On Food (and my 50by50 challenge) | January 11, 2019
I’ve always been somebody who has favoured experiences over objects. The buzz you get from buying a nice watch or a fancy pair of shoes fades pretty quickly, even if the utility remains. However the memories you form from that city break to New York or that diving holiday in the Maldives last a lifetime, or at least until you memory starts to fail. Research into the field of hedonic psychology backs this up. There’s a general belief that you get more bang for your hedonic buck when buying experiences over material positions—just one of the many things our Millennial friends have got sussed.
For me, one of the best ways of capturing a strong memory is having a great meal at a top-notch restaurant with a small group of friends. There’s something amazing about the art of hospitality—of making people feel warm, welcome and comfortable. From a UX perspective, I find so many parallels in the art of hosting and the art of creating digital experiences; the sense of occasion, the focus on small details, the dedication to craft.
Of course, these meals can be pricey, so I realise what a fortunate position I find myself in. That being said, I’m often surprised nice restaurants don’t charge more; especially in comparison to some of the expensive, but un-noteworthy meals I’ve had in the past. In my experience a top end restaurant serving an eight or twelve course tasking menu will cost about twice as much as my favourite local bistro offering a starter, a main course and a desert. So for the cost of two nice but largely unmemorable meals, you get to have a three to five hour gastronomic experience that will stay with you forever. Good value hey?
Over a post conference dinner with a couple of friends last year, we bonded over our mutual love of food. Whenever we found ourselves in a new city, we’d try and hunt down an interesting restaurant to dine at, and one of the easiest ways to do this was by picking a restaurant with a Michelin Star. Now there’s a lot to be said about the Michelin star system, both for and against. Not every good restaurant has a star, and I’ve been to several “starred” restaurants which over promised and under-delivered. However if you don’t know the culinary scene in a particular city, it’s generally a safe bet.
A few years earlier I’d discovered another restaurant rating list called The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants. Rather than restaurants being reviewed by professional reviewers with a strict set of criteria, this list was compiled by industry experts; chefs, restauranteurs, food writers and critics. I’d eaten at a couple of the restaurants on this list already, and had been super impressed. I told my friends about this crazy idea I had of trying to eat at 50 of the best restaurants in the world by the age of 50. Much to my surprise and delight, they thought this was a great idea, so we’ve ended up egging each other on to undertake this task.
Over the past 12 months I’ve eaten at 7 restaurants on the top 50 list; The Clove Club, Restaurant Tim Raue, Odette, Attica, Alinea, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park. The year before I’d also eaten at The Ledbury, Septime and Lyle’s, brining MY grand total to 10. I’ve two more restaurants booked for early next year, and have a couple more I’m lining up once reservations open.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this undertaking so far, it’s it’s ability to bring folks together around food. Normally when I travel to cities for work, I’ll reach out to groups of people I know in that city to arrange brunch, dinner or drinks. However if you live in a city like New York, you’re always getting folks passing through, so it can be difficult making enough time. Especially if you have life to get on with. If, on the other hand, you’re into food and somebody says that they’ve just secured a hard to get table at a restaurant you’ve been anting to try for years, people find a way to make that happen.
I generally book a table for 4-6 people, put the word out, and see who fancies joining me. As a result the dinners are usually a mix of super interesting folks, some of whom know each other already, and some of whom don’t but really should. As such, it’s fun playing matchmaker, and seeing new friendships form.
While many of the restaurants are in easy to reach cities like London, Paris and Barcelona, a few are in more exotic or off-beat (for me anyway) locations like Shanghai, Mexico City and Lima. So another big draw is having an excuse to go and visit these places. There are also a few places like Moderna in Italy or San Sebastian in Spain which I hadn’t considered visiting before, but now I am.
As the lists changes each year, I’m not going to be able to eat at every restaurant on the list in my 50th year. However by the age of 50 I hope to have eaten at 50 amazing restaurants that were on the list the year in ate in them. Oh, and if you were interested, I’ve 4 years left to accomplish this task, so it’s doable, albeit tricky.
