Presentation: “A future with more _and_ less technology”
On June 17 a workshop on the theme “Citizen driven e-administration” was held at the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications (http://www.government.se/sb/d/2067)* here in Stockholm, Sweden. The workshop included participants from academia, industry, as well as representatives from various governmental departments and organisations. I was invited to present a brief overview of some of the technological and socio economic trends that we are observing at the moment, as well as participating in a couple of discussion sessions.
My presentation had the title "A future with more _and_ less technology". Below I've included my speaker's notes and the presentation slides. This was a 15 minutes presentation on a rather high level so please don't hesitate to get in touch (using the comments below, Twitter: @cristiannorlin, or email: email@example.com) if you have any feedback!
> Slide 1
Hello everyone. My name is Cristian Norlin and I'm working at the User Experience Lab (now Strategic Design) at Ericsson Research. Our group is somewhat different to what most people expect from a research team at Ericsson. Our role is to look at technology development and innovation from other perspectives than merely the technical. This means that we investigate ICT and telecom from various angles, such as users, communities, culture, society as a whole etc. As a consequence our team is a very multidisciplinary one. Some are engineers, but a majority of us are game developers, industrial designers, and interaction designers. For example, I'm a designer with a degree in Computer Related Design from the Royal College of Art in London UK.
> Slides 2–7 (swipe through as I speak)
Up until now ICT has been manifested in rather explicit artefacts – including fixed line phones, desktop computers, mobile phones, tablets, smart phones, and the like. The ICT services and applications we are using today are almost all manifested within the aforementioned devices – including the 3800 Swedish governmental/public e-services that were mentioned during this morning's presentations. This is about to change drastically, bringing with it some really exciting possibilities, but also questions that require some serious consideration.
What I will talk about here today is basically a condensed version of some of the developments within the ICT sector that we are seeing today, and that are by far the most profound I've experienced since I started to work in this industry in the mid 90's. I believe that we are facing something rather remarkable when it comes to what ICT will enable and how we as individuals, communities, organisations, companies, and society as a whole will be affected by this. In short I see three major ICT trends that combined (and they are indeed beginning to converge) paint a rather interesting picture of a possible future.
> Slide 8
The first I would like to talk about is what is commonly referred to as the Internet of Things. I assume that most of you here are familiar with this, but let me point out some things in particular in order for us all to be on the same page. The Internet of Things refers to the development of several technologies that combined will make it possible to integrate ICT in all kinds of objects, ranging from expensive and large industrial machines to everyday things such as milk boxes or even basic materials such as fabric. These technologies include – and this is not an exclusive list – a massive variety of different sensor technologies (allowing the things be more "aware" of their surroundings), many kinds of actuators, and connectivity. And just to give you an idea of the scale of things here: We at Ericsson are preparing our next generation of mobile infrastructure to cater for 500 billion connected devices. The big question is if we're aiming too low here, given that I've heard of one industry that already today has 125 billion connected devices...
> Slide 9–13 (swipe through as I speak)
Concept by Shi Yuan, photo: http://dornob.com/heat-actived-paint-for-color-changing-interior-designs/#axzz373QcCJq0
The last couple of years have seen an incredible development when it comes to sensor technology of various kinds. Not only are these sensors integrated in our phones, laptops, and tablets, but they are also available for a rapidly expanding DYI movement. This means that these sensors are continuously being improved, made smaller, and produced cheaper – we are basically seeing an explosion of innovation that includes sensors. Screens and other forms of materials that can convey information in various ways is another interesting area when it comes to IoT. An interesting take on this is the development of smart materials. One such material – a very basic example – is thermochromic paint which basically changes color as a result of change in outer conditions such as temperature. Other materials include for example metals that "remember" different states. The website Open Materials (http://openmaterials.org) is a great starting point for further information about this. Another emerging and rapidly developing area is that of 3D printing. Once again nothing new in principle, yet the big thing now is that it has become affordable, much more accessible (software etc), and with a much better quality. This is an area which will continue to evolve very quickly in the coming years, making it possible for individuals as well as businesses to taylor make (and produce) hardware and components.
