found via Russell
After the EU “right to repair” should there perhaps be a “right to longevity” for connected objects, to enable them to be reanimated by open-source code and platforms once they have had their motivating spirit of software removed by the shuttering of whatever service they were originally the avatar of?
I reanimated my Little Printer last year with the help of the good folks at Nord, who in turn were able to do that because Matt Webb had open-sourced the code when BERG’s Little Printer / Bergcloud shut down.
Google just announced that they are to shutter Stadia. I was an early adopter – and have one of the quite handsome Stadia controllers. It’s a really nice games controller! Look – it even got a mini documentary about it’s design engineering presented by Baratunde Thurston!
So – as Stuart Horton says:
And let’s not stop there – let’s mandate that anything that is manufactured with atoms, but animated by software and services *must* have it’s firmware at minimum open-sourced if the service is shutting down.
Feels like a good bit of ‘endineering‘
An EU right-to-longevity might keep more atoms out of landfill by letting the bits be free.
Like a lot of folks, I’ve been messing about with the various AI image generators as they open up.
While at Google I got to play with language model work quite a bit, and we worked on a series of projects looking at AI tools as ‘thought partners’ – but mainly in the space of language with some multimodal components.
As a result perhaps – the things I find myself curious about are not so much the models or the outputs – but the interfaces to these generator systems and the way they might inspire different creative processes.
For instance – Midjourney operates through a discord chat interface – reinforcing perhaps the notion that there is a personage at the other end crafting these things and sending them back to you in a chat. I found a turn-taking dynamic underlines play and iteration – creating an initially addictive experience despite the clunkyness of the UI. It feels like an infinite game. You’re also exposed (whether you like it or not…) to what others are producing – and the prompts they are using to do so.
Dall-e and Stable Diffusion via Dreamstudio have more of a ‘traditional’ tool UI, with a canvas where the prompt is rendered, that the user can tweak with various settings and sliders. It feels (to me) less open-ended – but more tunable, more open to ‘mastery’ as a useful tool.
All three to varying extents resurface prompts and output from fellow users – creating a ‘view-source’ loop for newbies and dilettantes like me.
Gerard Serra – who we were lucky to host as an intern while I was at Google AIUX – has been working on perhaps another possibility for ‘co-working with AI’.
While this is back in the realm of LLMs and language rather than image generation, I am a fan of the approach: creating a shared canvas that humans and AI co-work on. How might this extend to image generator UI?
Back in April 2022, I was invited to speak as part of CIID’s Open Lecture series on my career so far (!) and what I’m working on now at Moixa.com.
Naturally, It ends up talking about trying to reframe the energy transition / climate emergency from a discourse of ‘sustainability’ to one of ‘abundance’ – referencing Russian physicists and Chobani yoghurt.
Thank you so much to Simona, Alie and the rest of the crew for hosting – was a great audience with a lot of old friends showing up which was lovely (not that they spared the hard questions…).
I was on vacation at the time with minimal internet, so I ended up pre-recording the talk – allowing me the novelty of being able to heckle myself in the zoom chat…
CIID Open Lecture, April 2022
Hello, it’s very nice to be “here”!
Thank you CIID for inviting me.
I’ll explain this silly title later, but for now let me introduce myself…
Simona and Alie asked me to give a little talk about my career, which sent me into a spiral of mortality and desperation of course. I’ve been doing whatever I do for a long time now. And the thing is I’m not at all sure that matters much.
I’m 50 this year, you see. I’m guessing everyone has some understanding of Moore’s Law by now – things get more powerful, cheaper and smaller every 18mo-2yrs or so. I thought about what that means for what I’ve done for the last 50 years. Basically everything I have worked on has changed a million-fold since I started working on it (not getting paid for it!)
If you’re a designer that works in, say, furniture or fashion – these effects are felt peripherally: maybe in terms of tools or techniques but not at the core of what you do. I don’t mean to pick on Barber Ogersby here, but they kind of started the same time as me. You get to do deep, good work in a framework of appreciation that doesn’t change that much. I get the sense that even this has changed radically in the last few years as well – for many good reasons.
Anyway – when I was asked to look back on work from BERG days over a decade ago, it’s hard to pretend it matters in the same way as when you did it. But perhaps it matters in different ways? I’m trying here to look for those threads and ideas which might still be useful.