That’s where I need your help dear readers. If you’re a friend, happen to live in one of these cities and would like an excuse to have a nice meal, drop me a line and let’s get our dates synced up. If I don’t know you, but you’d like to take me out for a meal at one of the restaurants on this list in return for some free mentoring or advice, consider me interested; and if you’re a conference organiser arranging an event in one of these cities, we should definitely chat.
On Travel | January 2, 2019
I grew up in a pretty standard working class family. My father was a glazier while my mother looked after me and my two brothers. We lived in a nice, 3 bedroom council house, on a friendly estate. My parents worked hard to give me access to things they didn’t have as children. That meant a home full of books, weekend trips to museums, and regular holidays.
Summers were spent in the U.K. Mostly in the West Country, but occasionally we’d venture further afield; to Wales, The Lake District, and the Yorkshire Dales. I relished our family trips and felt super lucky, as few of my Friends had seen as much of the country as me.
I had one friend who’d been on holiday outside the UK. He’d had a two week trip to California and I loved hearing his stories from the land of CHiPs and Beverly Hills Cop. The huge meals, the gigantic freeways; it all sounded so exotic. However his dad had an office job and they owned their own house, so overseas travel clearly wasn’t on the horizon for me. Yet one can dream, and dream I did.
Being a child in the 80s, I grew up on a diet of James Bond and Indiana Jones. Watching these heroic figures hop from exotic country to exotic country with seeming ease. I dreamed that one day I’d be able to visit places like Hong Kong or Shanghai, but how was a kid from a council estate going to make that happen? I reasoned that the only way somebody like me would get to travel was if I ferried other people there, so I set out to become an airline pilot.
I went to Manchester University to Study Aeronautical Engineering but quickly realised that being a pilot wasn’t for me. At the time, the majority of airline pilots were ex RAF, and doing 20 years military service didn’t really appeal. British Airways took on a small number of graduate trainees, but competition was stiff, and they seemed to favour applicants from specific backgrounds. The only other option was to pay your way through training, and that wouldn’t have been possible for somebody from my background.
Fortunately I was starting to go off the idea anyway. There’s an old adage that being an airline pilot was ninety nine percent bordom, punctuated by one percent sheer terror. I also had a friend whose dad was an airline pilot and she talked openly about his drinking problems and tendency to have affairs with the cabin crew—something of an occupational hazard I later found out. Neither of these things sounded like a lot of fun.
Around the same time I met a couple of people who’d been on a gap year before University. Being one of only a handful of kids at my schools to go on to University, I hadn’t realised this was something you could even do. Hearing their stories about trips along the Mekong River and full moon parties in Thailand sparked my sense of adventure. So once University was over, I saved up some money doing low paid jobs, and went off travelling.
Looking back it’s amazing how much your environment and the people around you fix your perception of what’s possible.
That first 6-months travelling around South East Asia really opened my eyes to the wonders of the world, and the possibilities that existed. I loved experiencing different cultures and seeing how others lived. I also met people from a variety of backgrounds, opening my eyes to a range of career options I never thought possible. I was hooked.
6 months turned into a year, then two, then three. I learnt to dive in the Indian Andaman Islands, did my Dive Master on Koh Tao, and became a Dive Instructor in Phuket. I led dive expeditions on the remote islands of Indonesia, ran a dive school on Koh Phi Phi, and did a stint as a dive guide on the Great Barrier Reef. This helped fill my coffers, working the high seasons and then using the money to travel the rest of the year. It was on one such trip to Singapore that I discovered Web Design was a thing.
Arriving at the hostel late one evening, there were only two other people still awake. A British guy and a French dude in lycra who I later learned had just cycled to Singapore from Paris. We got chatting over beer and the British guy said that he was a Web Designer. At the time I didn’t know you could actually create web pages, let alone make a living from it. The British guy explained that it was super easy. All you needed to do was learn this thing called HTML and you could make tonnes of money in London. This was in the hight of the first dot on bubble, allowing my newfound friend to work for 6-months and travel the rest.
As somebody who’d always had an affinity for computers—I was the first person in my school with a ZX81 and would regularly spend my lunchtimes playing snake on the BBC
micro while everybody else played footie outside. So I set about learning web design from sites like Ask Dr Web, using cracked copies of Dreamweaver and Photoshop from coverdisks of tech magazines. The rest, you could say, is history.