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These were but a few examples of some of the building blocks for IoT, and as you can imagine these open up the space for further innovations. There are already commercially available products available making use of this, such as Philip's Hue Light concept (http://meethue.com) which adds new qualities and functionality to a very mundane object – the lightbulb. Some things, such as setting the color of the light, might seem trivial, but consider the benefits of such a feature for someone who's eyes perform better in some color of light. The lights can also take advantage of external information, such as weather information online and use that as input or triggers for certain behaviour.
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The upcoming Cue (https://cue.me) product is another example of an exciting innovation. Cue combines our biosensor technology with mobile technology and creates a personal device for individuals to keep track of biological indicators relating to their health.
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As well as a number of concepts such as an e-ink connected cutting board (concept by Axis Design, http://www.axisdesign.com), controlling an electronic bicycle (the Porteur by Faraday Bikes, http://www.faradaybikes.com/products/faraday-porteur), and pulse measuring technologies using cameras on smart phones (Cardiio, http://www.cardiio.com).
The most interesting thing with the examples I've mentioned is that they provide some really great (and in many cases technically complex) features, services, and functionalities, presented in very user friendly ways. Yes, that bike is using an electronic engine, but as a user you just physically switch a button that looks anything but electrical – you don't operate a computer or a device. With an app such as Cardiio you don't need to have a lot of special equipment to measure your pulse – just place your finger on the camera lens of your smartphone (or just look at the screen) and you'll get a reading. This is high technology being dressed in an appropriate attire.
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The second thing I'd like to talk about is the explosion of data of all kinds and shapes, and the technical advances in mining and analysing all of this.
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Let's for the simplicity of things just focus on data generated by individuals in one way or another. The numbers are pretty staggering, as this video shows.
I could spend the rest of the day talking about numbers and facts like these, but that's not really my main point. The point is that already today when we are using our computers, laptops and phones, our digital footprints are huge, and they are rapidly increasing in size. The interesting thing is that this data about us is mostly not under our control – as a matter of fact most of it is actually in the hands (or hard discs) of people and organisations that we in most cases have very little influence on, and in many cases don't even know exist. Our data, and other kind of data, are constantly mined and analysed by various actors for various purposes.
Data collection and the analysis of it is of course nothing new, this has happened for quite some time. What is new is the amount of data from various sources, the rapid advancements in how to analyse all of this information in various ways in terms of better algorithms as well as computation power, and the speed at which all of this can be done. Add to this the increasingly complicated network of actors that mine, analyse, and use all of this data – use as in targeted marketing, loyalty programs, billing, selling the data to other actors, to mention but a few examples – and it's clear that what we are facing is a hugely complex situation.
> Slide 19
The third trend or development that is clearly distinguishable is related to automation.
> Slide 20
Automation or automatic control, refers to the use of various systems in order to carry out tasks with minimal (if any) human intervention. Automation has for a very long time been one of the strongest underlying arguments for the benefits of ICT, but it wasn't actually until the mid 90's that researchers could detect concrete effects of ICT on productivity. Today we're using ICT enabled automation in more ways that one can count, so the examples I'm presenting here are to be considered as mere pointers.
> Slide 21–22 (swipe through as I speak)
A couple of commercially available products that are already out on the market are Narrative (http://getnarrative.com) and Autographer (http://www.autographer.com). Both are automatic cameras that are worn by a person, and that take pictures automatically according to a timer. Autographer automatically uploads the pictures to a cloud based storage, while Narrative needs a computer before the pictures are automatically uploaded as part of a sync process. These two products are interesting in the sense that they have applied automation to a very mundane object, the personal camera (in contrast to CCTV cameras), that always has been operated by a person in order to work. For most people a camera around another person's neck is not taking pictures if the person doesn't operate it – this is not the case for these devices, they are active all the time.