In design for tech we are building on shifting (and short-circuiting) pace layers. I’ve always found it most useful to think them as connected, rather than separate. Slowly permeable cell membranes/semiconducting layers. New technology is often the wormhole or short-circuit across them.
So with that said, to BERG.
BERG was a studio formed out of a partnership between Matt Webb and Jack Schulze. Tom Armitage joined – and myself shortly after. From there we grew to a small product invention and design consultancy of about 15 folks at our largest, but always around 8-9. It was a great size – I’m still proud of the stuff we took on, and the way we did it.
One of the central tenets of BERG: All you can see of systems are surfaces. The complexity and interdependency of the modern world is not evident. And you can make choices as designers about how to handle that. Most design orthodoxy (at the time) and now is to drive towards ‘seamlessness’ – but we preferred Mark Weizer’s exhortation for ‘beautiful seams’ that would increase the legibility of systems while still making attractive and easy to engage surfaces…
Another central tenet of the studio: “What got just got cheap and boring?” We looked to mass produced toys and electronics, rather than solely to the cutting edge for inspiration. Understanding what had passed through the ‘hype curve’ of the tech scene into what Gartner called ‘the trough of disillusionment’. This felt like the primordial soup of invention.
We got called sci-fi. Design fiction. I don’t think we were Sci-fi. We were more like 18thC naturalists, trying to explain something we were in, to ourselves. think we were more Brian Arthur than Arthur C. Clarke. We didn’t want to see tech as magic.
Brian Arthur’s book “The Nature of Technology” was a huge influence on me at the time (and continues to be.) An economist and scholar of network effects, he tries to establish how and why technology evolves and builds in value. In the book he explains how diverse ‘assemblages’ of scientific and engineering phenomenon combine into new inventions. The give and take between human/cultural needs and emergent technical phenomenon felt far more compelling and inspiring than the human centred design orthodoxy at the time.
This emphasis on exploring phenomena and tech as a path to invention we referred to as ‘material exploration’ as a phase of every studio project. We led with it, privileged it in the way contemporaries emphasised user research – sometimes to our detriment! But the studio was a vehicle for this kind of curiosity – and it’s what powered it.
“Lamps” was a very material-exploration heavy project for Google Creative Lab in 2010. It was early days for the commoditisation of computer vision, and also about the time that Google Glass was announced. We pushed this work to see what it would be like to have computer vision in the world *with you* as an actor rather than privatised behind glasses.
The premise was instead of computer vision reporting back to a personal UI, it would act in the world as a kind of projected ‘smart light’, that would have agency based on your commands.
To make these experiments we had to build a rig. An example here of how the pace-layers of past design work get short-circuited. Here’s our painstaking 2010, 10x the size, cost, pain DIY version of ARKit… which would come along only a few years later.
This final piece takes the smart light idea to a ‘speculative design’ conclusion. What if we made very dumb interactive blocks that were animated with ‘smart light’ computation from the cloud… There’s a little bit of a critical thought in here, but mainly we loved how strange and beautiful this could look!
We also treated data as a material for exploration. One of the projects I’m always proudest of was Schooloscope in 2009 (one of the first BERG studio projects for Channel4 in the UK) – led by Matt Webb, Matt Brown and Tom Armitage which did a fantastic job of reframing contentious school performance data from a cold emphasis on academic performance to a much more accessible and holistic presentation of a school for parents (and kids) to access. Each school’s performance data creates an avatar based on our predisposition to interpret facial expression (after Chernoff)
Another example of play – Suwappu was an exploration for a toy/media franchise for Dentsu. Each toy has an AR environment coded to it, and weekly updates to the the storylines and interactions between them was envisaged. Again a metaverse in… reverse?
A lot of the studio work we couldn’t talk about publicly or release. I don’t think I’ve ever shown this before for instance, which was work we did for Intel looking at the ‘connected car’ and how it might relate to digital technology in cities and people’s pockets.
A lot of it was video prototyping work – provocations and anticipated directions that Intel’s advance design group could show to device and car manufacturers alike – to sell chips!
We deployed our usual bag of tools here – and came up with some interesting speculations – for instance thinking about the whole car as interface in response to the emerging trend of the time of larger and larger touchscreen UI in the car (which I still think is dangerous/wrong!!!)
Here’s another example of smart light – computer vision and projection in one product: an inspection lamp that makes the inscrutable workings of the modern car legible to the owner.
Something we wrote as part of a talk back then.
