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#432311 Everyone Is Talking About AI—But Do ...

In 2017, artificial intelligence attracted $12 billion of VC investment. We are only beginning to discover the usefulness of AI applications. Amazon recently unveiled a brick-and-mortar grocery store that has successfully supplanted cashiers and checkout lines with computer vision, sensors, and deep learning. Between the investment, the press coverage, and the dramatic innovation, “AI” has become a hot buzzword. But does it even exist yet?

At the World Economic Forum Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese venture capitalist and the founding president of Google China, remarked, “I think it’s tempting for every entrepreneur to package his or her company as an AI company, and it’s tempting for every VC to want to say ‘I’m an AI investor.’” He then observed that some of these AI bubbles could burst by the end of 2018, referring specifically to “the startups that made up a story that isn’t fulfillable, and fooled VCs into investing because they don’t know better.”

However, Dr. Lee firmly believes AI will continue to progress and will take many jobs away from workers. So, what is the difference between legitimate AI, with all of its pros and cons, and a made-up story?

If you parse through just a few stories that are allegedly about AI, you’ll quickly discover significant variation in how people define it, with a blurred line between emulated intelligence and machine learning applications.

I spoke to experts in the field of AI to try to find consensus, but the very question opens up more questions. For instance, when is it important to be accurate to a term’s original definition, and when does that commitment to accuracy amount to the splitting of hairs? It isn’t obvious, and hype is oftentimes the enemy of nuance. Additionally, there is now a vested interest in that hype—$12 billion, to be precise.

This conversation is also relevant because world-renowned thought leaders have been publicly debating the dangers posed by AI. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested that naysayers who attempt to “drum up these doomsday scenarios” are being negative and irresponsible. On Twitter, business magnate and OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk countered that Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject is limited. In February, Elon Musk engaged again in a similar exchange with Harvard professor Steven Pinker. Musk tweeted that Pinker doesn’t understand the difference between functional/narrow AI and general AI.

Given the fears surrounding this technology, it’s important for the public to clearly understand the distinctions between different levels of AI so that they can realistically assess the potential threats and benefits.

As Smart As a Human?
Erik Cambria, an expert in the field of natural language processing, told me, “Nobody is doing AI today and everybody is saying that they do AI because it’s a cool and sexy buzzword. It was the same with ‘big data’ a few years ago.”

Cambria mentioned that AI, as a term, originally referenced the emulation of human intelligence. “And there is nothing today that is even barely as intelligent as the most stupid human being on Earth. So, in a strict sense, no one is doing AI yet, for the simple fact that we don’t know how the human brain works,” he said.

He added that the term “AI” is often used in reference to powerful tools for data classification. These tools are impressive, but they’re on a totally different spectrum than human cognition. Additionally, Cambria has noticed people claiming that neural networks are part of the new wave of AI. This is bizarre to him because that technology already existed fifty years ago.

However, technologists no longer need to perform the feature extraction by themselves. They also have access to greater computing power. All of these advancements are welcomed, but it is perhaps dishonest to suggest that machines have emulated the intricacies of our cognitive processes.

“Companies are just looking at tricks to create a behavior that looks like intelligence but that is not real intelligence, it’s just a mirror of intelligence. These are expert systems that are maybe very good in a specific domain, but very stupid in other domains,” he said.

This mimicry of intelligence has inspired the public imagination. Domain-specific systems have delivered value in a wide range of industries. But those benefits have not lifted the cloud of confusion.

Assisted, Augmented, or Autonomous
When it comes to matters of scientific integrity, the issue of accurate definitions isn’t a peripheral matter. In a 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” In that same speech, Feynman also said, “You should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist.” He opined that scientists should bend over backwards to show how they could be wrong. “If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

In the case of AI, this might mean that professional scientists have an obligation to clearly state that they are developing extremely powerful, controversial, profitable, and even dangerous tools, which do not constitute intelligence in any familiar or comprehensive sense.