Somehow I’ve managed to build a career that involves a fair amount of travel. Last year I visited Singapore, Wellington, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Chicago, Berlin, Amsterdam, Norway, Stockholm and New York for work. I’ve also visited Rome, LA, Palm Springs, Vegas, and The Maldives for pleasure. All in all I’ve had a spectacular year or travel!
This year is also shaping up to be a fun year. I have work trips to Copenhagen, Seattle, Seoul and Japan arranged for the spring. I have a couple of potential speaking engagements in India and South Africa which I’m waiting to confirm, and am tentatively planning a holiday to Ibiza, a road tip in the US, and a long weekend in Marrakesh in the second half of the year.
While I’m not a millennial, I think I have millennial sensibilities—possibly a product of growing up on the Web. For instance I’ve never been a huge fan of acquiring stuff. My movies are through Netflix, my music through Spotify and my transport (when not walking or using public transport) is through City Car Club. As such, the bulk of my disposable income is spent on renting services and buying memories, be they food, travel or live entertainment. So yes, I’m somebody who would rather have a nice brunch of avocado on toast on the weekend, then save up for a 65 inch OLED flat panel TV or statement car (I should add that this isn’t to dismiss anybody who does want to spend their money on physical possessions, it’s just not how I’m wired).
I feel incredibly privileged by all the travel I’m able to do, and can’t imagine what 12 year old me would think of the life I’ve somehow made for myself. However I’d like to think it’s everything he dreamed it would be, and more.
Breaking into the speaker circuit | August 6, 2018
As somebody who both organises and speaks at events, I’ve got a good insight into the workings of the conference circuit. This is probably why I regularly get emails from people looking for advice on breaking into the speaking circuit. So rather than repeating the same advice via email, I thought I’d write a quick article I could point people to.
First off, breaking into the speaker circuit can feel intimidating. If you look at the line up of most international conferences, they’re packed with veterans speakers from well known brands. It’s easy to feel that the speaker circuit is already locked down and there’s no way to break in. However it’s worth noting that every veteran speaker was in your shoes at some stage. In truth, audiences get bored of the same old faces pretty quickly, so conference organisers feel a huge pressure to find new speakers from diverse backgrounds. As such, conference speaking is surprisingly egalitarian, and talent rises to the top surprisingly quickly.
Conference speaking can be a lot of fun, but before you start dedicating too much time and effort becoming a speaker, it’s worth thinking about your motivations. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to speak at events, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However the most common motivations I see include:
- Having a unique specialism you want to share.
- Giving something back to the community.
- Having an excuse to learn a new skill.
- Frustration by the status quo.
- Not being able to afford to attend conferences unless you speak.
- Building up your personal brand.
- Increasing your perceived employability and finding work.
- Promoting your company or consultancy services.
- Travelling the world.
While all the above reasons are perfectly valid, focussing on the intrinsic benefits of public speaking like a desire to help people, share knowledge and to push the industry forward, will lead to a longer and more fulfilling speaking career. Conversely, if you focus on extrinsic reasons like building a person brand or landing that next job, you’re more likely to stop once those goals have been met. Either way, public speaking is incredibly rewarding, so let’s look at where to start.
I regularly get emails from people wanting to speak at one of my events. When I ask where they’ve spoken before and what they speak about, the answers are often the same; they’ve not actually spoken anywhere before, and don’t have anything specific they want to talk about (worse is when they ask you what you want them to speak about, when you have no idea what they’re actually good at). This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it seems that speaking has gone from being a means to an end, into an end in itself.
So my first piece of advice would be to think deeply about the topics you want to talk about. If you have a particular skill, passion or experience you want to share, that’s great. However there’s a misconception amongst a lot of people that you need to be an expert to speak. While knowing your topic is important, you don’t necessarily need to be the most experienced person in the Universe on your chosen subject.
There’s a strange irony that the most experienced people in a particular topic are often the worst communicators, while those relatively new to a field can be great at explaining things, because they’ve recently gone through the process of synthesising the information themselves. As such, great storytelling usually trump superior domain knowledge.
