Design Fiction — Part I

Insight

Design Fiction — Part I

Words by :

Sandeep Ozarde

Aug 11, 2020

5 Minute Read

Humanity enters the new millennium grapple with the challenges we’ve created for ourselves in areas from Government Diplomacy to Trade War, Energy to Infrastructure, Environment to Climate Change, Super Computing to Quantum Mechanics, Transportation to Space Hegemony, Starlink Satellites Network to Space Debris, Healthcare to Genomics, Manufacturing to Agriculture, Deep Learning to Reinforcement Learning. Emerging technologies will continue to augment human capabilities and human behaviour, more than half of the world’s population is now connected, with information and internet connectivity, offering unimagined opportunities and unprecedented threats. Humanity has made great progress especially over the last two centuries and every progress and advancement we have witness destruction, ongoing geopolitical conflicts, stockpiles of nuclear weapons, overconsumption of fossil fuel to travel and generate electricity, our irresponsible world policies are consequential to climate change, as we progress further by mapping of the genome, gene editing, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum, and space supremacy will lead us to unimaginable consequences if not questioned.

Design Fiction often relies on questioning and not necessarily theoretical debate, but creating a provocative framework for speculation from the start, consider the future differently, imagine new possibilities that are plausible, navigate through alternatives, and unexpected trajectories, which also includes a new set of morals and ethical values. 

To address these growing challenges, possibilities, and opportunities, I am trying to explore Design Fiction as a catapult to extrapolate near-distant-future scenarios which could probably save us from the next pandemic crisis. We will be better prepared to define what self-driving vehicles should do or shouldn’t do, we need better adaptive automation protocols where we aren’t replacing human-control anytime soon — we can learn from aviation both commercial as well as the air force, piloting aircraft already have been taken over by advanced computer systems, automation works well for routine, repetitive tasks however early warnings need human intervention eg bad weather, rough landing or any emergency scenarios, several recent accidents have been attributed to failures in the ways pilots or drivers interact with automation, this is a fundamental human factors problem, characterized not by flaws with either automation or pilots or drivers per se, but instead by failures in the design of the human-machine interaction. The machine still lacks adaptive cognitive and emotional behavioural responses.

The Design Fiction method helps postulate abstract ideas and related issues with near-distant-future products that enable us to explore ethical (gene design, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency, robotics) and social issues (bio-hack, big data, privacy, cybercrime) within the context of everyday life. When we think about the future, we usably think of it as a space that we will reach like a utopia or dystopia by default, but neither is inevitable, the best machines or devices are useful only when they are designed in human-context eg. Nest thermostat is a great example of human-context — providing machines with context is not a simple task, how do we get beyond “I don’t understand” as a most frequent response from Siri, “How do we carry the context or continue the conversation with machines?” these limitations exist because machine lacks natural language understanding which is a key aspect of artificial intelligence both speech or text. The most computer responses are written by engineers using if-then rules — what we probably need is more creative and abstract ideas beyond if-then rules. 

We designers are actively trying to solve real-world problems, making things better, safer, sustainable, usable, accessible, understandable, and responsible. During my research I would like to postulate near-distant-future scenarios and inquire deeper dimensions of design methodologies and technologies which are augmenting human abilities to DO (Quill, Amelia, BeamPro, Magic Leap, Amy Ingram), THINK (Kensho, Dreamcatcher), LEARN (Watson, DeepMind, Robo Brain) & FEEL (Crystal, Pepper, Sophia) and how Design Fiction can help explore and retrospect different dimension of creative potential. Human-centric design a bridge to the emerging world of applications that have minimal or even non-existent visual interfaces eg. Brain-Computer Interface NextMindNeurableEmotiv. We have witnessed the tactile-controls to touch-screens to voice-controlled user interface and low level verbal or non-verbal phatic-type expressions which have a socio-pragmatic function, which probably machines don’t understand as yet. 

One of the main purposes of my study is to ask questions, probe, scrutinize, critique near-distant future scenarios which often seem to be racing ahead of our ability to process and manage on an emotional, ethical and societal level eg. quantum computing is perfect to build artificial intelligence, but we still don’t know the consequences of self-replicating machines. As we face a future in which the definition of what it is to be human might be completely changed, we will need Design Fiction to help frame our interactions with technologies, from wearable to automation to advanced robotics to self-replicating neural network.

Designers and engineers must think deeply and creatively to solve this fundamental paradoxical continuum. Google AutoML-Zero proposes a new framework to automatically search for ML algorithms for scratch with minimal human design. AutoML-Zero built programs that scored far better than those built by humans. The machine can help correct for bias as well as where there is a high risk that machine could exacerbate bias eg. Robodoc pod in the movie Passengers.

