Food: a mediocracy antidote

In this weekend’s New York Times, David Segal writes Hey Chef: Next Time, Skip the Fennel about Dinner Lab, which creates eating events around the country, mated with an attitude that invites participants to give the chefs no-holds-barred comments regarding the food they have just eaten. I perked up when Dinner Lab, Segal explains, started compiling massive data on eaters’ feedback, presuming that they would be making a bundle of money reselling this behavioral analytics information to mega-restaurant chains. As I sharpened my Mediocracy antennae, however, the surprise ending grabbed me: no chains were interested in the food preferences behavioral data. What we like to eat, it seems, is not digitally trumping the intuition of your local neighborhood chef just yet. As restauranteurs explained, food is a cultural experience. The milieu is just as important as the analytical, dry examination of ingredients and spices. So behavioral analytics does not scale to food just yet, and this reminds us that culture is a phenomenon that we may try to wave away when abstracting away from time and place; but it will raise its head from time to time and mess with our clean, digital data. Horst Rittel famously talked about urban architecture as a Wicked Problem, where the solution to a real architectural challenge is hard to create, hard to detect and impossible to successfully emulate in a new place: local variations in culture trump what we learn from a previous architectural experiment.  Segal’s example gives me hope that, for some stations of invention and analysis, human intuition still reigns as the most accurate judge of human desire.


Flying Wings and Disaster Relief

The BBC’s Jack Stewart reported yesterday on a previously secret Google project to create a hybrid drone for delivery. This drone is interesting for several reasons- first, the wing design means it can fly horizontally far more efficiently than a helicopter design alone, since the wing generates lift and the plane-mode achieves a much faster cruising speed; second, Google describes the machine as a delivery vehicle for defibrillators and such, meaning that they have resolved to create a drone with quite a hefty payload. So this will be far more capable, in terms of delivery weight, than the standard inexpensive toy drones that are easily available today. We get to watch from the sidelines to see just how perception is handled on the drone- how it interacts with disaster victims on the ground- and how regulation deals with the influx of such machines in large quantity.

Let Them Make Robots

Thanks to Saman Amirpour for pointing me the way of a new IEEE Story by Tekla Perry: Robotics Company Prepares to Take Responsibility for Displaced Workers. Perry explains that Momentum Machines is busy automating the preparation of hamburgers. The machine peaks out at 6 burgers per minute- I think that outdoes the needs of even the most popular In-n-Out in San Francisco. Perry explains that Momentum recognizes that its machines will cause jobs to be eliminated when existing restaurants adopt the machine. I have lectured in the past about Employment Impact Assessments, and the lack thereof when automation changes the employment landscape at a company. But the solution offered by Momentum is tone-deaf in so many ways. They specifically offer discounted technical training to the former line cooks who were displaced. This seems like an idea born of startup-brainstorming, rather than ethnographically studying the needs of line cooks to understand just how pressured they are between low-paying jobs and debt on a day-to-day basis. Then there is the fact that Momentum plans to build its own restaurants. The line order cooks they will not hire are lost opportunities for jobs, they are not actual humans with pink slips in hand. In the end automation paves many paths to job loss and poverty, and I believe it is doing so more rapidly than it optimistically “unleashes job innovation.” Providing technical training is, obviously, a move to be applauded. But it is, in this case, a rhetorical move that does not offer any sort of structural solution to the basic problem: Momentum is spending millions of dollars to make machines that do the work of many employees for whom their paycheck is critical to quality of life.

Mediocracy: It’s been here for years.

The Guardian’s Alex Hern writes about the latest Internet behavior experimentation drama– this one OKCupid. Well, it turns out they, too, experiment on users. The rating you see is often accurate, and sometimes a lie. Just to see what happens. I particularly enjoyed the rhetorical response from OKCupid itself (another example of value hierarchy, for the rhetoricians amongst you) according to co-founder Christian Rudder:

“if you use the internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”

Yes, indeed. The Internet gives us value, and tests us. It maximizes derived value for data owners– and if that means feeding us false information to build more valuable, more accurate behavioral models, well that’s a trade that companies will happily make, so long as we keep visiting. How would we feel if Safeway or Whole Foods did this? Just imagine- what if they sold us ground beef, but it actually contained horse meat.  I wonder how that would go down.

The trick with mediocracy, critically, is that it is a one-way path. It was easy to have drones that do surveillance, and argue that they will never, ever be armed. Yet decades later, drones have weapons. The thresholds are crossed, with some flapping of wings, but those squawks die down and the new becomes the new normal. So the Internet involves experimentation. It will not tend towards greater honesty and greater transparency- not automatically, and not by nature of the economic logic of corporations– that I can promise you.





Alone With Silicon

In this past Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Louise Aronson, an associate professor of geriatrics at UCSF, writes about robot caregiving in The Futures of Robot Caregivers.  This short article is well worth a read because it’s a geriatrician’s eye view of the role of robots in home care. Aronson points out that many are exceedingly alone at home, and that the solution to this problem is robot caregiving, for safety (emergency response), chores (fold your laundry, clean the bathroom) and for emotional companionship (conversation).  The article is one compelling view, but there are alternatives worthy of discussion. It is easy, after all, to make a value hierarchy argument, as Aronson does:

But most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.

Indeed, abusive people are terrible. But the interesting question is, what is the right role for robotics in the home. Should robotic technologies melt into the walls, providing a smart home that is safe and responsive, or should robots have a tangible form in the home, depending on social expectations to engage in artificial conversations with the lonely. And just how artificially emotional do we allow these conversations to become?

Sherry Turkle is indeed good reading on this subject, as Aronson points out. But in quoting Turkle regarding Paro, Aronson did not quite point out Turkle’s key thesis: that these relationships between robots and humans are wholly artificial, that they make use of forms of deception that convince the human of a depth that simply isn’t there, and that, in Turkle’s opinion, this is seriously questionable from an ethical point of view.

My own point of view comes down further on the smart home side than the android side. As for companionship, while I realize that there aren’t enough caregivers, I would remind the reader that the U.S. is not Japan. We have massive, chronic underemployment. We ought to spend real thinking energy figuring a way to turn caregiving into a sufficiently viable service economy to help with our idled human populace before we replace the potential for their work with robotic androids.