There’s no point being a great storyteller if you don’t have a good story to tell, so its worth thinking about the particular point of view you bring to the topic. Do you have recent experience in the subject matter? A project that went well of badly? A technique you’ve developed, or a perspective that’s slightly different from the norm. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about something that’s been spoken about before, as long as you’re bringing a new and interesting perspective to the conversation.
Its also worth mentioning that just because your topic have been done by other people, doesn’t mean that everybody knows the subject inside out already. There’s a tonne of new people entering our industry every day, so there’s always a market for seemingly obvious stuff. In fact, I have no problem finding people to talk about cutting edge techniques at my conferences, but I really struggle finding people to talk about foundational skills. So don’t think you have to have something unique before you start talking about it.
Another common mistake new speakers make is coming up with a new talk for every event. Public speaking is a learnt skill, so the more you do it the better you get. That means that the first time you do a talk will probably be the worst time, and as you do it more and more, you’ll get better and better. You’ll learn which parts of the talk work well, and which bits need tweaking. You’ll see where people laugh, and where they don’t, and use the feedback k to improve things the next time you speak. As such I generally find I have to do a talk three or four times before I’m happy with it.
A lot of professional speakers will have 3 talks on the go at any one time. They’ll have a talk that they’re just debuting, a talk that they’ve been doing for a while and really happy with, and a talk that was super popular a few years back, but they are slowly running down. The new talk will be reserved for smaller conferences or conferences looking for fresh material, the main talk will be for the big events looking for a surefire hit, and the older talk will usually be the one you’ll do for free at local events.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a lot of new speakers expecting to start right at the top, with the big international conferences. I’m not sure if there’s an x-factor type level of expectation here, but most of the good speakers I know started building their reputation and learning their craft by talking at small local meet-ups. After a few years they’d start speaking a local and sometimes national conferences, and only start being invited to speak at bigger international conferences after a good few years on the circuit.
This is similar to bands and comedians, who spend years learning their craft in local bars and comedy clubs, before getting the big TV spots and stadium gigs. As such, my advice would be to start small, get in loads of practice, and work up to the bigger conferences and events over time.
Public speaking can be a nerve-racking experience, and even the most experience speakers feel stressed before going on stage, In fact I have a few friends who are literally nervous wrecks in the run up to their talks, wondering why they put themselves through the stress, and swearing that they’ll never speak again. Yet the moment thay step on stage something changes, and as an audience member you’d never know the stress they were going through back stage.
A small amount of nerves are arguably a good thing, and can act as a performance enhancer. However there are lots of “tricks” that can help you combat the inevitable stress of public speaking; exercise in the morning before your talk, listening to music backstage to get in the zone, or just being quiet and peaceful before your session, in order to blank out any fear and self doubt. Whatever techniques you use, things do generally get better with time and experience.
My top tip for getting over nerves isn’t anything especially revolutionary. I just try to memorise the first few minutes of my talk, so when I get on stage I can do it confidently and eloquently. It usually takes a few minutes for the nerves to subside, and for you to hit your stride. So nailing the first few minutes, usually helps.
The other little secret is the best speakers often get coaching. Public speaking is a performance, and generally get’s better through active improvement. So training and coaching can help you structure more engaging talks, develop a good stage presence, increase your vocal range, and generally improve your delivery and confidence. So no matter what level speaker you are, whether beginner or expert, consider getting some external help.
When you’re ready to move from smaller local events to larger conferences, organisers are looking for three things, generally in this order.
- Confident speakers who are able to tell a great story.
- A really interesting topic that fits with the current zeitgeist.
- Well known speakers or speakers from well known brands, that will help sell tickets.
Mostly, conference organisers are looking for people who can demonstrate expertise, so if you are reaching out to organisers to suggest your services, you need to understand their conference, the audiences it attracts, and the topics that will be of interest to them. If you’ve been to the conference before, let them know. If you haven’t been, maybe you should consider buying a ticket this year, and then suggesting yourself as a speaker next year. It’s always more flattering as a conference organisers when the person genuinely knows the event, rather than bulk emailing a list of conferences they got off lanyard. Even worse is when the person’s assistant or PR firm reaches out, as it demonstrates that person is to busy or self important to bother reaching out directly. This anonymous shotgun attitude always gets a black mark in my book.