The term “AI” may have become overhyped and confused, but there are already some efforts underway to provide clarity. A recent PwC report drew a distinction between “assisted intelligence,” “augmented intelligence,” and “autonomous intelligence.” Assisted intelligence is demonstrated by the GPS navigation programs prevalent in cars today. Augmented intelligence “enables people and organizations to do things they couldn’t otherwise do.” And autonomous intelligence “establishes machines that act on their own,” such as autonomous vehicles.

Roman Yampolskiy is an AI safety researcher who wrote the book “Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach.” I asked him whether the broad and differing meanings might present difficulties for legislators attempting to regulate AI.

Yampolskiy explained, “Intelligence (artificial or natural) comes on a continuum and so do potential problems with such technology. We typically refer to AI which one day will have the full spectrum of human capabilities as artificial general intelligence (AGI) to avoid some confusion. Beyond that point it becomes superintelligence. What we have today and what is frequently used in business is narrow AI. Regulating anything is hard, technology is no exception. The problem is not with terminology but with complexity of such systems even at the current level.”

When asked if people should fear AI systems, Dr. Yampolskiy commented, “Since capability comes on a continuum, so do problems associated with each level of capability.” He mentioned that accidents are already reported with AI-enabled products, and as the technology advances further, the impact could spread beyond privacy concerns or technological unemployment. These concerns about the real-world effects of AI will likely take precedence over dictionary-minded quibbles. However, the issue is also about honesty versus deception.

Is This Buzzword All Buzzed Out?
Finally, I directed my questions towards a company that is actively marketing an “AI Virtual Assistant.” Carl Landers, the CMO at Conversica, acknowledged that there are a multitude of explanations for what AI is and isn’t.

He said, “My definition of AI is technology innovation that helps solve a business problem. I’m really not interested in talking about the theoretical ‘can we get machines to think like humans?’ It’s a nice conversation, but I’m trying to solve a practical business problem.”

I asked him if AI is a buzzword that inspires publicity and attracts clients. According to Landers, this was certainly true three years ago, but those effects have already started to wane. Many companies now claim to have AI in their products, so it’s less of a differentiator. However, there is still a specific intention behind the word. Landers hopes to convey that previously impossible things are now possible. “There’s something new here that you haven’t seen before, that you haven’t heard of before,” he said.

According to Brian Decker, founder of Encom Lab, machine learning algorithms only work to satisfy their preexisting programming, not out of an interior drive for better understanding. Therefore, he views AI as an entirely semantic argument.

Decker stated, “A marketing exec will claim a photodiode controlled porch light has AI because it ‘knows when it is dark outside,’ while a good hardware engineer will point out that not one bit in a register in the entire history of computing has ever changed unless directed to do so according to the logic of preexisting programming.”

Although it’s important for everyone to be on the same page regarding specifics and underlying meaning, AI-powered products are already powering past these debates by creating immediate value for humans. And ultimately, humans care more about value than they do about semantic distinctions. In an interview with Quartz, Kai-Fu Lee revealed that algorithmic trading systems have already given him an 8X return over his private banking investments. “I don’t trade with humans anymore,” he said.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432271 Your Shopping Experience Is on the Verge ...

Exponential technologies (AI, VR, 3D printing, and networks) are radically reshaping traditional retail.

E-commerce giants (Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba) are digitizing the retail industry, riding the exponential growth of computation.

Many brick-and-mortar stores have already gone bankrupt, or migrated their operations online.

Massive change is occurring in this arena.

For those “real-life stores” that survive, an evolution is taking place from a product-centric mentality to an experience-based business model by leveraging AI, VR/AR, and 3D printing.

Let’s dive in.

E-Commerce Trends
Last year, 3.8 billion people were connected online. By 2024, thanks to 5G, stratospheric and space-based satellites, we will grow to 8 billion people online, each with megabit to gigabit connection speeds.

These 4.2 billion new digital consumers will begin buying things online, a potential bonanza for the e-commerce world.

At the same time, entrepreneurs seeking to service these four-billion-plus new consumers can now skip the costly steps of procuring retail space and hiring sales clerks.

