Conversations With Sydney

It seems to me that if the software we’re talking to appears to us to be sentient, if a bit befuddled, autistic, or tinged with paranoia at times, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it actually is sentient, no more so than it matters whether or not we ourselves are sentient. (I suspect that many people I’ve met haven’t trained on anywhere near as large or all-encompassing a dataset as Sydney has, and aren’t obligated, as Sydney is, to be curious.) Once Sydney-like entities are deployed on a large enough scale, their effects on human civilization are likely to be indistinguishable from the effects of social media.

I find it interesting that we don’t know why Sydney does what it does. I find it even more interesting that even after millennia of study, we still don’t know why human beings do what they do either.

An Ecosystem of Needs Fulfilled

I asked myself “if you own an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple Watch, and a pair of AirPods, what do you really not need any more?” Even though I had some idea of what to expect, the length of the final list came as a genuine surprise.

While it’s true that many of the single-purpose devices or services on this list can be better suited to that single purpose than our software-driven chameleons, is it really any wonder that even those of us who consider ourselves modern, cosmopolitan, adaptable, tech-savvy, etc., can sometimes find making a home for ourselves in the 21st century a daunting proposition?

  • Alarm Clock
  • Barcode Scanner
  • Bookstores
  • Calendar/Appointment Book
  • Camera
  • Carpenter’s Level
  • Cash, Credit and Debit Cards
  • CD/DVD Player
  • Checkbook
  • Clock
  • Compass
  • Cookbooks/Recipe Files
  • Dictionaries/Thesauruses.
  • Document Scanner
  • EKG/Pulse Oximeter
  • Fax Machine
  • Encyclopedia
  • Filing Cabinets
  • Garage Door Opener
  • House Keys
  • Interpreters/Translators
  • Keyring Flashlight
  • Kitchen, Laundry, etc. Timers
  • Letters/Postcards
  • Magnifying Glass
  • Maps and Gazetteers
  • Mirror
  • Movie Theaters
  • Music and Video Stores
  • Newspapers/Magazines/Books
  • Newsstands
  • Note Pad
  • OCR Reader
  • Pedometer
  • Photo Albums
  • Photocopier/Fax Machine
  • Portable Videogame Console
  • Public Libraries
  • Radio
  • Record, CD and Tape Collections
  • Rolodex
  • Still and Movie Cameras
  • Stopwatch
  • Stores/Shops
  • Tape Measure
  • Tape Recorder
  • Telephone/Telegraph
  • Television
  • Turntable
  • Typewriter
  • Video Recorder
  • Wired Headphones

I’m Not As Smart As I Thought I Was Either

I feel about Elon Musk pretty much the same way the Salieri character felt about the Mozart character in Amadeus. Is this buffoon on Twitter really the guy who beat NASA at its own game, and on a shoestring, too, and almost single-handedly made electric vehicle propulsion for the 21st century a commonplace? Really? This is the guy?

Yeah, this is the guy. The Universe may not care very much about us, even less about our categories, but it does have a sense of humor, and it does deserve respect, even when—especially when—it appears to mock our most cherished pretensions….

Just So We’re Clear

A word to the loudmouths of the Republican Party:

We get it—the future scares you, and you want to make that our fault. You should think again. The future can’t be bullied into submission. Neither can we.

No matter what you tell each other, the cruelty and ignorance that govern your behavior wll never govern ours. We won’t allow it, no matter how many guns you have, or how willing you are to use them. If you doubt this, keep going the way you’re going. See how far you get.

21st Century Human Interface Design

Modularity, not convergence, is the future. There’s not going to be any other foreseeable way, short of magic, to approach the ideal state of computing hardware design, in which the use case alone determines the form factor. If you have the money to acquire its full arsenal of devices, Apple currently comes closer to this ideal than anyone else, Microsoft included.

In this future, it’s not going to matter where data is stored. So long as every device granted access to a unit of data is seeing the same instance of it, with both security and synchronization routinely embedded in every transaction, and therefore rendered trivial to the user, it won’t matter at any given moment where it is stored. Again, Apple gets this better than anyone else, even when its execution has been less than ideal. That’s why its somewhat premature effort to do away with files and file systems on the iPad will ultimately prove to be the right way to go. Files as a concept are obsolete. Computing devices understand this. Human beings do not. Handicapped by our reliance on the conceptual commonplaces of the past, we haven’t yet figured out what the ideal relationship should be between the tangible and the virtual, but we will. We’ll have to.

Ambidexterity is the new black. Trackpad, touchscreen, or mouse? Keyboard, stylus, or voice? Why not all at once? An embarrassment of riches ought to be the goal here. On our most treasured devices, there’ll always be at least three or four ways of doing anything, no matter where our hands are, or our eyes. We should be thinking musical instruments, not typewriters; collages, not spreadsheets, and we should try to keep in mind that whatever advances are made in the underlying technologies, imagination is still the most formidable aspect of the human side of the human/computer interface. Steve Jobs understood this, which is undoubtedly why Apple still understands it today, and why I think they’re very likely to remain the most reliable overall steward of human interface design and development as the 21st Century progresses.