If you’re already an experienced speaker with a good reputation, organisers will mostly know who are are, and what you talk about. If not, you’re going to need to give them a couple of possible talk ideas, along with a video or two of you speaking. If you don’t have videos of you speaking, it’s going to make your lives a lot more difficult as the organisers want to minimise risk and be sure that you’re going to do a great job. So consider recording a version of the talk when doing a run-through for colleagues or friends. Failing that, offer to drop by the event organisers office to run the talk by them in person. Organisers get dozens of unsolicited talk requests, so you need to make their jobs as easy as possible, by demonstrating how good you are and the value you can bring to their event.
When preparing talks, I usually allocate 1-2 hours of preparation for every minute of the talk. So a 45 minute talk would take me 90 hours (roughly two weeks) to pull together. The more you do it the quicker you’ll get. A lot of novices don’t realise the time it takes to put together a great talk, and will skimp on prep. In fact I see a lot of novice speaker (and embarrassingly some experienced speakers) bragging at speaker dinners about how little effort they’ve put in the talk. Even worse is when they get up on stage and say to the audience that they were finishing their slides off the night before.
While we’re all busy people, this unpreparedness is unprofessional and disingenuous to both audiences and event producers alike. So make sure you put enough time into the preparation of your talk, and run through it at least 3 or 4 times before you present to a paying audience.
Lastly, if you are a novice speaker, asking for a fee can be tricky. It’s amazing how many conferences don’t pay their speakers, or even cover expenses. In fact some conferences still expect speakers to pay for a ticket. While it’s tempting to speak for free, in exchange for the “exposure” you’ll get, this makes it harder for other speakers. Especially ones who are having to take time off work to speak at the event, or dip into their own pockets to cover things like childcare. So when you’re approached to to speak at a conference, it’s always a good idea to ask what package they can offer, and not necessarily take “no fee” as the first answer.
Of course you then have to decide what your fee should be. Whatever it is, you’ll be lucky if the fee covers your time out of the office, let alone the time it took for you to put the talk together. One way to look at it is to assume you’ll probably give the talk a half a dozen times, and spread the cost over a a number of events based on a rough day rate. Another way to look at it is to pick a fee that a low multiple of the average ticket price. At the end of the day there’s no perfect way to set and negotiate fees. It’s something that comes with time, practice and a certain level of experience.
I hope this article has given you a few ideas for whether public speaking is right for you, and if it is, how to go about breaking into the speaking circuit. In my experience, conference speaking is a highly rewarding thing to do, and its fun being part of a smart, supportive and diverse community of speakers. So I wish you all the best on your future speaking career, and hope to see you on stage at a conference soon.
Reoccuring billing, and forgetfulness as a dark pattern | May 1, 2018
Five years ago my company was pitching for a newspaper project, so I decided to sign up for a bunch of newspaper subscriptions, including the Times. I was really impressed with the thought and consideration that had gone into both their Web offering and iPad app, so used it constantly for about a month. Once the pitch had finished, I stopped using the service, and my attention drifted elsewhere.
Today, I received a threatening email from the Times saying that my last payment hadn’t gone through and if I didn’t do something about it, they were ominously going to “take action”. I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. Had I accidentally been paying for the subscription all this time? How could I have not known? I felt stupid, I felt gullible, I felt angry and betrayed.
It would be easy to blame me for my own stupidity, and a do take a good deal of responsibility. After all, shouldn’t I be checking my bank statements each month for erroneous payments? I’m sure a lot of people do this with their personal accounts, but I genuinely struggle to find the time. It’s even harder with company accounts. With so many transactions are going though each month, it’s easy to miss small anomalies. Especially when the person managing the accounts isn’t the person making the payments. When this happens, associations easily get divorced.
For the majority of online services I use, this isn’t a problem. I’ll sign up with an email address and be sent a handy invoice or billing reminder each time money is taken. This lets me know that I’m still a subscriber, and reminds me to use the service and get the value I’m paying for.
