For our final podcast of 2016, we chat about the big themes on the show and our favorite episodes over the past year. We had conversations on design and tech with some wonderful guests including ground breaking geneticist George Church and open science advocate and researcher, John Wilbanks. From AI to genomics to cybersecurity, we covered a wide range topics on The Digital Life in 2016. So what did we learn from a year talking tech?
Jon: Welcome to episode 187 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: For the podcast this week, we’re actually going to be doing a double episode where we take a look back at the year of talking technology, over 50 episodes if you can believe that, of content. Sort of look at all the different major themes that came out of those episodes. The guests that we had on. The technologies that we dug into. Think about how those themes come together. This is our last episode of the year.
Dirk: Oh no.
Jon: It’s always a fun one because I enjoy looking back at all the things we discussed and seeing where the year 2016 took us.
Dirk: The laughing, the crying, the tom foolery.
Jon: Yeah, the blood, sweat and tears right? There are five things that I plucked out of the episodes, the 50 episodes that we did. We’ll start off with a first one. Artificial intelligence is too smart for it’s own good. We had three episodes on artificial intelligence last year. Episode 149, we talked about some of the very public successes and failures of tech giants in the AI space, including Microsoft had to terminate Tay, it’s teenage chat bot, after the bot started tweeting Neo-Nazi propaganda and other abusive language at people. Big public failure, I don’t know if you remember that Dirk.
Dirk: Yeah I do, but I’m glad you mentioned it first because when you said that this was about the AIs getting too smart, I was thinking jeez, all I thought about all year is the AI is really freaking stupid.
Jon: Yeah, that’s sort of too smart in quotes right? It’s a subject to some review. The big success that we highlighted was Google’s deep mind, which created an AI capable of beating some of the very best human players in the world of Go. As much as Tay was a miserable mess, there was advancement in terms of AI at least in the understanding gaming and rules subjects. As those sort of two things came to be, there is AI in a lot of other areas as well. Our episode 151, we talked about AI going to art school and imitating one of the great masters. There was a faux Rembrandt created by an AI which used all of the master’s techniques learned from lots of studying different paintings, and generated this portrait of this white male with a mustache and a hat that looked very much like it could have been a Rembrandt although the subject matter wasn’t all that compelling.
Just showing another area where AI was creeping into the creative class area of painting which you normally wouldn’t think of.
Dirk: For me that was the most compelling story from an AI perspective of the year, because something like painting, original composition in painting would be one of those things that is seen as, oh AI will never really replace humans, and it’s because dot dot dot. Original creation of artwork, would from my perspective, would clearly be one of those chalk lines, and it just got blown away very very quickly here in 2016.
Jon: Yeah that was a stunner for me. Once again, the topic of … Or the subject of the painting wasn’t all that interesting so I think we could debate whether it was a good replication of Rembrandt or whether it was just so so. Regardless …
Dirk: I thought it was remarkable from my perspective.
Jon: Yeah, it was definitely a stunner and if you looked at it you would not think that a computer had basically 3D printed that using a bunch of algorithms.
Dirk: And that it’s original. That’s the key is that it’s original composition. The computer composed that from nothing, amazing.
Jon: Yeah that was truly amazing. The last episode we did on AI was actually about an algorithm generating stories about Major League Baseball, although I think … Sorry, not Major League Baseball, it’s Minor League Baseball. Excuse me. Basically the … Instead of having a journalist go out to these minor league games, obviously you can’t have that many journalists going out to all of these, considering how journalism is collapsing on itself. Why not have the computer do it based on the statistics that are collected during the game? There’s an AI now that can take game stats and construct some kind of narrative that could appear in your local paper or what have you.
Once again, another stab at creativity I think with AI being able to organize coherent sentences to create this baseball game narrative. Probably not as impressive as our painting, but definitely starting to edge into the creative sphere don’t you think?
Dirk: Yeah. I mean for me not nearly as impressive as the painting. It was something I wasn’t aware of that was happening, so when we talked about it I was like oh interesting, but it’s also the sort of procedural thing I would expect AI to be able to do well. For me, the only surprise was I wasn’t aware of it. The fact that the AI tech could do that was just simply not a surprise.
Jon: All right. Moving on to our second theme of this year, which is the DNA of everything. We had let’s see here, eight episodes of DNA, genomics, and cloning. Including an episode I thoroughly enjoyed on engineering synthetic biology. We talked about a new coding language for synthetic biologists to start basically automating the creation of DNA. We had an episode on cloning your beloved pet. An episode on DNA as data storage. An episode exploring the writing of human code, which is sort of the next big project to create a synthetic human genome. We’ve got the human genome project which decoded the human genome and how scientists are looking to create a synthetic human genome from scratch, very interesting.
