More Information About Me

Simeon Peebler started out in the early 1980s programming his Commodore 64 and making his own games and music when he should have been doing "more appropriate" things. Flash forward to the present day; after years in game development and technology, he works as a game designer and programmer and has been working the last few years in teaching game design and game development at a leading digital arts college in Chicago Tribeca Flashpoint Academy In 2011, Simeon created Brain Bump, a trivia game for the Amazon Kindle. He also has been working on composing original music and songwriting (go to his songwriting site and hear his latest album).

Friday, June 30, 2017

Technology, Human Experience, and Love: “Mom, what is that?”

Technology, Human Experience, and Love: “Mom, what is that?”

As a child who greeted every mundane noun in life with a similar question, I asked my birth mother "What is that?" I pointed to the blinding light in the sky. She smiled down upon me and connected her own body of knowledge and wisdom with her internal sense of my own context. "That is called the Sun. Spelled S. U. N. It is a star and it gives light and energy to our planet. Our eyes will hurt if we look directly at it, so I will show you special pictures taken of the sun so you can look at it without getting hurt. It is far bigger than we are."

While my mother lacked mathematically precise data, her answer, and many answers like it in this precious dialogue from my childhood allowed me to create my own working knowledge set about this world. This data store would help me gain my bearings in the world. Ultimately, with persistence, her answers would lead me toward some semblance of being an information-rich human being.

A few short years after learning about the Sun, I had the great fortune of getting a home computer. I found that when I typed in a question, the answer immediately returned on the display was this: "?SYNTAX ERROR" The computer did not comprehend my request. It failed to understand me on any level. To get anything useful, I came to realize that I had to learn how to program and code software. Through library books and computer magazines, I learned what was required and ended up constructing my own software. I eventually created text-based adventure games similar to classics like Infocom's Zork. Type in "LOOK" and the computer would display text such as "You are standing in a lush green forest. To the north you see a giant shiny stone castle." While this output was imaginative, the computer was still more or less not telling me anything that I didn't expect it to tell me. This was a disappointment because my first “search engine" in my life, my mother, had become quite ill with cancer and often was in the hospital. I needed more answers to more questions. As it happened, it wasn't long before I found that I had to find those answers completely on my own.

As a young adult I made computer games and software that pretended to be smart and responsive. As a budding professional game developer I had entered into a career making software that faked having conversations with the human user. This “new media interactive entertainment experience” was on some level just smoke and mirrors. Nothing yet compared with the memories of my mother who understood not only what I was asking but also inherently understood what I needed to know. Since those days, software and hardware have continued to follow the path well outlined by futurist Ray Kurzweil who described desktop computers that would be able to express human-level intelligence. We are on that road, but I think it's one that sits on the side of a giant cliff.

As Google and other companies make and spends billions to reach this level of human-computer interaction, we inch closer to the kind of exchange so naturally found between a child and parent. Computers will become teachers that will understand not simply what is being asked but also what the user really needs. Some primitive contextual guesswork like this is already a part of the experience now. Type in the latest blockbuster movie title and you'll be able to buy a ticket to your local theater in just one click. Ask Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Home, any number of super smart devices with your voice, and you'll get a reply that often is helpful or useful. Once the news, weather, traffic and kitchen math conversions are done, despite clever engineering, it still doesn’t really understand you and better comprehend what you NEED to know. For example, ask your favorite map program how long does it take to drive to St. Louis, and it will gladly tell you all the turns and timings without first blasting a dire warning that a massive storm is hitting the middle of the state in a few hours. It will be treacherous. That's what you really needed to know much more than just the sequence of turns.

Like my map and directions illustration, everything presented in your social media feed is guided by algorithms. Without any effort on your behalf, it has been customized and filtered for maximum impact. This is prime real estate for tech companies and content creators alike. Compare that to an exchange you might have in a house party. If you are simply interacting with people, fringe nonsense doesn’t really come into play. There are pop-up filters built into most human beings. Nobody repeatedly invites the paranoid conspiracy freak to be front and center at the regular gatherings. They are left off of the invite list. There were no such rules governing our favorite screen spaces this past year prior to the election.