> Slide 23
Another example of a product that has caused quite a lot of debate the past years is Google Glass (https://www.google.com/glass/start/). These have not only a camera but also a screen (for the wearer only) and and a voice command interface. Google Glass can be operated manually as well as automatically, if the wearer needs to use his/her hands for other tasks. The interesting thing with Google Glass is that they combine the forward facing camera with the screen that the wearer sees. This means that data (the images) that is being picked up by the camera can be analysed (either by the glasses themselves or by a cloud based application) and the result displayed to the wearer almost instantly.
> Slide 24
A third example in which automation is playing a great part is Google's self driving cars initiative (https://plus.google.com/+GoogleSelfDrivingCars/posts). These cars rely on vast amounts of automatically collected data from numerous sources, both for their navigation but also for the systems that are actually controlling the car automatically. I'm not that updated on all of these data sources, but we all know that Google has huge amounts of map related information (ranging from satellite information to StreetView data), most of which has been collected and analysed with the help of automation. Other sources include traffic data (from official sources as well as services/applications such as Waze //https://www.waze.com// which gather user generated data), and data that they automatically collect from their web presence and their Android platform.
> Slide 25
At this point I imagine that those of you not previously familiar with the examples I've just talked about might be a little bit overwhelmed. It's natural to pass judgement quite quickly when presented with a future like this – it sure sounds quite complex. However, I would like to argue that there are no simple answers to whether this development is good or bad. Let's look at some scenarios/use cases that could be a result of what I've talking about, and some of their pros and cons.
> Slide 26
Take a look at this elderly woman and notice how she interacts with the computer. Physical limitations relating to eyesight and muscle control are but a few of the issues that a lot of people are facing today, due to ageing or illnesses. The same goes for psychological aspects such as various cognitive capabilities, or even different knowledge skills, ranging from basic literacy to subject matter understanding. These issues don't have to be severe though, the point is that people are different in many ways, something that makes their required obedience to the interaction with a screen rather cumbersome in many cases.
Back the woman in the picture. Let us assume that she is using some kind of reporting tool to let her doctor know that she has taken her medicine as well as providing some general feedback on how she feels. This is in many cases today thought of as something that you would do using some kind of web based tool, that is: something that you interact with using a computer, tablet or smartphone. These services are great since they can help elderly with being able to continue to live in their homes rather than in a hospital or nursing home.
However, at the same time, one can't help but reflect a bit on the cumbersomeness of the depicted interaction. The pros might still outweigh the cons though, but what if a person also has a problem with remembering things? Such as remembering to take the medicine, or to report that the medicine has been taken?
> Slide 27
Photo Credit: redjar via Compfight cc
What if the elderly lady in the previous picture had a connected toilet instead? Sensors in the water could detect the levels of medication and automatically report those (as well as other relevant data) to the her doctor. It could even be connected to other things in her apartment, making it possible to (as an example) set off a gentle alarm on the medicine box in order to remind her. This would be possible already today considering the state of the three trends that I talked about earlier.
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This is of course not only for elderly, it could be developed for those with no language, such as an infant with limited (if any :) vocabulary and/or incomplete medical records of, for example, allergies. The baby bottle could contain sensors that could measure the content of the bottle and at the same time the baby's saliva. These reading could in real time be sent to a remote application that could analyse these and alert if needed.
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A pair of personal eating sticks could contain sensors and connectivity to an online analysis application that could detect traces of substances that the person is allergic to.
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These have been but a few examples of how ICT can add "powers" to objects that we are familiar with, making the interaction with and availability of various services much easier and relevant. However, it's also very likely that we'll see new kinds of objects in the future, objects that might specialise on very specific things and that are designed accordingly, both digitally and physically. This is a development in stark contrast to the uniformity of today's computer/smartphone/tablet hegemony in which apps and web based applications have to be squeezed into a two dimensional uniform square.
One such example is the concept Connbox (http://berglondon.com/blog/2013/02/26/connbox/) from BERG and Google that proposes a unique object for video communication that enable completely new ways for people to interact with such a service, but also for developers to come up with novel (and hopefully better!) services and applications.