We were honored to have George Church on the show. You interviewed him at the GET conference about genomics and life extension. We had rounding out those episodes with an episode on chimeras and bioethics, and then finally an episode on a baby with technically three parents because of a genomics technique that incorporated some DNA from multiple people. As far forward as AI seems to have moved this year, DNA and genomics seems to have created quite a bit of news and an awful lot of discussion. Dirk what were your, sort of your favorites from that group of episodes?
Dirk: I’m not sure about favorites, but I think the big difference between AI and genomics is that AI is going to be changing the lives of all of us really soon. Really soon. Whereas genomics is going to change the lives of the wealthy really soon, and may or may not change the lives of the rest of us any time soon. For me when I think of genomics in sort of juxtaposition to AI which we talked about before, that’s what I think about, is the fact that AI really matters to all of us. Genomics matters to the elite, and hopefully will matter to more of us over time, but I’m not counting on it anytime soon.
Jon: Yeah I think there’s some underlying signs with genomics that will have impact for more regular people, probably sooner than we think, especially in the synthetic biology area. The creation of certain materials by say biodegradable plastics by altering the genes of bacteria say. I take your point Dirk, you’re talking more about the manipulation of the human genome and that being reserved for folks with an awful lot of money.
Dirk: That’s right. That’s right whether it be me sort of dictating the kind of child that would sprout from the proverbial loins of myself and a partner, or my life extension or my life enhancement at some sort of large important scale, I mean those are simply things that will be reserved for the elite for probably many years after first becoming truly commercializable. It’s just a question if they can ever get to the point, or if they should get to the point of mattering for all of us.
Jon: We spent a lot of time on genomics and DNA this year, our next theme was all about hacking and hacking reality. Those episodes in which we explored that were actually a little bit scary to me. We started off the year talking about hacking power plants and power grids. I don’t know if you remember this, but about a year ago there was an attack on utility in western Ukraine which caused a blackout for 80,000 customers. It was the first known power outage caused by a cyber attack. There was a particular kind of malware which infected the system and Kiev’s main airport went dark as a result of that power outage.
These were some very serious consequences of cyber warfare basically that was large in reality and it was … I mean Ukraine is seemingly far off, but it just made it for me so much more present as a possible danger. That kind of freaked me out a little bit, I don’t know about you Dirk.
Dirk: You know it did, yeah. It’s one of those things that, you know we read about it in science fiction books so it’s in our theoretical consciousness, and it’s something that I’m aware of the way the technology all hooks together, it can be done. It’s a possible … But then when it happens it’s like oh crap, people are actually taking advantage of it. For me it’s similar to 9/11. There was always that vague possibility of terrorists driving planes into objects. It had been written about in fiction, it’s something that I had thought about, but nobody had done it, and so it’s like okay, maybe this is just something humans aren’t going to do to each other, and then guess what? Kaboom. Things are never the same.
That’s what it was like for me, it was surprising only, and there was like, the threshold if it crosses. Oh okay, interesting I guess, I guess we’re going there. I guess that’s going to be part of it. Yeah, I mean it’s, welcome to the network world Jon.
Jon: Yeah, I mean we’ve talked about this a number of times, but there was the internet botnet of course that … Sorry, the Internet of Things Botnet which took out some of the servers over at Dyn and basically removed internet access for a large number of people on the east coast. That was fairly recent, couple months ago. Additionally, in politics of course, one of the biggest world stages is the U.S. presidential election and hacking was all over the election in particular around Hillary Clinton’s emails and the emails of the DNC. Then another hacking related story from this year was the Apple versus FBI story right? With the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone required access, and the FBI was asking Apple to break into their own phones and of course they refused to do so.
All of these things talk about real life consequences for hacking and cyber warfare. I think this year more than … More than in previous years it’s really come to the front, come to the floor. My attention on this is strong because it’s starting to feel like a William Gibson novel to me frankly.
Dirk: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of stories you mentioned there. Which in particular should I comment on?
Jon: Well I would say the U.S. presidential election is … The consequences of the hacking around email communications that negatively affected the election for Hillary Clinton were substantial I think.
Dirk: The effects were substantial, but from a hacking perspective the technology was unsophisticated right? You’re talking about hacking email systems that are … I sort of take for granted are rudimentary, because they involve … Hillary Clinton is someone who explicitly has gone around the best practice and essay models, to have her own little homebrew server in the past. We know that she as a public figure or politician is far from a bastion of security. What’s interesting about it is the consequence and that arguably the U.S. presidential election was determined by revealing the contents of those emails.
From hacking perspective, to me it’s not all that interesting. It’s more of an information transparency thing, and it’s the right specific information was compromised and shared which had significant … Potentially significant ramifications for our country.
