Scene from SUNSHINE (2007). Image from IMDB.

…but you know everything!

I started writing this post in March of 2015. Yeah, I overthink things and get a bit distracted.

In fairness, the draft consisted of the following:

  • Use my data for me.
  • The AI in Sunshine.
  • Pic from movie…


Sunshine (2007). Dr. Searle viewing the sun. Imagery from IMDB.
Sunshine (2007). Imagery from IMDB.

Sunshine (2007). Imagery from IMDB.

Not really a complete picture, but┬ásince I have not STOPPED using technology or watching science fiction in the two and a half years, so…

Use my data for me.

Yesterday I asked SIRI to uninstall an app. He said no (my SIRI voice is a British man). Why? I have no idea.

It’s my data on my phone and I’m asking for it to go away. Is it a security thing? Well, my phone knows it’s at my house, on my home network, and maybe even that I’m the one that’s holding it and speaking. So, I’m going to say that’s not the reason.

Is it it a programming limitation? Probably. After all, things have to be prioritized and uninstalling something doesn’t *exactly* make any money for anyone, so it may not be on the list.

The thing is, my mom and I bought my 80 year old grandpa an iPhone. It would go a long way toward accessibility if  he could ask SIRI to do things for him on this complicated computer that is pretending to be his new phone.

But, I digress. This isn’t really about SIRI (or Cortana…but I’m looking at you too). It’s about the fact that my computer(s) know EVERYTHING about me. Further, it’s good at all kinds of stuff that I’m not good at. Like remembering… and adding… and being on time. However, it’s still really difficult to get it to fit into my life.

Be elegant.

Sunshine is a movie about a group of astronauts on a mission to restart the sun. Icarus, their conversational AI (or on-board computer and name of their ship), had a small, impactful part to play. Impactful to me anyhow…

What did she do? She used the rote information she had to help her crew make decisions.

[Icarus] are observing the sun at 2% of full brightness.
[crew member] Can you show me 4%
[Icarus] 4% will result in irreversible damage to your retinas

[dramatic cinematic pause and sun viewing]

[Icarus] However you can observe 3.1% for a period of not longer than 30 seconds.
[crew member] Icarus, reset the filter to 3.1%

[crew member's mind proceeds to get blown]

Sunshine 2007

This simple elegance is the hard part. It requires computers to provide the right amount of information, in an appropriate format, delivered the right way. We have a ways to go yet. Currently, my interactions with SIRI and Cortana are slow and error prone. They both often act like glorified search engines — essentially telling me ‘oh, you don’t know how to work the internet? Let me search that for you.’

I know that I expect too much. Computers are dumb and there are only so many people available to design systems. Everything can’t be perfect… or can it? Can we design AI systems to make themselves more usable?

That is, what if we rethink AI at this stage as less of an intelligent assistant and more of a user centered designer? Theoretically, they could reach a scale we can’t otherwise achieve. Now that computers can listen to us tell them exactly what we’re trying to do, how can that be used (in addition to everything else) to fix interaction issues and actually design useful, usable, and elegant experiences?

Take me to the future.

Humans have some big problems to solve. Bigger than me wanting to uninstall an app from my phone. However, figuring out the many tiny tasks like this are small steps toward a bigger future where technology enables the next round of major productivity gains. Or to be really honest, we need to figure these things out to enable things I really care about: continued independence for my grandparents… and interstellar space travel.


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