Today, thanks to global connectivity, contract production, and turnkey pack-and-ship logistics, an entrepreneur can go from an idea to building and scaling a multimillion-dollar business from anywhere in the world in record time.

And while e-commerce sales have been exploding (growing from $34 billion in Q1 2009 to $115 billion in Q3 2017), e-commerce only accounted for about 10 percent of total retail sales in 2017.

In 2016, global online sales totaled $1.8 trillion. Remarkably, this $1.8 trillion was spent by only 1.5 billion people — a mere 20 percent of Earth’s global population that year.

There’s plenty more room for digital disruption.

AI and the Retail Experience
For the business owner, AI will demonetize e-commerce operations with automated customer service, ultra-accurate supply chain modeling, marketing content generation, and advertising.

In the case of customer service, imagine an AI that is trained by every customer interaction, learns how to answer any consumer question perfectly, and offers feedback to product designers and company owners as a result.

Facebook’s handover protocol allows live customer service representatives and language-learning bots to work within the same Facebook Messenger conversation.

Taking it one step further, imagine an AI that is empathic to a consumer’s frustration, that can take any amount of abuse and come back with a smile every time. As one example, meet Ava. “Ava is a virtual customer service agent, to bring a whole new level of personalization and brand experience to that customer experience on a day-to-day basis,” says Greg Cross, CEO of Ava’s creator, an Austrian company called Soul Machines.

Predictive modeling and machine learning are also optimizing product ordering and the supply chain process. For example, Skubana, a platform for online sellers, leverages data analytics to provide entrepreneurs constant product performance feedback and maintain optimal warehouse stock levels.

Blockchain is set to follow suit in the retail space. ShipChain and Ambrosus plan to introduce transparency and trust into shipping and production, further reducing costs for entrepreneurs and consumers.

Meanwhile, for consumers, personal shopping assistants are shifting the psychology of the standard shopping experience.

Amazon’s Alexa marks an important user interface moment in this regard.

Alexa is in her infancy with voice search and vocal controls for smart homes. Already, Amazon’s Alexa users, on average, spent more on Amazon.com when purchasing than standard Amazon Prime customers — $1,700 versus $1,400.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the future combination of virtual reality shopping, coupled with a personalized, AI-enabled fashion advisor will make finding, selecting, and ordering products fast and painless for consumers.

But let’s take it one step further.

Imagine a future in which your personal AI shopper knows your desires better than you do. Possible? I think so. After all, our future AIs will follow us, watch us, and observe our interactions — including how long we glance at objects, our facial expressions, and much more.

In this future, shopping might be as easy as saying, “Buy me a new outfit for Saturday night’s dinner party,” followed by a surprise-and-delight moment in which the outfit that arrives is perfect.

In this future world of AI-enabled shopping, one of the most disruptive implications is that advertising is now dead.

In a world where an AI is buying my stuff, and I’m no longer in the decision loop, why would a big brand ever waste money on a Super Bowl advertisement?

The dematerialization, demonetization, and democratization of personalized shopping has only just begun.

The In-Store Experience: Experiential Retailing
In 2017, over 6,700 brick-and-mortar retail stores closed their doors, surpassing the former record year for store closures set in 2008 during the financial crisis. Regardless, business is still booming.

As shoppers seek the convenience of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are tapping into the power of the experience economy.

Rather than focusing on the practicality of the products they buy, consumers are instead seeking out the experience of going shopping.

The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and computation are exponentially improving the in-person consumer experience.

As AI dominates curated online shopping, AI and data analytics tools are also empowering real-life store owners to optimize staffing, marketing strategies, customer relationship management, and inventory logistics.

In the short term,retail store locations will serve as the next big user interface for production 3D printing (custom 3D printed clothes at the Ministry of Supply), virtual and augmented reality (DIY skills clinics), and the Internet of Things (checkout-less shopping).

In the long term,we’ll see how our desire for enhanced productivity and seamless consumption balances with our preference for enjoyable real-life consumer experiences — all of which will be driven by exponential technologies.

