Silicon Beach 2016 – “Help before you know you need it?”

September 29, 2016

I’ve been a designer for 20 years this year and now I find myself as the author of a bloody philosophy book? Seriously? I’d Forrest Gumped my way into starting a business that does ’stuff’ with Ai and that’s changed everything I’ve worked so hard to think I knew. We really know very little when we assess what we actually know. I would definitely advocate y’all going out and messing in other peoples sandpits… knock down someone else’s sand-castles and apologise later. Be a trouble-maker!

In my book ‘Hippo – The Human Focused Digital Book’ I’ve tried to answer the questions that Ai threw at me. The fundamental ones – why, why, why? Now, I’m not one of those designers or strategists that liberally dives on the current ‘big thing’ (you know who you are) but I’ve always been a very curious person and shiny things do draw me in – classic Design Magpie-ism. I’m a Human Focused Designer, which is to say, you can shove your use-cases and functions and habit inducing neuro-witchcraft crap. I substitute lists of functions for lists of questions and the only brand or design principle I care about is “how do you want this to make you feel”. I’m interested in what makes us human. I find the term User (even though we are all digital junkies now) quite vile and I truly believe the best experiences are the ones that amplify the very best qualities of our humanity, rather than erode them.

I’m also on a mission to reduce the UK’s male suicide rate by one. Just one. A single life. Nothing hugely ambitious, just one. A bloke called Jim or George or Simon or Francois or something. Men in the UK aged 20 to 49 are now more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death. Imagine a virus we don’t fully understand, killing men in record numbers. It kills three times as many British men as women, although nothing has adequately explained why. The government confirms that while almost all other leading causes of death are being slowly eroded by medical and social progress, deaths caused by this virus are at their highest for decades. It’s just not right. Simple as that.

I had this theory that maybe we could design something using Ai to help deal with all the macho bullshit that causes the issue, purely because it’s a bit better at processing lots of data-vapour from phones than people are. So we set off to teach an Ai how to offer dudes ‘help before they know they need it’. That was when the philosophy really ate me up – Does the machine literally “understand” me? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand me? Is it “strong Ai” or is it “weak Ai”. The curiosity of solving the problem (I am a designer) drew me in and led me to a piece of technology (Ai) that might be able to fix a serious problem and suddenly I’m all philosophical.

The Philosopher John Searle rather eloquently observed that; “the appropriately programmed computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the same sense human beings have minds” which isn’t far off being a fair theory when you think about it. When my business, Nexus, started messing about with some different types of Ai that could be used to talk to men in moments of crisis, we realised there was no essential difference between the roles of the computer and the role of the professional, because when they were both set the task of counselling and supporting a man, each simply followed a program, step-by-step, producing a behaviour which is then interpreted as demonstrating intelligent conversation.

It gets even stranger – We asked 230 men to talk to our bot for a few weeks so we could study how they used it. I may have told a little porky and let half of them think it was chat controlled by a person (“like a puppet”), while the other half were told it was computer-controlled (“fully-automated”) and there was no human on the other end. The guys who thought they were talking to a computer tended to engage in less “impression management” and also displayed emotions like sadness more intensely and they also said they felt less afraid to disclose personal details about themselves than those who talked with the supposedly human-controlled program. That was never meant to happen of course. What a brilliant time to be knocking down sand-castles.

As our devices come to understand those that they serve, the need for a physical interface diminishes. Suddenly, it’s not about designing the next technological advance any more. Instead, we’re interacting in a way that’s not tied to a single device or location, but we are building a relationship with the machine that learns to understand us and help us understand us. To know thyself has been the mission of every culture, bible, philosophical school, existential dream, impressionist’s great journey. From Van Gough and Dali to Nietzsche and Hemingway, Jesus and Buddha to Mohammed and Yoda, people have studied the self, at all angles, upside down and inside out. Who am I, what am I? We have asked again and again and again. All tech is going to do is help contribute to the discussion, and in doing so it will help us realise more about who we are and what we are and what we are not. It will help us access the greater reality that Plato showed we can all reach for, if only we are prepared to stand… and leave the cave.

Moral of this rant – Being curious made me talk to a machine. When the machine answered, I understood a little bit more about myself than I ever thought possible. So don’t jump on bandwagons, that’s so passe, just keep an open mind, that’s a lot of fun. It’s helping me save a single life and it’s helped me write a book. That’s not bad now, is it?

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