Archive for the 'technology' Category

nudging in the dark

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

toilet_fly_03-blogWhat if the choices you make serve society’s and your best interests? And what if our environment more or less implicitly steers our choices to achieve this? That is what nudging is all about. Nudges alter the environment and ways in which we make choices about our daily life. Nudges are not about prohibiting certain choices, but about subtly changing the way we assess the choices at our disposal to ultimately make decisions that are in line with our own values and beliefs, and maybe even society’s best interests. As such, nudges are a small push in the right direction. But what is the right direction anyway?

The classic image of a perfectly autonomous and free person making purely rational and therefore economically optimal choices has long been abandoned by policy makers and think tanks worldwide. People make economically suboptimal choices all the time, for example concerning our health and the environment. And we’re good at it too. If the homo economicus is no longer the dominant frame in policy making, the question is what views of behavior, choice and free will have replaced it. To discover this we zoom in on the phenomenon of nudging in this blogpost. Whilst we witness the upswing of the so called governmental Nudge Units globally, we ask ourselves what nudging is actually all about? What do these nudge units do? In what ways do their nudges (aim to) influence our behavior? And if nudges guide us towards socially desirable behavior, what does socially desirable mean? Who determines this? And how far can the government go to stimulate it?


small thoughts on big data

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Big dbanksy-mural-blogata continues to create a buzz while it promises to solve a lot of society’s contemporary problems and more. There are useful websites for companies and people wanting to cash in on big data, like The Guardian’s Data Store weblog, but it is harder to find critical accounts of big data. Big data is often thought to enable us answering big questions, but it raises big questions too. So what are some of the implications of big data for society? What decisive choices, for example about our privacy, does big data evoke?

In a Dutch radio interview the scope and implications of big data for society were addressed by a few experts on the topic. Some dazzling numbers were coined. According to Wil van der Aalst, professor of informatics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, we’ve collected more data worldwide than from prehistorical times up till 2003 in the past ten minutes. Mankind has produced 90% of the available data worldwide in just the last two years. So that’s how big data is these days.


falling in love with an intelligent ‘non-being’

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Her-blogImagine falling in love with your computer. Or, to state it more precisely: your computer’s operating system.
In the movie Herdirected by Spike Jonze, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) does exactly that. [Spoiler alert]
When installing the OS on his computer, Theodore chooses it to be female and also pushes the OS to give itself a name, Samantha. The love between Theodore and Samantha indicates the start of something new for both of them, as Samantha – in fact a true tabula rasa – starts to learn about the world, at the same time programming herself and while Theodore starts to be discover that he is able to develop warm feelings for a operating system. Samantha is able to to develop and experience new feelings and emotions because of her (or: its) interactions with a human being. Her beautifully shows that discovering emotions that you did not know you were able to feel is one of the most interesting things about being in love, even if that means being in love with an inanimate ‘entity’ such as an OS.
As Theodore and Samantha fall in love, they unavoidably discover each other’s physical shortcomings and limitations too. Samantha has no body, no face, no physical form, except a voice (by Scarlett Johanssson). She tries to be human, but when she introduces a third woman into their relationship to physically satisfy Theodore’s needs, things go terribly wrong. Can we have sex with an OS through a human proxy? It seems hard. At his turn, Theodore carries with him the burden of a broken, unresolved relationship. He runs in to a wall of ignorance when he tells his former wife that he is dating an OS and she accuses him of being not able to cope with real world (‘human’) emotions. It makes him doubt the future potential of his relationship with Samantha. Will it ever become socially acceptable to have a relationship with an operating system? And is a relationship with an OS inherently inferior to a human-human relationship?
Theodore becomes  suspicious about where Samantha ‘is hanging out’ when he fails to call her via his ear plug, the sole means of communication on which their relationship depends. Imagine the panic overwhelming you if your fiancee (read: OS) suddenly doesn’t appear on your screen anymore. Where will you go? And how will we cope with loss and pain if our other half is immortal but elusive? Theodore finds out that Samantha is at the same time having a relationship with hundreds of other people. And when Theodore thinks they are talking intimately, Samantha is talking to thousands of other users at the same time. Instead of unconsciously ignoring passers by on the streets of Los Angeles, Theodore suddenly sees dozens of people being solely busy with ‘their’ OS via their ear plug and authentically looking ‘smartphone’. It raises the question how we as humans cope with feelings of jealousy, anxiety and guilt in case a OS is ‘cheating’ on us? But what does it mean that a OS is ‘cheating’ on you anyway? And how will love relationships between OS’ and humans change the ways in which humans mutually interact and love one another?
Her succeeds in implicitly raising intriguing questions about the future of love and relationships between humans but even more about love relationships between humans and ‘non-human’, yet intelligent entities. When Samantha breaks up with Theodore in the end, the question is raised how we as humans are supposed to deal with the consequences of computers’ abilities to learn and develop independently. If robots become genuinely artificially intelligent and outsmart us in time, will we still be attractive love partners for them? And will we be able to come to terms with our own mortality and physical limitations? Or will we technologically enhance ourselves to the level where we are able to meet the artificial intelligence’s demanding standards? In the end, its continuous learning capacity which enables us to fall in love with them (because it makes them responsive to our needs, funny, empathetic, curious, attentive, …), could render ourselves unattractive/obsolete for the entity itself, simply because they outsmart us in the end. It is exactly this tragedy that makes Her movie well worth seeing.


Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Like many technologies, (visually) augmented reality is moving from the environment, into the hands, on- & into the bodies of end-users. From pilots’ head-up displays, to BMW’s augmented reality windshield and Corning’s augmented windows and glass surfaces, to smartphone apps such as Layar, future envisionings of the technology become increasingly intimate.

Researchers at Washington State University (USA) and Aalto University in Helsinki (Finland) are making headway with the development of active contact lenses with embedded LED microarrays that allow pixels to be superimposed on natural vision. The lenses are powered by gigahertz-range radio-frequency energy from a transmitter nearby.
First experiments with rabbit’s eyes, showed apparently no side-effects. While current models of the lenses been limited to a few pixels, they might not immediately give you “contact lens TV” or Terminator vision, but they could already be used for example to warn the hearing-impaired of certain obstacles. Other possible uses for active lenses include biosensing (e.g. Swiss Sensimed uses them to monitor fluctuations in intraoccular pressure) and drug delivery … perhaps even a fake biometric ID of course.

Browsing the world around you like an IKEA catalog might be a vintage design groupie’s wet dream, but fast-forward and we might just as well see today’s streets filled with individuals texting away at their mobilephones replaced by streetviews of people apathically staring into the void or smiling as they see the ugliness of their surroundings superimposed by surrogate imagery (your own personal visual antidepressives).

A more direct approach, bypassing lenses altogether, is to plug into one’s visual cortex directly. More information passes there than meets the eye. Just imagine …

“And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand”
     – “Iris”, Goo Goo Dolls

Image via Prof. Baba Parvik’s Research Lab, Washington State U

drones away

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Drones are everywhere. Although UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been around for quite some time (some dating back to WW I), as miniaturization and general technology advances they are turning up everywhere. Drones are operated by the military, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists & activists, journalists, geographers, grassroots organizations, farmers,  hobbyists, but alas also criminal organizations.
Privacy advocates are worried about civil liberties, psychologists worry about the difference between fighter pilot and drone-pilot decisions, about a contextual & emotional disconnect, … yet relief organizations, construction companies etc. also see major opportunities. Technology is neutral, yet how we develop and employ it obviously is not.

neuro-electronics and cognitive computing

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

In 2001 researchers from the Max Planck Institute made a breakthrough in so-called neuro-electronics by “Interfacing a silicon chip to pairs of snail neurons connected by electrical synapses“. In the meantime we have seen progress in brain gate experiments, in implants to provide relief for a people with Parkinson’s disease, neuro-prosthetics to help memory function in Alzheimer patient, neuro-engineers over at Stanford University are trying to create a silicon version of the human cortex through neuromorphing (transistor-based neurons & neural circuits), the Human Brain Project brings together 13 universities, research institutes and hospital with the aim of building a European research facility that will simulate the human brain and exploit the results etc.

Recently, IBM researchers unveiled “a new generation of experimental computer chips designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition.”  The so-called ‘cognitive computing chips’ have been developed within the context of the DARPA funded SyNAPSE project.

“Making sense of real-time input flowing in at a dizzying rate is a Herculean task for today’s computers, but would be natural for a brain-inspired system. Using advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry, cognitive computers learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember—and learn from—the outcomes.

For example, a cognitive computing system monitoring the world’s water supply could contain a network of sensors and actuators that constantly record and report metrics such as temperature, pressure, wave height, acoustics and ocean tide, and issue tsunami warnings based on its decision making.”