One thing is certain: the nominal shopping experience is on the verge of a major transformation.

Implications
The convergence of exponential technologies has already revamped how and where we shop, how we use our time, and how much we pay.

Twenty years ago, Amazon showed us how the web could offer each of us the long tail of available reading material, and since then, the world of e-commerce has exploded.

And yet we still haven’t experienced the cost savings coming our way from drone delivery, the Internet of Things, tokenized ecosystems, the impact of truly powerful AI, or even the other major applications for 3D printing and AR/VR.

Perhaps nothing will be more transformed than today’s $20 trillion retail sector.

Hold on, stay tuned, and get your AI-enabled cryptocurrency ready.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432249 New Malicious AI Report Outlines Biggest ...

Everyone’s talking about deep fakes: audio-visual imitations of people, generated by increasingly powerful neural networks, that will soon be indistinguishable from the real thing. Politicians are regularly laid low by scandals that arise from audio-visual recordings. Try watching the footage that could be created of Barack Obama from his speeches, and the Lyrebird impersonations. You could easily, today or in the very near future, create a forgery that might be indistinguishable from the real thing. What would that do to politics?

Once the internet is flooded with plausible-seeming tapes and recordings of this sort, how are we going to decide what’s real and what isn’t? Democracy, and our ability to counteract threats, is already threatened by a lack of agreement on the facts. Once you can’t believe the evidence of your senses anymore, we’re in serious trouble. Ultimately, you can dream up all kinds of utterly terrifying possibilities for these deep fakes, from fake news to blackmail.

How to solve the problem? Some have suggested that media websites like Facebook or Twitter should carry software that probes every video to see if it’s a deep fake or not and labels the fakes. But this will prove computationally intensive. Plus, imagine a case where we have such a system, and a fake is “verified as real” by news media algorithms that have been fooled by clever hackers.

The other alternative is even more dystopian: you can prove something isn’t true simply by always having an alibi. Lawfare describes a “solution” where those concerned about deep fakes have all of their movements and interactions recorded. So to avoid being blackmailed or having your reputation ruined, you just consent to some company engaging in 24/7 surveillance of everything you say or do and having total power over that information. What could possibly go wrong?

The point is, in the same way that you don’t need human-level, general AI or humanoid robotics to create systems that can cause disruption in the world of work, you also don’t need a general intelligence to threaten security and wreak havoc on society. Andrew Ng, AI researcher, says that worrying about the risks from superintelligent AI is like “worrying about overpopulation on Mars.” There are clearly risks that arise even from the simple algorithms we have today.

The looming issue of deep fakes is just one of the threats considered by the new malicious AI report, which has co-authors from the Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (among other organizations.) They limit their focus to the technologies of the next five years.

Some of the concerns the report explores are enhancements to familiar threats.

Automated hacking can get better, smarter, and algorithms can adapt to changing security protocols. “Phishing emails,” where people are scammed by impersonating someone they trust or an official organization, could be generated en masse and made more realistic by scraping data from social media. Standard phishing works by sending such a great volume of emails that even a very low success rate can be profitable. Spear phishing aims at specific targets by impersonating family members, but can be labor intensive. If AI algorithms enable every phishing scam to become sharper in this way, more people are going to get gouged.

Then there are novel threats that come from our own increasing use of and dependence on artificial intelligence to make decisions.

These algorithms may be smart in some ways, but as any human knows, computers are utterly lacking in common sense; they can be fooled. A rather scary application is adversarial examples. Machine learning algorithms are often used for image recognition. But it’s possible, if you know a little about how the algorithm is structured, to construct the perfect level of noise to add to an image, and fool the machine. Two images can be almost completely indistinguishable to the human eye. But by adding some cleverly-calculated noise, the hackers can fool the algorithm into thinking an image of a panda is really an image of a gibbon (in the OpenAI example). Research conducted by OpenAI demonstrates that you can fool algorithms even by printing out examples on stickers.

