sensors.

“I’m a mechanical engineer by training, and I’m honestly a little bored building with the materials we’ve been building with for the past thousand years. So I’m making robots and machines that use biological materials to move and walk around and sense their environment, and do more interesting things—like get stronger when they need to and heal when they get damaged.”  

Ritu Raman profile

5: Cyborg botany

On a related note, Harpreet Sareen has been working on connecting plants to digital electronics to transform them into interfaces for both sensing and notification. He has developed methods for plants to sense input (such as motion) and send that signal to a computer, as well as a way for the computer to send a digital signal back to the plant and trigger “soft notifications”, like the leaves retracting or the jaws of a Venus flytrap snapping shut.

Taking the research one step further, Sareen is working to bring the computer and the plant together by embedding digital circuitry in the plant itself. His new project, Planta Digitalis, uses “liquid electronics” to embed conductive wire inside the stem of a rose plant that could then be controlled by sending electrical signals into the wire. His ultimate goal is to create a true plant-computer hybrid, by finding the “right mixture of chemicals that would react with the plant’s internal structure in a way that would self-assemble into an organic circuit”.

Plants are the oldest sensors in the world. Could they be the future of computers?

6: Solar-powered robot bees

User-uploaded image: image.png
Eliza Grinnell: Harvard Microbiotics Laboratory

For the final robotics signal of the week, take a look at the RoboBee X-Wing, a tiny solar-powered robot bee drone. RoboBee uses flapping wings like an insect to allow for greater agility, and the new solar-powered addition means that it no longer needs to be tethered to a power source and can fly on its own — only for half a second at the moment, unfortunately. Power sources have always been a tricky problem for small-scale robotics, as with these drones or medical nanobots. When the scale of the mechanism is too small to carry an onboard battery, there need to be more creative ways of generating and storing power, so solar power at this scale is a promising, novel approach.

What could possibly be cooler than RoboBee? RoboBee X-Wing.

One “D’oh!” thing

Michael Friesen made some neural-net-generated Simpsons characters and the results are both hilarious and troubling.

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