I guess we were metaverse-averse before there was a metaverse (there still isn’t a metaverse)
I left BERG in 2013 – it stopped doing consulting and for a year it continued more focussed on it’s IoT product platform ‘bergcloud’ and Little Printer product.
In 2014 it shut up shop, which was marked by some nice things like this from William Gibson. Everyone went on to great things! Apple, Microsoft – and starting innovative games studio Playdeo for instance. In my case, I went to work for Google…
So in 2013 I moved to NYC and started to work for Google Creative Lab – whom I’d first met working on the Lamps project. There I did a ton of concept and product design work which will never see the light of day (unfortunately) but also worked on a couple of things that made it out into the world.
Creative Lab was part of the marketing wing of Google rather than the engineering group – so we worked often on pieces that showed off new products or tech – and also connected to (hopefully) worthy projects out in the world.
This piece called Spacecraft For All was a kind of interactive documentary of a group looking to salvage and repurpose a late 1970s NASA probe into an open-access platform for citizen science.
It also got to show off how Chrome could combine video and webGL in what we thought was a really exciting way to explain stuff.
Another project I’m still pretty proud of from this period is Project Sunroof – a tool conceived of by google engineers working on search and maps to calculate the solar potential of a roof, and then connect people to solar installers.
We worked on the branding, interface and marketing of the service, which still exists in the USA. There were a number of other energy initiatives I worked on inside Google at the time – which was a much more curious (and hubristic!) entity back in the Larry/Sergey days – for good and for ill.
One last project from Google – by this time (2016) I’d moved from Creative Lab to Google Research, working with a group that was pioneering techniques for on-device AI. Moving the machine learning models and operations to a device gives great advantages in privacy and performance – but perhaps most notably in energy use. If you process things ‘where the action is’ rather than firing up a radio to send information back and forth from the cloud, then you save a bunch of battery power…
Clips is a little autonomous camera that has no viewfinder but is trained out of the box to recognise what humans generally like to take pictures of so you can be in the action. The ‘shutter’ button is just that – but also a ‘voting’ button – training the device on what YOU want pictures of.
Along with Clips, the ‘now playing’ audio recognition, many camera features in pixel phones and local voice recognition all came from this group. I thought of these ML-powered features not as the ‘brain-centered’ AI we think of from popular culture but more like the distributed, embodied neurons we have in our knees, stomach etc.
At the beginning of this year I left Google and went to work for Moixa. Moixa is a energy tech company that builds HW and SW to help move humanity to 100% clean energy. More about them later!
Instead of overlaying Moore’s Law on this step of my career, instead another graph of an all-together less welcome progression. This is Professor Ed Hawkin’s visualisation of how the world has warmed from 1850 to 2018.
I’ve been thinking a lot – both prior to and since joining Moixa about design’s role in helping with the transition to clean energy. And I think something that Matt Webb often talked about back in BERG days about product invention has some relevance.
And we all love a 2×2, right?
He related this story that he in turn had heard (sorry I don’t have a great scholarly citation here) about there being 4 types of product: Fear, Despair, Hope and Greed products.
Fear products are things you buy to stop terrible things happening, Despair product you have to buy – energy, toilet paper… Greed products might get you and advantage in life, or make you richer somehow (investments, MBAs…) but Hope products speak to something aspirational in us.
What might this be for energy?
You probably thought I was going to reference The ministry for the Future by KSR, but hopefully I surprised you with Family Guy! It’s creator, Seth Macfarlane went on to create the optimistic, love-letter to Star Trek called “The Orville” and has this to say:
“Dystopia is good for drama because you’re starting with a conflict: your villain is the world. Writers on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” found it very difficult to work within the confines of a world where everything was going right. They objected to it. But I think that audiences loved it. They liked to see people who got along, and who lived in a world that was a blueprint for what we might achieve, rather than a warning of what might happen to us.” – I think we can say the same for the work of design.
I’m going to read this quote from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s long but hopefully worth it.
“It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. … it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.”
I’ve been reading a lot of solar punk lately in search of such utopias. But – The absolute best vision of a desirable future I have seen in recent years has not come form a tech company, or a government – but a Yoghurt maker. This is the design of the future as a hope product.