Jon: Yeah for me those four stories that we just talked about, the power grid in the Ukraine, the hacking around the U.S. presidential election, the internet take down by the IoT Botnet, and the Apple versus FBI case around iPhone security all just say to me that cyber warfare, cyber security has just risen to a much higher level and is having impacts in ways that it just never did before 2016, or at least it wasn’t front and center and we weren’t aware of it as much.
Dirk: To me that’s it. We weren’t aware of it. Now the lambs are aware of the slaughter right? That’s the difference. I don’t think it is in reality different, I think it’s perceptually different just for us, us plebs.
Jon: The fourth theme of the year, was all about automation. We talked a bit about automating work through robotics. We talked about the future of transportation, obviously self driving cars, and we had a very interesting episode about the way humans treat robots, Dirk. I think you’ll remember we saw a video of someone over at Boston Dynamics pushing a robot down so it would be forced to get back up and right itself. I think you had a pretty strong reaction to that. All of these stories, whether it’s robots or smart cities or automating transportation, all just speaks to sort of the shifting sands of work, and what it means that we’re going to me working in conjunction with a lot of artificial systems and robots and what that means for our ability to work with and around these technologies and how we feel about that right?
Dirk: Yeah, definitely. That’s all true. That was one of my favorite shows from the standpoint of … From a personal prediction standpoint. I try to make less specific predictions on the show anymore for a few different reasons, but that was one I totally got right. I reacted to it viscerally the moment I saw it. I went on the air, I talked about it, and then not immediately, but in the days after, there started to be a hue and cry against it to the point where they took that video down. That video … It doesn’t exist in it’s original form. They added it and removed it, because it was total BS. Total BS. I think it’s a real foreshadowing of where we’re headed in terms of the interaction, the overlap between humanity and artificial intelligence.
Jon: Yeah, I think there’s going to be more stories like that as robots and AI and automation become more part of our lives, and start doing a lot of different kinds of work, maybe that humans would have done previously. We’ll stay tuned to that. The last theme of our podcast this year, and this is one of the favorites of mine is the intersection of design and science. We had a number of episodes about clothing and technology …
Dirk: You’re such a nerd Jon. You’re such a nerd.
Jon: I am not, I am not. I refute that. How is that nerdy? I’m probably burying myself as I speak crosstalk. Clothing and technology, we did two episodes on embeddables, and we did a episode on your piece that was in the re launch of UX Matters about the future of user experience and all about how that was going to be … User experience was going to be tied very specifically to science in the future. We wound up our design and science episodes with an episode on quantum computing. If you want to run the gamut of those, everything from fashion to quantum computing, we certainly have it covered.
I must say, I think this is from a design and technology standpoint, I think this is the most exciting area. Just lots of new materials to work with, new things being created all of the time because designers are beginning to work with scientists. Dirk I don’t know, looking at your piece on the future of user experience, how do you feel about that? That was, I don’t know, nine or 10 months ago now. Do you see these things as percolating now for UX and science or are we still in the nascent stages?
Dirk: Still pretty nascent. Look, this is a topic I first talked about in 2011, at my talk at the Global IXDA Conference in Dublin. I wrote about it in your book Jon, in my chapter in your book as well. This is a trend I’ve been seeing coming for over half a decade at this point, and it’s come slower than I expected. It’s still slow, but it’s clearly coming, and it’s clearly coming in a big way. You can tell, because now it’s being talked about more. You have the journal … Is it called Design of Science or Science and Design, what’s the name of that?
Jon: I think it’s Journal of Design and Design and Science over at MIT, yeah.
Dirk: Yeah, and so when you have tempo organizations like MIT pushing out content without an editorial focus, you know that this is really looming. Yeah, again this is a trend I saw a really long time ago. It’s been slower than I might have thought it would be, but here it comes. Let’s get ready for it.
Jon: All right, so that concludes our five themes of the year. I’m going to collect each of these themes into a SoundCloud playlist so listeners can check out any of these groupings if you’re interested, and also on The Digital Life website there will be a listing of all the episodes by theme so you can check that out as well. We enjoyed very much producing The Digital Life this year, and we look forward to seeing all of you listeners in 2017.
Dirk: Even more than that, I would love to hear Jon, from our listeners, what are they interested in? What is it that we’re not doing on the show that they would find to be really compelling content, and, or what are things we are doing that they particularly like and would like to see more of from a content perspective or a presentation perspective, anything. I’d love more engagement with our listeners. At the end of every show I give my Twitter handle and would love to hear from you. Hear from you there, I’ll give my email address this time, which I don’t regularly do because I don’t get much email traffic from this show back when I used to.
Engage us. We want to serve you. We want to give you the sort of things that you’re looking for, so as 2016 is coming to an end and the dawn of 2017 is upon us, I hope you’ll take advantage of that and get in touch because we’d really love to hear from you.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 187 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.