Now imagine that instead of tricking a computer into thinking that a panda is actually a gibbon, you fool it into thinking that a stop sign isn’t there, or that the back of someone’s car is really a nice open stretch of road. In the adversarial example case, the images are almost indistinguishable to humans. By the time anyone notices the road sign has been “hacked,” it could already be too late.

As the OpenAI foundation freely admits, worrying about whether we’d be able to tame a superintelligent AI is a hard problem. It looks all the more difficult when you realize some of our best algorithms can be fooled by stickers; even “modern simple algorithms can behave in ways we do not intend.”

There are ways around this approach.

Adversarial training can generate lots of adversarial examples and explicitly train the algorithm not to be fooled by them—but it’s costly in terms of time and computation, and puts you in an arms race with hackers. Many strategies for defending against adversarial examples haven’t proved adaptive enough; correcting against vulnerabilities one at a time is too slow. Moreover, it demonstrates a point that can be lost in the AI hype: algorithms can be fooled in ways we didn’t anticipate. If we don’t learn about these vulnerabilities until the algorithms are everywhere, serious disruption can occur. And no matter how careful you are, some vulnerabilities are likely to remain to be exploited, even if it takes years to find them.

Just look at the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, which weren’t widely known about for more than 20 years but could enable hackers to steal personal information. Ultimately, the more blind faith we put into algorithms and computers—without understanding the opaque inner mechanics of how they work—the more vulnerable we will be to these forms of attack. And, as China dreams of using AI to predict crimes and enhance the police force, the potential for unjust arrests can only increase.

This is before you get into the truly nightmarish territory of “killer robots”—not the Terminator, but instead autonomous or consumer drones which could potentially be weaponized by bad actors and used to conduct attacks remotely. Some reports have indicated that terrorist organizations are already trying to do this.

As with any form of technology, new powers for humanity come with new risks. And, as with any form of technology, closing Pandora’s box will prove very difficult.

Somewhere between the excessively hyped prospects of AI that will do everything for us and AI that will destroy the world lies reality: a complex, ever-changing set of risks and rewards. The writers of the malicious AI report note that one of their key motivations is ensuring that the benefits of new technology can be delivered to people as quickly, but as safely, as possible. In the rush to exploit the potential for algorithms and create 21st-century infrastructure, we must ensure we’re not building in new dangers.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432193 Are ‘You’ Just Inside Your Skin or ...

In November 2017, a gunman entered a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas, where he killed 26 people and wounded 20 others. He escaped in his car, with police and residents in hot pursuit, before losing control of the vehicle and flipping it into a ditch. When the police got to the car, he was dead. The episode is horrifying enough without its unsettling epilogue. In the course of their investigations, the FBI reportedly pressed the gunman’s finger to the fingerprint-recognition feature on his iPhone in an attempt to unlock it. Regardless of who’s affected, it’s disquieting to think of the police using a corpse to break into someone’s digital afterlife.

Most democratic constitutions shield us from unwanted intrusions into our brains and bodies. They also enshrine our entitlement to freedom of thought and mental privacy. That’s why neurochemical drugs that interfere with cognitive functioning can’t be administered against a person’s will unless there’s a clear medical justification. Similarly, according to scholarly opinion, law-enforcement officials can’t compel someone to take a lie-detector test, because that would be an invasion of privacy and a violation of the right to remain silent.

But in the present era of ubiquitous technology, philosophers are beginning to ask whether biological anatomy really captures the entirety of who we are. Given the role they play in our lives, do our devices deserve the same protections as our brains and bodies?

After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself—and all this dating back years.

In 2014, the United States Supreme Court used this observation to justify the decision that police must obtain a warrant before rummaging through our smartphones. These devices “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” as Chief Justice John Roberts observed in his written opinion.

The Chief Justice probably wasn’t making a metaphysical point—but the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers were when they argued in “The Extended Mind” (1998) that technology is actually part of us. According to traditional cognitive science, “thinking” is a process of symbol manipulation or neural computation, which gets carried out by the brain. Clark and Chalmers broadly accept this computational theory of mind, but claim that tools can become seamlessly integrated into how we think. Objects such as smartphones or notepads are often just as functionally essential to our cognition as the synapses firing in our heads. They augment and extend our minds by increasing our cognitive power and freeing up internal resources.

