Is there any good in Tech?

During two weeks in October 2019, I attended a few events as part of the Brighton Digital Festival. The festival celebrates the richness of the creative and cultural industries in the city of Brighton and Hove and explores how digital technology continues to shape our lives and our thinking. In times where technology appears to be misused by some people, companies or governments; the festival was a way for me to look for new hope. I wanted to find experiences and stories where technology is used for good.

I have spent the last 4 years designing and developing conversational experiences: chatbots, Alexa skills, and various voice applications. Whilst the purpose of these applications was varied, the means is always the same: mimicking human conversations. You may have seen Google’s Duplex, an automated and virtual personal assistant capable of making bookings over the phone. Although technically impressive, it raises the following question: is it right that the person talking to the bot is not aware that they aren’t talking to a human?

Google Duplex demo

Bill Thompson, an English technology writer, opened The Messy Edge, the Brighton Digital Festival’s in-house conference (produced by the excellent Laurence Hill). Bill Thompson describes similar trust problems as the consequences of “the messy edge”, the blurred line between today’s physical and digital worlds, where the edges of technology and biology meet. Our world is made of electrons: they make life possible and power the code behind our technologies.

It appears to me that the internet and other digital technologies have made it possible to create entire fake lives, fake news, and to spread misinformation and disinformation in ways that were never possible before. On the other hand, it appears that it is becoming impossible for humans to separate themselves from their digital self. And when it isn’t via the likes of Instagram or Facebook, it is mass-surveillance and the immense amount of personal data floating from datacenters to others that make this separation impossible. Bill Thompson asks “has the ability to be offline disappeared?”

The Internet was never intended for this. It was meant to connect people and to allow the sharing of truthful information around the world.

I think the Internet, and its democratisation, is one of the best things that has happened to humankind. But if you think about it, the Internet has very few democratic aspects. The Internet has no single centralised governance for either technological implementation or access and usage policies. What this means, is that people can pretty much do whatever they want on the Internet, and most of the time, get away with it.

Emillie de Keulenaar is a researcher at the universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam’s OILab collective. During The Messy Edge, she presented some of her work around how far-right political thoughts are being spread on the Internet using alternative -yet fairly popular- websites. Her examples included an analysis of one specific article on Wikipedia — “Race and intelligence” — and how it has been manipulated on websites such as Infogalactic, Metapedia or Conservapedia to fit their own agendas. These websites are using exactly the same software as Wikipedia. They look and feel the same, but the content they present is very different. These websites are run by groups of people that are not trusted to publish on Wikipedia because they have previously tried to publish false information. For me, this illustrates perfectly how easy it is to create and spread fake content using the most basic features of the Internet. You don’t even need AI and Deep fake, it is much easier than that.

By being incredibly open and accessible, the Internet is allowing people to regenerate in the digital world ideas that have long been disproved.

Furthermore, as our world evolves, new problems arise. Maya Indira Ganesh and Nishant Shah are both researchers in technology. They were both speakers at The Messy Edge. (They both presented remotely, and actually, it was the first time I had attended a conference with remote speakers.)

They both spoke about affective computing. The notion of affective computing can be used to describe how humans and systems are having, or beginning to have, affective relationships. As far as I am concerned, I have a relationship with Alexa, but I would not define it as an affective one. I speak with Alexa every day, and it is true that I feel something isn’t right when I stay in hotels and can’t ask Alexa: “what’s the weather like outside?”. I also create chatbots with the hope that people will use them daily. But affective computing goes beyond that.

Nishant Shah talked about The Invisible Boyfriend, which is a mobile app.

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The Invisible Boyfriend landing page

In his words:

The invisible boyfriend does everything that your human boyfriend does to you through the phone — he sends you thoughtful messages, lovely snippets of poetry and announcements of love, he keeps a track of your appointments and social schedules, he recommends new movies and books, and late in the night, he chats with you on Whatsapp, keeping you company, singing you digital lullabies. In many ways, it is exactly like having a long-distance relationship, mediated by the digital web.