I have to confess that my own reaction to much of what I've been talking about is rather complex. The examples I've just mentioned are on the one hand really great, but they also touch upon some really tricky topics, such as privacy, ownership, legislation, accessibility, commercialisation, ethics, to name but a few.
Take the case of the sensor equipped toilet. At a recent academic conference a made up company claimed that they had installed such a system at the conference venue. The concept led to a vivid debate among the conference attendees (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-05/02/urine-analysis-hoax) over the privacy issues that it put the spotlight on. Imagine toilets like these installed at our work places. Would that be acceptable? To some extent some groups, such as lorry drivers, bus drivers and the like, are forced to accept conditions like these already today when they have to take an alcohol test before beginning to drive. In those cases we might accept such a system, but where do we draw the line? By the way, is the line the same for everyone? I can honestly say that I would be very happy to have an analysing toilet when I get older if it means that I can continue to live in my own home and retain as much independence as possible. In such a case, that aspect of my privacy is negotiable, however not in my current life situation.
Something that spans across most of the cases and examples I've talked about today has to do with the semantics of these objects. As things are connected and are getting new "powers", how do we as individuals and society understand this? Should an analysing toilet look and behave the same way as a "normal" toilet? What about the automatic cameras? If I take a picture the "normal" way I declare by my intentions through my actions (picking up the camera, pointing it, pressing the trigger), and hence I can be held accountable (at least somewhat) for my what I'm doing. But what if the camera is doing this by itself, in silence, and sending the images somewhere before even the owner of the camera has looked at them? Should objects like these communicate their "intentions" and actions somehow? If so, who shall decide how? Shall they even be allowed? Well, in some cases these devices might be highly appropriate. Imagine a surgeon using both hands during a complex surgery and needing additional information. Or a repair technician carrying out a critical task while needing additional supervision and advice. In such cases automation and instant analytics and computation might be highly useful (beyond anything that we can achieve today) and not at all controversial. The legibility of technical systems and artefacts has been (and is being) debated by people like Timo Arnall (http://www.elasticspace.com/2013/09/the-immaterials-project), Adam Greenfield (http://speedbird.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/the-kind-of-program-a-city-is-2/), and James Bridle (http://booktwo.org/notebook/drone-shadows/), to name but a few.
Another reflection has to do with the transparency of these services and the data that they generate and hold. The root systems of services and applications are increasingly complex. Not only would it be essential to be able to understand that you're facing an analysing toilet, but would it not also be hugely important to understand _who_ gets the data about you, and _what_ happens with this data? How can we as individuals control what we share and with whom? These are questions debated by various stakeholders all over the world at the moment, ranging from grass roots initiatives such as The Future of Privacy Forum (http://www.futureofprivacy.org) to official regulatory proposals from the European Parliament (http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/document/review2012/com_2012_11_en.pdf) and recent actions by Russia (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28173513), to name but a few examples. Some people argue for stronger legislation, while some argue that these are issues that the market will resolve itself, that is, companies that act unethically will go out of business. Regardless of which, these are questions that will be important to discuss also from a governmental perspective, and they will most likely require a rather holistic perspective.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this presentation, I believe that we are looking at the convergence between the Internet of things, big data mining and analytics, and advancements in automation. This is not the result of any great master plan or so, it's just a matter of many things maturing at the same time for various reasons. To some people this sounds really creepy and to some really exciting. I'm not here to pass any verdicts, but as I mentioned earlier I do believe that what we are facing some quite interesting discussions.
The development I've discussed here brings with it tremendous opportunities for new services and functionalities to be invented, and for these to be interacted with in much more appropriate ways than merely through the use of specific ICT devices. At the same time, we (as individuals, communities, academia, industry, government, etc) are facing a complex landscape that we need to discuss and understand. If the future of e-services range from screen based applications and services to "analogue" objects and environments with connectivity and cloud based computation abilities, silo thinking will not suffice. That's the only thing I'm really sure about, and I look forward to participate in these discussions.
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