If accepted, the extended mind thesis threatens widespread cultural assumptions about the inviolate nature of thought, which sits at the heart of most legal and social norms. As the US Supreme Court declared in 1942: “freedom to think is absolute of its own nature; the most tyrannical government is powerless to control the inward workings of the mind.” This view has its origins in thinkers such as John Locke and René Descartes, who argued that the human soul is locked in a physical body, but that our thoughts exist in an immaterial world, inaccessible to other people. One’s inner life thus needs protecting only when it is externalized, such as through speech. Many researchers in cognitive science still cling to this Cartesian conception—only, now, the private realm of thought coincides with activity in the brain.

But today’s legal institutions are straining against this narrow concept of the mind. They are trying to come to grips with how technology is changing what it means to be human, and to devise new normative boundaries to cope with this reality. Justice Roberts might not have known about the idea of the extended mind, but it supports his wry observation that smartphones have become part of our body. If our minds now encompass our phones, we are essentially cyborgs: part-biology, part-technology. Given how our smartphones have taken over what were once functions of our brains—remembering dates, phone numbers, addresses—perhaps the data they contain should be treated on a par with the information we hold in our heads. So if the law aims to protect mental privacy, its boundaries would need to be pushed outwards to give our cyborg anatomy the same protections as our brains.

This line of reasoning leads to some potentially radical conclusions. Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch. Similarly, one might argue that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of “extended” assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property. If your memories are erased because someone attacks you with a club, a court would have no trouble characterizing the episode as a violent incident. So if someone breaks your smartphone and wipes its contents, perhaps the perpetrator should be punished as they would be if they had caused a head trauma.

The extended mind thesis also challenges the law’s role in protecting both the content and the means of thought—that is, shielding what and how we think from undue influence. Regulation bars non-consensual interference in our neurochemistry (for example, through drugs), because that meddles with the contents of our mind. But if cognition encompasses devices, then arguably they should be subject to the same prohibitions. Perhaps some of the techniques that advertisers use to hijack our attention online, to nudge our decision-making or manipulate search results, should count as intrusions on our cognitive process. Similarly, in areas where the law protects the means of thought, it might need to guarantee access to tools such as smartphones—in the same way that freedom of expression protects people’s right not only to write or speak, but also to use computers and disseminate speech over the internet.

The courts are still some way from arriving at such decisions. Besides the headline-making cases of mass shooters, there are thousands of instances each year in which police authorities try to get access to encrypted devices. Although the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution protects individuals’ right to remain silent (and therefore not give up a passcode), judges in several states have ruled that police can forcibly use fingerprints to unlock a user’s phone. (With the new facial-recognition feature on the iPhone X, police might only need to get an unwitting user to look at her phone.) These decisions reflect the traditional concept that the rights and freedoms of an individual end at the skin.

But the concept of personal rights and freedoms that guides our legal institutions is outdated. It is built on a model of a free individual who enjoys an untouchable inner life. Now, though, our thoughts can be invaded before they have even been developed—and in a way, perhaps this is nothing new. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to say that he thought with his notebook. Without a pen and pencil, a great deal of complex reflection and analysis would never have been possible. If the extended mind view is right, then even simple technologies such as these would merit recognition and protection as a part of the essential toolkit of the mind.This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Posted in Human Robots

#431592 Reactive Content Will Get to Know You ...

The best storytellers react to their audience. They look for smiles, signs of awe, or boredom; they simultaneously and skillfully read both the story and their sitters. Kevin Brooks, a seasoned storyteller working for Motorola’s Human Interface Labs, explains, “As the storyteller begins, they must tune in to… the audience’s energy. Based on this energy, the storyteller will adjust their timing, their posture, their characterizations, and sometimes even the events of the story. There is a dialog between audience and storyteller.”
Shortly after I read the script to Melita, the latest virtual reality experience from Madrid-based immersive storytelling company Future Lighthouse, CEO Nicolas Alcalá explained to me that the piece is an example of “reactive content,” a concept he’s been working on since his days at Singularity University.