See also IBM’s Dharmendra S. Modha’s keynote video on cognitive computing.

In a way – by having a chip learn ‘in situ’ in the brain or any neurological situation for that matter and transfer the learned patterns to another implantable chip – the technology can be said to point towards a wetware version of Douglas Engelbart’s notion of Intelligence Augmentation.

As it is usually the case with such breakthrough developments, people’s imagination runs wild. What if we could transfer ‘tricks’ related to how animals process sensory signals to the human? What if next-generation thieves would start stealing skills by adding something to you rather than taking something away? What if humanitarian emergency situations could benefit from these advances by ‘broadcasting skills’? What if the microchip could become fully bio-based? The past weeks we have seen everything from benevolent neuro-prosthetics to Manchurian Candidate-like scenarios pass the revue. While advanced applications might still be years off, the societal debate around the possible impacts of envisioned uses for these technologies is worth carrying out now.



Monday, June 13th, 2011

While we move from ‘touch’ to ‘gesture’, interacting with our technology directly via brainwaves seems to be up next. We have already seen games such as brainball or mindball and even wheelchairs controlled via brainwaves. Now recently, the Japanese firm Neurowear launched Necomimi (check out the video), a set of brainwave-controlled cat-ears. Concentrate and the ears stand up, relax and they lay down: a poetic way of rendering aspects of one’s state of mind visible to surrounding individuals.

It makes one wonder which cues about our state of mind, now subtly hidden below our behavioural surface, more or less beyond reach of direct sensorial detection, one would like to share with others? How would we use the information? How would it enhance the bandwidth of our communicative spectrum? Which new challenges would it pose to interpersonal relationships?

Tapping into the state of mind – e.g. being concentrated or not – is one thing, tapping into what the brainwaves are actually about another. Belgian Prof. Philippe Schyns and his team at the University of Glasgow recently succeeded in ‘reading’ brainwave information related to visual perception (see here).

On a more artistic note, do not forget to check out Christophe De Boeck’s Staalhemel, “an interactive installation with 80 steel segments suspended over the visitor’s head as he walks through the space. Tiny hammers tap rhythmical patterns on the steel plates, activated by the brainwaves of the visitor who wears a portable EEG scanner.”

big data & big cities

Monday, June 13th, 2011

The McKinsey Global Institute has recently published a report on Big Data , defined as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze”. The authors expect that big data will play a significant role in having/letting businesses and governments operate in a more efficient and qualitative way, which, amongst others, should effectuate a more thorough relation between companies, institutions and consumers/the public, leading to innovation and economic growth. At the same time researchers emphasize the complexity of the interpretation of big data: new analytic software and specialized analysts would be needed.

One may well call Geoffrey West, physicist and former president of the SantaFe Institute such a specialist. Via reasoning inspired by metabolic processes West is developing quantitative, analytic, mathemitizable, predictive frameworks in order to understand how cities – complex social systems – work exactly. One of his findings is that, unlike other physical and biological processes cities do become more efficient: the bigger the city, the (exponentially) higher its production and wages. In cities, more patents are produced, they are more innovative …

Based on these findings the growth of cities is a positive trend. From the point of view of sustainability also major advantages of living in a city can be discerned. The impact smaller towns have on the environment are relatively high. Based on this understanding the Chinese government had hundreds of thousands of people move from the rural Ordos plains to the newly buit Ordos City. In “City vs Country: The concrete jungle is greener” Shanta Barley gives some more examples of why densification of cities should be supported:

  • The carbon footprint of inhabitants becomes lower
  • The scale of waste generation becomes substantial enough to be an efficient and economical resource for energy production
  • It helps decreasing overpopulation since urban women have better access to family planning and birth control, often have better employment opportunities and have their first child later.

How would these insights and examples contribute to the ongoing debates on sustainability? One could argue that these developments support efficiency, no substantial change. By all means they clearly stem from a belief in or the need for technology to solve sustainability issues instead of finding new ways to bring more balance in the earth’s ecosystem (Medea vs. Gaia Hypothesis).