“We worked closely with Chobani to realise their vision of a world worth fighting for. It’s not a perfect utopia, but a version of a future we can all reach if we just decide to put in the work. We love the aspiration in Chobani’s vision of the future and hope it will sow the seeds of optimism and feed our imagination for what the future could be. It’s a vision we can totally get behind. We couldn’t be more happy to be part of this campaign.” – The Line
In 1964 a physicist named Nikolai Kardashev proposed a speculative scale or typology of civilisations, based on their ability to harness energy.
Humans are currently at around .7 on the scale.
A Type I civilization is usually defined as one that can harness all the energy that reaches its home planet from its parent star (for Earth, this value is around 2×10^17 watts), which is about four orders of magnitude higher than the amount presently attained on Earth, with energy consumption at ≈2×10^13 watts as of 2020.
So, four orders of magnitude more energy is possible just from the solar potential of Earth.
A Type 1 future could be glorious. A protopia.
At Moixa we make something that we hope is a building block of something like this – solar energy storage batteries that can be networked together with software to create virtual power plants, that can replace fossil fuels. It’s one part of our mission to create 100% electric homes this decade.
The home is a place where design and desire become important for change. I hope we can make energy transition in the home something that is aspirational and accessible with good design.
I’ve also been very inspired by Saul Griffith’s book “Electrify” – please go read it at once! It points out a ton of design and product opportunity over the coming decade to move to clean, electric-powered lives.
As he says:
“I think our failure on fixing climate change is just a rhetorical failure of imagination. We haven’t been able to convince ourselves that it’s going to be great. It’s going to be great.”
– Saul Griffith
I’ll finish with a couple more quotes:
“If we can make it through the second half of this century, there’s a very good chance that what we’ll end up with is a really wonderful world”
“An adequate life provided for all living beings is something the planet can still do; it has sufficient resources, and the sun provides enough energy. There is a sufficiency, in other words; adequacy for all is not physically impossible. It won’t be easy to arrange, obviously, because it would be a total civilizational project, involving technologies, systems, and power dynamics; but it is possible. This description of the situation may not remain true for too many more years, but while it does, since we can create a sustainable civilization, we should. If dystopia helps to scare us into working harder on that project, which maybe it does, then fine: dystopia. But always in service to the main project, which is utopia.”
Kim Stanley Robinson
Was interviewed recently by Anastasiia Mozghova for Google ATAP’s twitter feed, where it’s being published as a thread in two parts (part one here).
It centred around ambient computing and work I’ve been involved in around that subject in the past – particularly looking at notions of ‘social grace’ in computing.
This was a concept we discussed a lot in relation to Soli, the radar sensor that Google ATAP invented. I was involved in that project a little at Creative Lab, then more peripherally still (as kind of a cheerleader if anything) at Google Research.
That concept of social grace, for me, begins in the writing of Mark Weiser and continues amplified in Adam Greenfield‘s “Everywhere” – which still has some very relevant nuggets in it, IMHO, for a book on technology written in 2006 (16 years ago at time of writing!)
I also mention another classic – which is fast coming up on it’s 20th anniversary (next year?) – Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things.
Its eco-centric vision of ‘spimes‘ rhymes (sorry) with the current hype around web3, tokenisation, etc etc – but while that is obsessed with financialisation, Shaping Things instead hints at using data sousveillance means toward resource responsibility, circularity and accountability ends in design and manufacture.
Time for a second edition?
Some of us know what we want: private sufficiency, public luxury, doughnut economics, participatory democracy and an ecological civilisation. None of these are bigger asks than those the billionaire press has made and largely achieved: the neoliberal revolution that has swept away effective governance, effective taxation of the rich, effective restraints on the power of business and oligarchs and, increasingly, effective democracy.
So let’s break our own silence. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and others by pretending that small measures deliver major change. Let’s abandon the timidity and tokenism. Let’s stop bringing buckets of water when only fire engines will do.George Monbiot, The Guardian, 18th July 2022
“Private sufficiency, public luxury” – I can get behind that. A dream of equitable abundance. Wales recorded it’s hottest ever temperature yesterday. 37.1ºC. Fire engines are needed, indeed.
Well, I had planned to post something about this sooner, but have been… busy.
At the beginning of 2022, after almost 9 years at Google I left and took on a new role as Principal Designer at Moixa…
Back to April 2013 – I move to NYC from London and join Creative Lab… One of the first things I work on is an amazingly ambitious project for Larry Page (remember him?) in what was then Google.org – to radically remake the world’s electricity grid for a zero-carbon future.