This wasn’t the case with my Times subscription. They kept dutifully taking money from my account once a month, without informing me this was happening. Understanding that memory is fallible, it’s inevitable that people will eventually forget some of the subscriptions they’ve signed up for, and without these billing reminders, people like myself will find themselves accidentally paying for services long after they’ve stopped being useful.
It’s entirely possible that this was simply an oversight from the Times, and there was no malicious intent. However it’s interesting to think that of the two possible approaches—remind or don’t remind—the former massively favours the customer as it prevents them from forgetting subscriptions, while the latter hugely favours the company as they constantly get to extract money from people who have accidentally forgotten their subscription, and would otherwise cancel. So you can’t help but wonder whether an ambitious product manager made a deliberate decision to avoid subscription reminders, in an attempt to maximise revenue.
Even if this was a genuine oversight, and not a deliberate dark pattern, I cannot be the first person to have forgotten they were paying for a service they weren’t using. Especially with the increasingly ageing population of Times readers. As such, I suspect the customer service team must get a handful of such calls each week, if not each day.
Oh, did I mentioned that the only way to unsubscribe was by phone, despite being able to sign up online. This is another well known dark pattern. Making it super easy to subscribe to something, but relatively hard to unsubscribe. As such. I’m sure a good portion of people phoning up to unsubscribe get fed up waiting 15 to 20 minutes for an answer, decided they’d phone back another time, then dutifully forgot again.
Being a known problem, this would be a relatively simple thing to fix. For instance, you could send customers a gentle reminder on the anniversary of their subscription. That way, if customers were to forget, this would give them an opportunity to re-enguage with your service, or cancel if they no longer wanted to use you.
A more sophisticated approach would be to notice that people hadn’t logged in after a set time, like 3 months, and put peoples accounts on hold. This is a really nice approach as it shows a duty of care to your customers, while still keeping the option open that they’ll re-enguage.
Of course this all depends on having the will to make these improvements, especially if the result could mean a drop in income. So for many companies it’s just more convenient—and more profitable—to ignore these edge cases and keep taking money from people you know no longer use your service. To that end, it feels like the fallibility of human memory is a dark pattern many companies are using for their own benefit.
Norwegian A.I. Retreat | October 1, 2017
Last week I took a group of friends and colleagues over to the Norwegian Fjords for a 3 day retreat. We’d all been working hard the past year, and were feeling pretty burnt out. So everybody jumped at the chance to breath in the clean Nordic air, marvel and the beautiful surroundings, and get a sense of inspiration and perspective.
We’d booked the wonderful Juvet Hotel, a place I’ve wanted to stay ever since seeing it used as the location for Ex Machina. We needed an area of focus for the retreat, and considering the location, Artificial Intelligence seemed like the obvious choice.
Once the preserve of Science Fiction, A.I. is starting to weave its way into our lives. At the moment there’s a lot of hype and speculation; over active marketing teams trying to convince us that adding the letters “A” and “I” to a product instantaneously make it better. While that isn’t always the case, it’s helping lots of start-ups attract more investment and increase their valuation.
At the same time there is also a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt being generated by the media. Rarely a day goes by without some news story proclaiming an end of days scenario, only for that same publication to dismiss the fears as irrational a week later. It seems that if A.I is good for one thing, it’s boosting circulation.
With opinions fluctuating between utopia and dystopia, I was struggling to get an accurate view of the field. As such, one goal of the retreat was to gain a more realistic understanding of A.I. away from the media hyperbole. We did this by starting the retreat with a simple domain mapping exercise, to ensure that we all had a shared vocabulary and understood the general direction of travel.
My other hope was to bring more diversity of thought to the conversation, and break away from the usual circle of computer scientists and technocrats. Rather than domain experts, we were a group of interested parties, comprised of people from the arts, humanities, academia and design. We weren’t necessarily the people inventing this brave new world, but we would be the type of people called upon to make it palatable to the general public through story telling and design.