Exaggerating, one could say that West believes that the closer one would bring people together, the better the ideas will pop up. However, West also realizes that with the pace of growth of cities, it will be hard for human kind to keep being innovative…

See also the New York Times Magazine’s article A Physicist Solves the City and a conversation with Geoffrey West on entitled Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster .

america 2049

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

April 4, 2011, was the launchdate of a new ARG (alternate reality game) entitled America 2049. The game is a 12-week episodic experience blending today’s world with a possible future world. The game fuels the debate on human rights issues linked to the thin line between the enabling aspect of certain identity-related technologies and the way in which they expose civil rights to abuse from both private and government sectors.

In America 2049, the former land of the free has degenerated into the Divided States of America, where sexuality, religion, speech and culture are all controlled and restricted. On the upside: the entire population is on a drug  that inhibits aggressive behavior called SerennAide, administered automatically through the water supply. This has led to a decrease in crime rates, an increase in the population’s happiness, and has purportedly helped people to rise above their worst impulses.

Depending on where you stand, this is either a Utopian dream or an Orwellian nightmare. And it is up to you to decide where you stand: alongside the Council for American Heritage (CAH), or with Divided We Fall (DWF).”

Behind the game stands Fuel | We power change , a creative agency focussing on the non-profit sector.

A great way to render the future tangible and use an immersive experience to explore and trigger debate on certain societal issues. Fascinating also that different cultural perspectives are embedded in the devised storylines.


a touch of glass

Friday, April 8th, 2011

High-end glass (and ceramics) producer Corning recently created a nice video showing a day in the life of a family in a world of … glass. The video basically shows the world as one big touch screen (without greasy fingers). Obviously, from today’s perspective, the success of touchscreens are one big pointer to a future of ‘more’. Yet, there are also various elements equally present in today’s world that point in other directions.

One the one hand, while there is plenty of room for innovative and more natural interaction patterns – touch definitely being one of them, but also gesture of course – there are also plenty of worries abound that the increasing amounts of information, presented visually in our daily environments, are leading to situations of sensorial and cognitive overload on the user end. On the other hand, glass is not the only material able to render surfaces and the world around us interactive. Just think about all the advances in smart textiles (check out also Ryan and Francesca’s inspiring work over at CuteCircuit as well as that of Marina over at by-wire) or the skin as an interface (see also CMU’s Chris Harrison’s Skinput and a previous blogpost on “skinterfaces“).

The future of touch also goes beyond the ‘one-way’ touch that we are currently used to. Bayer Material Science and its subsidiary Artificial Muscle for example, developed electroactive polymers that enable devices and screens to provide tactile feedback. In other words, the surface might be smooth, but you feel texture.

On a sidenote … While many still associate the advent of touch screens with the launch of the iPhone and derivatives or Jeff Han‘s large-format interactive screens, the history of many of the interaction patterns involved goes back to the nineties. In 1999, for example, the former GMD-IPSI’s (now Frauenhofer-IPSI) Ambiente Lab – active in CSCW and other areas – presented their vision of workplaces of the future entitled i-LAND. Already, one could tap, swipe, even push documents from an interactive table to an interactive wall.

Image is still from the Corning video

a 100 year starship

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Spotted some time ago … NASA and DARPA have freed up some budget ($1.1 million) to envision what a 100 year starship could be like (see article). According to NASA Ames director Simon P. Worden we could be on the moons of Mars by 2030. Check out his conversation with Peter Schwartz over at the Long Now Foundation.

Considering distance and travel-time, first missions will most likely be one-way only. Transporting first settlers, implies the need to turn our destination into somewhat of an inhabitable context for human and terrestrial life. According to Prof. dr. Dave Wilkinson, we might learn from the way in which Darwin succeeded in ‘terraforming’ Ascension island in the middle of the Atlantic about 160 years ago.

From a ‘what if?’ perspective, a 100 year voyage raises interesting questions, especially when they extend beyond the technological realm: How will ‘grandchildren’ born in space, who have never seen their ‘home planet’, think about ‘their mission’? How will they relate to ‘Mother(planet) Earth’? What would be needed to keep people focussed on a multigenerational mission and live peacefully and in good physical and mental health within a confined space? How could/would their society develop? Which plants, animals and terraforming equipment would be sent along? The challenges are manifold (see ‘Mars is hard’).

Image courtesy of NASA

bionic handling assistant

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The 2010 German Future Prize – aka the Deutscher Zukunftspreis, a true prize with 250.000 euros for the winner(s) – went to Festo and Fraunhofer IPA for their Bionic Handling Assistant. Festo has a long history in biomimetic systems and also this time nature provides inspiration for their innovative design: the elephant’s trunk. Robust yet gentle, flexible yet precise.