My mother, or at least her spirit, in replying to questions about the election, never would have offered a fake news story as part of her answer. Even if she was aware of these suburban myths, she never would have thrown bad information into the mix without calling them out for what they are. Having been tricked by a number of fake news links myself, I see that proper curating of information presentation is perhaps the ultimate failure in consumer-facing artificial intelligence systems (if it in fact in even minor ways altered the outcome of the election and by extension the course of American history). It’s a particularly significant problem because in practice, prior to the modern era, identifying truth and fact has been core to human intelligence as a matter of natural selection and social behavior. So far this intrinsic aspect of human exchange is not a requirement for screen space feeds. In fact, as we all have seen, screen-space companies all benefited from more crazy rather than less crazy. If you throw crap at a fan and somebody investigates a splatter, job well done! Cha-ching. Link clicked. Advertiser charged.

It is possible, looking to the future, to put more emphasis on highlighting what is identifiable as fake information. Advanced artificial intelligence systems can go to further effort to validate the truthiness of any given tidbit of proposed screen space filler. Post-election, some tech companies have already stated that they were going to roll out solutions to this problem. But here’s a catch: some argue that humans are inclined to believe things based on “feeling” more than actual evidence; no such technology will diminish offerings for example of the propaganda which at times became part of the new POTUS Twitter feed. I think there is a way forward even with that being a persistent issue.

A vision I personally advocate is this. In the future, another child losing a mother to cancer will turn to a computer to get answers to life’s questions. The computer will know all of the values and context, and understand that a strong sense of fact-based learning and information is to be presented rather than plastic window dressing fantasies popular with conspiracy gurus. If computers become our teachers and mentors, and seeing how much we rely on them as intermediaries in our relationships and daily living, why not choose now to aim with gusto toward the goal of spin-free search results and feeds? Look more closely at what replies my mother gave me as a child. The intention of her responses was guided by something that is the most difficult thing to try to encapsulate in some programmatic soup of code and engineered smarts. What she gave me in her replies was something we would immediately embrace I think in looking at this symbiosis we’ve adopted. The answer is this: Love.

Search results and indeed future artificial intelligence systems must learn how to consider the human heart. It must mimic it, and strive to reach its potential. This means that future systems must engage our screen space with not only answers but with questions of its own that discourages the notion of an idle and undisciplined mind. It must guide its response to encourage our creativity, strengthen our identity as humans in a global society, and also encourage all of the positive aspects of good human communication and community. We must challenge ourselves to fold these strategies into the algorithms that evaluate results before they are presented to the user. We must add Love.
Engineering directors in the technology field must reflect on the vital exchange of information they have relied on throughout their lives. At the top of what makes them information-rich and well-rounded human beings were the values and examples set forth by mentors – parents, teachers, friends, pastors, and so on. Grab those values, and adopt them, and wire them into the code. Tech developers building a toolset which people make integral to who they are as human beings must give users something that demonstrates by example the qualities inherent in Love: kindness, compassion, curiosity, empathy, gratitude, charity, generosity, and so many other things.

There is profit in such work. It’s the right thing to do. We’ve jumped hurdles to make the system function such as it does now, but it doesn’t work for our good.

As our computers go beyond Kurzweil’s Singularity, if computers have seen that this was important to us, perhaps they will continue teaching us more about ourselves rather than the far less rewarding business of maximizing profit and emblazoning brand names on the sides of buildings throughout the world. Now, or in the future, when I ask my computer for information, or for help on any kind of problem, trivial or great, is it wrong to expect to also hear the spirit of my mom, who always replied with an expression of Love?

"That is called the Sun. Spelled S. U. N. It is a star and it gives light and energy to our planet.”

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