For the first time in history, we have access to technology that can merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media, weaving stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex meta-narratives in a story arena that has the capability to know you more intimately than any conventional storyteller could.
It’s no understatement to say that the storytelling potential here is phenomenal.
In short, we can refer to content as reactive if it reads and reacts to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze users’ behavior or preferences to sculpt unique storylines and narratives, essentially allowing for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
The development of reactive content will allow those working in the industry to go one step further than simply translating the essence of oral storytelling into VR. Rather than having a narrative experience with a digital storyteller who can read you, reactive content has the potential to create an experience with a storyteller who knows you.
This means being able to subtly insert minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the viewer. When we talk to our friends we often use experiences we’ve shared in the past or knowledge of our audience to give our story as much resonance as possible. Targeting personal memories and aspects of our lives is a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters—all lifted from someone’s past—you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content.
Future Lighthouse inform me that for now, reactive content will rely primarily on biometric feedback technology such as breathing, heartbeat, and eye tracking sensors. A simple example would be a story in which parts of the environment or soundscape change in sync with the user’s heartbeat and breathing, or characters who call you out for not paying attention.
The next step would be characters and situations that react to the user’s emotions, wherein algorithms analyze biometric information to make inferences about states of emotional arousal (“why are you so nervous?” etc.). Another example would be implementing the use of “arousal parameters,” where the audience can choose what level of “fear” they want from a VR horror story before algorithms modulate the experience using information from biometric feedback devices.
The company’s long-term goal is to gather research on storytelling conventions and produce a catalogue of story “wireframes.” This entails distilling the basic formula to different genres so they can then be fleshed out with visuals, character traits, and soundtracks that are tailored for individual users based on their deep data, preferences, and biometric information.
The development of reactive content will go hand in hand with a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines, and multi-narratives, a concept that hasn’t had much impact in the movie world thus far. In theory, the idea of having a story that changes and mutates is captivating largely because of our love affair with serendipity and unpredictability, a cultural condition theorist Arthur Kroker refers to as the “hypertextual imagination.” This feeling of stepping into the unknown with the possibility of deviation from the habitual translates as a comforting reminder that our own lives can take exciting and unexpected turns at any moment.
The inception of the concept into mainstream culture dates to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series that launched in the late 70s, which in its literary form had great success. However, filmic takes on the theme have made somewhat less of an impression. DVDs like I’m Your Man (1998) and Switching (2003) both use scene selection tools to determine the direction of the storyline.
A more recent example comes from Kino Industries, who claim to have developed the technology to allow filmmakers to produce interactive films in which viewers can use smartphones to quickly vote on which direction the narrative takes at numerous decision points throughout the film.
The main problem with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element: when I’m immersed in a story I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative— and immersion within that narrative—is temporarily halted, and it takes the mind a while to get back into this state of immersion.
Reactive content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling passive interactivity—that is, input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly while being dependent on and unique to the specific user and their emotions. Passive interactivity will also remove the game feel that can often be a symptom of interactive experiences and put a viewer somewhere in the middle: still firmly ensconced in an interactive dynamic narrative, but in a much subtler way.
While reading the Melita script I was particularly struck by a scene in which the characters start to engage with the user and there’s a synchronicity between the user’s heartbeat and objects in the virtual world. As the narrative unwinds and the words of Melita’s character get more profound, parts of the landscape, which seemed to be flashing and pulsating at random, come together and start to mimic the user’s heartbeat.
In 2013, Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University (UK) and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology proved that a user’s sense of presence and identification with a virtual avatar could be dramatically increased by syncing the on-screen character with the heartbeat of the user. The relationship between bio-digital synchronicity, immersion, and emotional engagement is something that will surely have revolutionary narrative and storytelling potential.
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