The most interesting part about The Invisible Boyfriend is that it is not an attempt to create a thinking piece of self-learning algorithm that is mining your data and making machine choices which do not match up to human interaction. Instead, The Invisible Boyfriend is a whole army of workers, distributed across the globe, managed by a server that connects you with them, and based on your profile, choices, and history, gives them cues to converse with you. The Invisible Boyfriend that you are talking to might as well be your next-door neighbour, or indeed, one of the people who lives in your house, or somebody far away, all connected to you through the distance of a click on the digital web.

If that’s not a messy edge, then I don’t know what is.

And it’s not just about humans. Carmen Weisskopf is an artist from the “!Mediengruppe Bitnik”. It’s a group working on, and with, the Internet. One of their most famous works is the “Random Darknet Shopper”. It is an automated online shopping bot which was provided with a budget of $100 in Bitcoins per week. Once a week the bot went shopping in the darknet where it randomly chose and purchased one item and had it posted directly to an exhibition space. To me, this is an incredible experiment, but what’s really interesting about it, is how the authorities dealt with the bot buying illegal things on the deep web. The robot itself was arrested by Swiss police, before being released a few days later.

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Guardian article about the Random Darknet Shopper

The group says:

What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative? These were some of the main questions this work posed.

But there’s hope.

There’s hope that digital technologies are not only used in negative manners. There’s hope that digital technologies can bring good to our lives.

Carmen Weisskopf has also presented another one of her works. A work inspired by Clement Ader’s Théâtrophone (1881). A technology which at the time allowed theatres to broadcast live performances over the phone lines, making the show available for more people than had ever been possible. More than one hundred years later, in 2007, she and her group hacked the Zurich Opera with dozens of bug phones. Without any authorisation, they randomly connected citizens with the phones hidden in the Opera in order to bring performances to people that otherwise would not be able to access them. It was an artistic, digital, and protest action. They were questioning the accessibility to the public of publicly funded arts, where tickets cost a significant amount of money. Only technology has enabled them to create this work and it turns out that they were right, because, despite the anger from the Opera’s managers, Carmen Weisskopf and her group were given the right to pursue this work.

Technology is also an incredible enabler.

Kuchenga is a black transsexual feminist. She gave a very inspiring talk during the Messy Edge, sharing her story about how the Internet has enabled her to be herself. How it has allowed her to speak out, to get out of depression and to share her feelings, growing up as a black transsexual. Up to the point that she has now been published in magazines such as Vogue. She said it would not have been possible without the Internet. But more importantly, it is also how the internet has allowed other people to recognise themselves in Kuchenga’s stories, and give them hope, that is really interesting.

I also want to share with you the work of Akeelah Bertram. She is an artist that has used technology in a way I’ve never seen before. Akeelah Bertram was born in England, from a Jamaican family, who originally travelled from Africa. A few years ago, she went to where her family is originally from, she wanted to experience what it is to be there, what it feels to be there, and then she had an idea. She started to think about how technology could help to break the wall between different cultures and how it can help to create new bridges between geographical differences. She knew she wasn’t going to create teleportation. She knew what she wanted to achieve would be very difficult with what technologies currently allow us to do. But she did it anyway. Using an Xbox Kinect, and some clever projection and refraction techniques, she created parallel portals. These portals allow people in multiple locations to interact with each other, without speaking, or seeing faces, but just with silhouette and gestures, the most common communication media on earth.

As a Frenchman who lives in the UK, I was really touched and inspired by her work.

Coming back to Bill Thompson. He finished his speech by mentioning the notion of “Critical optimism”. He says that we, humans, are aware that there are some issues with our use of modern technologies. He says we haven’t yet adapted our stories to this new network-world. We are still exploring this new physical+digital home. He defines critical optimism as the fact that we have built these technologies ourselves, and therefore we can make the changes happen, if we want to.

Coincidently, as I am writing this article, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, as launched the Contract for the Web: “A global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone”. This global action plan aims to save the web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and other malign forces that threaten to plunge the world into a “digital dystopia”.

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Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web

By going to the Brighton Digital Festival, I wanted to find experiences and stories where technology is used for good. And after The Messy Edge, after reading Tim Berners-Lee’s new plan, I can definitely say that I have found some.

Written by

Developer and specialist in conversational systems for the EDF Energy R&D UK Centre and Bounce Technologies. Brighton, UK and Brest, France.

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