At the outset of most technological revolutions, the focus is understandably on the benefits it can bring. For industrial advances, these benefits are often in the form of reduced costs, increased productivity, and increased shareholder value. It’s only later that the social effects become clear.
As a group of user-centered designers and humanist technologists, it became evident that our interest lay in the effects A.I. would have on people and society as a whole, rather than the more immediate and obvious benefits to productivity and commerce. Over the course of around a dozen unconference style conversations, from brainstorming dystopian futures to discussing robot ethics, a pattern of concerns started to emerge. We’ve tried to capture the outputs of these discussions as a series of open questions, which we hope to share soon.
One big topic of discussion was the fear that A.I. and robotics may bring about large scale under-employment. Past technological revolutions have sparked similar fears, and humanity has always been able to adapt. Engines surpassed human power, production line technology automated mundane and repetitive tasks, and computers allowed people to outsource data storage and processing. Each time this has happened, we’ve be able to find new and meaningful work to replace the lost jobs, driving productivity ever forward. However could A.I. be difference? If we can finally outsource human cognition to the machine, is there anywhere left to go?
A related problem is the nature of the work we’ll end up doing as a result. A.I. has the ability to remove mundane tasks and let us focus on the fun and creative parts of our work. It also has the ability to create a generation of workers who’s sole job is to babysit machines, only stepping in when some sort of exception is thrown up. While this may be efficient, it’s not a great route to job satisfaction. As a result A.I. could very well eat into the middle of the jobs market, pushing some people up the skills ladder, and others down.
Another big problem was the realisation that as systems become more and more sophisticated, they become more difficult to understand. It’s no longer just a case of viewing source and checking the code, but also understanding the training data. If the training data is biased, because society can be biased, the results may be skewed and difficult to detect. This could result in new jobs like A.I. trainers and data bias consultants to ensure that new A.I.s are being fair with their decisions.
We briefly talked about robot skeuomorphism; how a lot of household robots are currently designed to look vaguely humanoid. This has certain benefits, such as signalling the robots capabilities to their users. If the robot has eyes, you presume it can see, if it has ears you presume it can hear, and if it has legs you assume it can walk. A lot of robots also seem to demonstrate rather childlike capabilities like big eyes and short stature, partly to communicate a level of simplicity and demonstrate that they aren’t a threat. At the moment the form is largely a consequence of engineers trying to create robots that can do similar tasks to humans by duplicating their movements. However over time I believe that robots will move away from the humanoid form and develop shapes which are better designed and more suited to their particular tasks.
We also touched on the area of ethics and morals. For instance should A.I.s be forced to adopt a human moral code, and if so, what would that actually be? If we did manage to create some form of super intelligence, would we have to grant them human-like rights, or could we still consider them a utility like a car or a toaster. If they were treated like utilities, wound’t that raise some rather uncomfortable questions?
On a slightly more mundane, but possibly more near-term scenario, should we encourage people to be polite towards A.I.s in the same way we are polite to people? Obviously the current crop of A.I.s wouldn’t really care if we say please or thank you. However by ignoring these common social behaviours, we may be baking in problems for the future. One of the attendees mentioned how they accidentally started talking to their partner like they were talking to their Alexa, while several parents noted their kids had started to behave in similar ways. Imagine a future where robots pets and helpers were common. Could we imagine a scenario where mistreating a robot pet change the way we treated actual animals? If so, would we eventually have to consider legislation to prevent robot abuse?
Obviously a lot of these questions are just thought experiments, and are a long way off at the moment. However I truly believe that when I’m old enough to need some form of home care, there’s a good chance I’ll be looked after in part by a robot. So many of these challenges may will be here In our lifetimes, and a few may arrive sooner than we think.
Of course the trip wasn’t just pondering theoretical questions. I was as much a holiday as anything else. So as well as lots of stimulating conversations over good food and slightly overpriced beer, we had plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings. This included a lovely forrest walk along King Olav’s Way, a hike up a mountain to visit a Glacier, and even a chance to see the Northern Lights. These shared experiences helped us bond as a group, while the beautiful scenery helped put things in perspective and provide the space to think.