It gets a little mention here in a long article about Google’s newly opened Bayview building.
Called ‘Bottom-Up Grid’ or ‘BUG’ it aimed to make electricity infrastructure more like the internet – able to flexibly store, route and reroute power, making it far easier for renewables to scale.
I’m making it up as I go along (which is what design is, remember?), with an awesome gang of talented people: creating speculative designs, dynamic simulations and infoviz, physical models, science-fair-like exhibitions to convince important people in nondescript buildings in mountain view.
HOLYCRAPHOLYCRAP THAT’S LARRY PAGE. MAYBE WE *CAN* REMAKE THE ELECTRICITY GRID FOR THE 21stC!!!!!
He asks the very, very smart team we’re working with lots of questions including… how you might be able to cook pasta more quickly with high voltage.
But he gives it the nod.
The project continues for a while… until it gets a smaller focus, becomes a pilot internally, quietly sunsets. I went on with the wonderful Creative Lab teams to do many similar fantastic projects with Google Access & Energy which – sadly no longer exists now that we really need it…
Late 2021: I’ve been back in London for about 5 years, working in Google Research and having a lot of fun with a bunch of studios – imagining what an alternate decentralised Google might be in future with private, personal AI for everyone – but BUG still… bugs me…
I’d installed a solar & battery system to my home in 2018 from a UK startup called Moixa.
It was the nearest thing to BUG I could find on the market: harvesting what energy you can from the UK sunshine (!), then storing it in a battery and sharing using innovative networking software…
And then… I saw they were hiring for a Principal Designer.
So… I figured I needed to go for it.
At Moixa we make something that we hope is a building block of something like this – solar energy storage batteries that can be networked together with software to create virtual power plants, that can replace fossil fuels.
It’s one part of our mission to create 100% electric homes this decade.
The home is a place where design and desire become important for creating change and impact in the climate fight.
I hope we can make energy transition in the home something that is aspirational and accessible with good design.
Real-world RL: DeepMind controls a fusion reactor:From Jack Clark’s Import AI Newsletter
…The era of the centaur scientist cometh…
DeepMind researchers have trained a reinforcement learning agent to shape the distribution of plasma in a Tokamak fusion reactor. This requires training an agent that “can manipulate the magnetic field through a precise control of several coils that are magnetically coupled to the plasma to achieve the desired plasma current, position, and shape”. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it’s extremely complicated. The task is akin to being an octopus and needing to precisely shape a tube of clay that’s rotating at speeds faster than you can comprehend, and to never tear or destabilize the clay.
When trying to understand the interactions of non-human organisms, it is easy to flip between these two perspectives: that of the inanimate behaviour of pre-programmed robots on the one hand, and that of rich, lived, human experience on the other. Framed as brainless organisms, lacking the basic apparatus required to have even a simple kind of ‘experience’, fungal interactions are no more than automatic responses to a series of biochemical triggers. Yet the mycelium of truffle fungi, like that of most fungal species, actively senses and responds to its surroundings in unpredictable ways. Their hyphae are chemically irritable, responsive, excitable. It is this ability to interpret the chemical emissions of others that allows fungi to negotiate a series of complex trading relationships with trees; to knead away at stores of nutrients in the soil; to have sex; to hunt; or to fend off attackers. Anthropomorphism is usually thought of as an illusion that arises like a blister in soft human minds: untrained, undisciplined, unhardened. There are good reasons for this: when we humanise the world, we may prevent ourselves from understanding the lives of other organisms on their own terms. But are there things this stance might lead us to pass over – or forget to notice? The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of the Great Plains region of the United States, observes that the indigenous Potawatomi language is rich in verb forms that attribute aliveness to the more-than-human world. The word for hill, for example, is a verb: ‘to be a hill’. Hills are always in the process of hilling, they are actively being hills. Equipped with this ‘grammar of animacy’, it is possible to talk about the life of other organisms without either reducing them to an ‘it’, or borrowing concepts traditionally reserved for humans. By contrast, in English, writes Kimmerer, there is no way to recognise the ‘simple existence of another living being’. If you’re not a human subject, by default you’re an inanimate object: an ‘it’, a ‘mere thing’. If you repurpose a human concept to help make sense of the life of a non-human organism, you’ve tumbled into the trap of anthropomorphism. Use ‘it’, and you’ve objectified the organism, and fallen into a different kind of trap.Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Hills are always in the process of hilling, they are actively being hills.