“The plastic trunk is made of bellows structures arrayed in series, a movable hand axis and a grabber with three fingers,” explains Dr. Post, who heads up the research and development project at Festo. The structural elements are flexible and can be manipulated using compressed air. If air is pumped into the trunk, the bellows structures extend as an accordion would. This is how the high-tech trunk can be extended from 70 to 110 centimeters in length.

“The plastic trunk is made of bellows structures arrayed in series, a movable hand axis and a grabber with three fingers,” explains Dr. Post, who heads up the research and development project at Festo. The structural elements are flexible and can be manipulated using compressed air. If air is pumped into the trunk, the bellows structures extend as an accordion would. This is how the high-tech trunk can be extended from 70 to 110 centimeters in length.

The three fingers fitted to the trunk are also designed with a biological model in mind – the tail fin of a trout. The special feature: if you press these “FinGrippers” lightly with your finger, rather than retract in the direction of the pressure, they respond by moving toward the source of pressure.

The individual structural elements of the flexible arm are produced in additive manufacturing.

Via Research in Germany


Friday, September 10th, 2010

BaR2D2 serves drinks, Asimo walks the planet as man’s new best friend, NASA’s Robonaut 2 takes to space and loves to twitter. Robots continue to inspire. Several exhibitions currently on show give a glimpse of some highly creative – even poetic – robotic tinkering by artists.

Hangar311 in Mechelen (B), puts the inspiring work of Stéphane Halleux on show. Tinguely meets ToyStory in a steampunk version.

Our friends over at the Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon-les-Bains (CH) focus on the work of new media artist, author and theorist Ken Rinaldo in their exhibition entitled “Do robots dream of spring?”.

Ken Rinaldo’s art promotes communication between species. By creating immersive environments, the artist presents works to be experienced. He puts human beings in our rightful place, one that is integrated into vast systems, of which we are simultaneously the architects, the prisoners and the custodians. He shows us that our environment is an immense meeting place where worlds collide, a place of shifting borders, which he encourages us to explore.

The Tinguely Museum (in cooperation with Kunsthaus Graz) takes a closer look at artificial intelligence and robotics in their 1000m2 exhibition Robot Dreams.


sensing sentiments

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Social media, location-based services, anywhere-anytime internet access etc. offer major opportunities for mass-sampling people’s moods, sentiments and emotions.

In October of last year, Facebook started correlating status updates of their (US) users with the Gross National Happiness Index. Later, results from the UK, Canada and Australia were added to the mix. According to a recent article in Fastcompany:

“Facebook demonstrated that the vast historic record of status updates is a potential goldmine of information that could easily be raked through by sociology analysts keen to work out when it’s best to deliver an advert for particular products, or perhaps even to promote a particular political message.”

Indeed, sentiment analysis as the game is called (see also here), is not only interesting for artists and gadgeteers, but also for businesses and public institutions.

The concept is not new, in 2001, webdesign meeting point launched Moodstats, a webbased effort to enable people to share their moods. Yet, now that our physical and virtual action patterns are becoming increasingly intertwined, applications like iPhone app Glow enable anywhere, anytime, sentiment sampling.

In most current applications, people are still required to express their mood, emotional state etc. Language processing algorithms can help to analyze this data. The next step is obviously to have emotion sensing technologies (e.g. Philips Design’s VIBE) reading, interpreting and allowing us to communicate our emotions directly. Imagine your t-shirt changing color depending on how you feel, for example.

Image by Glow

drone phone home

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

The military uses them, law enforcement uses them, Wired’s Chris Anderson is crazy about them … hey, even you can fly one via your iPhone or build one of your own.From nifty creations by amateurs on to professional equipment entering the market, drones or UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) are definitely hot these days. Most will remember how Parrot sent the blogo-&-twittersphere abuzz with their iPhone-controlled ARDrone at the CES preshow event.

Equiped with a video camera (some even infrared), microphones and intelligent autopilot, the current generation of drones are already more than mere new toys for the boys. In the hands of teenagers for fun or in those of authorities for surveillance etc., some people worry about a new wave of privacy and even terroristic threats, while others see a whole range of new opportunities opened up by drones ranging from augmented reality games to lightweight logistics or environmental scanning solutions. One thing is for sure: this is gamechanging beyond the technology itself.

Image of Parrot’s ARDrone via