Considering the short amount of time we had at our disposal, It’s amazing how much ground we managed to cover and how productive we felt by the end. We had started the retreat with the 20 of us sitting around discussing what we’d hoped to get out of the next two days. We finished on a similar note, explaining what we’d all taken away. Everybody had a different story to tell, but we all left with new connections, deeper friendships, a better understanding of the emerging field of A.I. and a newfound love of the Norwegian Fjords. So much so, that we’ve already booked next years trip. I for one can’t wait.
Twitter and the end of kindness | September 13, 2017
When you see somebody with spinach in their teeth, the kind thing to do is to tell them privately. If you tell them to their face, in front of a group of friends and strangers, you get the same end result; the spinach gets removed. However in doing so you bring attention to the problem, and shame the participant in the process. So what could have been an act of kindness, quickly turns into an act of cruelty and public humiliation.
There was a time, not so long ago, when you would contact a company directly if you had a problem with a product or service. Maybe the product got lost in the post or wasn’t as advertised, maybe the hotel room wasn’t as expected, or the food didn’t come up to scratch. In these situations you’d tell the waiter or manager, drop the company an email, or call customer support.
These days, when you see a problem, the first reaction is often to reach for Twitter and share your frustration with the world. With large companies this often comes from experience. We’ve all had conversations with banks, utility companies and airlines, which have gone nowhere, so we end up venting our frustration online.
While it’s easy for companies to brush private conversations under the carpet, it’s much more difficult to do in public, so we’ve quickly learned that if we take our criticisms to Twitter, there’s a better chance they will get dealt with.
I’ve had this experience myself. After several frustrated phone conversations with my airline of choice, I took my complaints to Twitter. They immediately responded, took ownership of the problem and sorted it out straight away. I’m now on some kind of airline social media watchlist (the good kind), re-enforcing the fact that if I complain on Twitter my problem will get solved faster than phoning customer services.
In order to avoid a public relations disaster, complaining on social media encourages the best customer service from a company. This is something the large companies could have avoided, by delivering consistantly great customer service through traditional channels. As this hasn’t happened, publicly shaming companies has become the go to way to ensure a good customer service.
If this stopped with large companies, or companies who you’ve experienced an irreconcilable service failure with, I wouldn’t mind. However this behaviour has become the standard behaviour with everybody now, from big companies to small companies, from celebrities to friends. Rather than contacting people directly, we’ve started using public shaming as a tool to correct behaviour.
I see it regularly on Twitter. A friend or follower tweets you to highlight some small problem. Maybe there’s a broken page on your website, a typo on your recent medium post, or you accidentally referenced the wrong user in a recent tweet.
It would be super easy to email or DM the person, but instead you post to their public timeline. Most of the time you mean well, and are simply trying to help. However by posting publicly you draw other peoples attention to the problem, forcing people to act out of shame and embarrassment rather than gratitude.
People usually post to the public timeline because it represents the least amount of effort to do a good thing. You don’t have to switch panes in your Twitter app, go hunting for their email address, or ask if they’d mind following you so you can direct message them. You can get it off your mind as quickly as possible and move on.
However sometimes it feels like there’s an ulterior motive. That there’s a small amount of joy to be had from spotting the person you’re following has done something wrong, and flagging it up in public. That you get the public perception of doing a good deed (which is always nice) while making a small but pointed statement that they’re not perfect in front of their friends. It’s as though you’ve spotted the spinach in their teeth, but decided that the kindest thing to do was to point it out loudly in a crowd, in front of a thousand of their closets friends.
Personally I’d prefer to know rather than not know, so I’m definitely not suggesting people stop pointing out these small errors and transgressions. However I think we should think twice before posting these things publicly, and if time allows, reach out to your friend or follower directly first. That way you’ll avoid accidentally embarrassing them, or making them feel that they have to act from a sense of public pressure.
More importantly it’s the kind and polite thing to do. It’s also going to make that person think more warmly of you, as you’ve done them a favour without seeking any recognition, while maintaining their dignity and public reputation at the same time.
It’s only a small behaviour nudge, but from now on I’m going to do my best to approach people directly first, whether it’s large companies, small businesses, website owners, followers or friends, when I notice something is amiss. I urge you to do the same.