The term Design Fiction was coined almost accidentally by the science fiction author Bruce Sterling when he was trying to articulate how impacted his literary output, “Design Fiction reads a great deal like science fiction it would never occur to a normal reader to separate the two”. Design Fiction is a form of design, it’s about speculative theories, objects, and services. Design Fiction is a discipline that offers designers an opportunity to look far into the future. It provides a method to probe, explore, and critique these possible futures and the technologies they embrace. 

Speculative Design overlaps with several other emerging design approaches including Critical Design, Radical Design but Design Fiction is probably the closest, and the terms are often interchangeable. It is a vaguely defined space were speculative, fictional, and imaginary design all converge. Bruce Sterling defines design fiction as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change,” which could also describe a precursor of design fiction sometimes referred to as “artefacts from the future.” Design Fiction has grown out of the technology industry, and as the “fiction” part of the label references science fiction rather than general fiction, it places a strong emphasis on technological futures, which is exactly what I would like to focus on. 

Design Fiction not just attempt to generate answers, but aims to formulate great questions. Can the nanoprobes help regenerate human tissue at the cellular level? Every species is capable of regeneration, from bacteria to humans. Starfish, crayfish, flatworms, many reptiles, sharks constantly replace lost teeth, and amphibians exhibit remarkable examples of tissue regeneration. In humans the liver is the only visceral organ that possesses the capacity to regenerate, this is a fascinating subject to explore. 

Design Fiction provides a scientific playground for radical ideas, technology today amplifying our cognitive abilities so we can imagine and design things that were simply out of our reach eg. Autodesk Dreamcatcher is a generative design system that enables designers to craft a definition of their design problem through goals and constraints. This information is used to synthesize alternative design solutions that meet the objectives. Designers can explore trade-offs between many alternative approaches and select design solutions for manufacture. From pure logic to intuition.

English mathematician, computer scientist Alan Turing was one of the first people to take the potential of AI seriously, and he knew that one-day machines would match human intelligence. He had an idea for a simple test: “If a human can’t distinguish between a machine and another human in conversation, then the machine has reached the level of human intelligence.” Design Fictions are about creative provocations, raising questions, innovations, and exploration, it makes an effort to explore new kinds of social interactions. 

“There’s a real need for symbolic reasoning and alternative routes to intelligence that are going to be necessary to make more robust AI tools.”

— Kevin Kelly, WIRED co-founder and author of The Inevitable

Human judgment is still needed to ensure machine supported decision marking is fair.

Even if machine learning algorithms are trained on good data rules-based, their design or deployment could impact its decision-making, choosing the incorrect or bias or ambiguous dataset, absence of human involvement, unpredictable and uninterpretable systems. The design and development of smart applications must involve a diversity of input, individuals must give explicit consent before the system can use protected and sensitive variables of personal data to make decisions. 

If we designed and used these systems well, machines can help to eliminate the kind of human bias in decision-making. However, it is also possible for the machine to reinforce systemic bias and discrimination and prevent veracity. While these systems are still nascent even in the developed world — in Weapons of Math DestructionCathy O’Neil, a mathematician analyses how the use of big data and algorithms in a variety of fields, including finance, insurance, policing, education can lead to decisions that harm the poor, reinforce racism, and amplify inequality. Cathy O’Neil says algorithms embed existing bias into code — with potentially destructive outcomes. Everyone should question their fairness, not just computer scientists and coders. 

O’Neil succinctly describes algorithms as “opinions embedded in math”, “Algorithms theoretically could help us right problems”. “The problem is who owns them and what they are predicting. Let’s just be generous and do a thought experiment. What could go right?”

Traditional algorithmic decision-making systems relied on rules-based, “if/then” reasoning. Machine learning creates more complex models in which it is difficult to trace decisions back to ask questions about why and how they were made. As we face a future in which the definition of what it is to be human might be completely changed, we will need Design Fiction to help frame our interactions with technologies, from wearable technology to genomics to advanced robotics.

We are still living in the classic binary world, quantum computing hasn’t been applied much in the real world applications as yet. The properties of superposition and entanglement that are the basis of quantum physics, are not intuitive, we simply can not understand them since they are behaviours that occur in the microscopic world, in the world of subatomic particles, do not occur in nature we observe, go against our human intuition or scientific thinking. Once a stable quantum computer gets developed, we can expect that machine learning, molecular modelling, cryptography will exponentially accelerate even reducing the time to solve a problem for hundreds of years to seconds, this also makes quantum systems difficult to build, protect, verify, and design. 

Design Fiction is a really useful tool for understanding what the implications of a particular technology’s adoption might be. It took 150 years from the first telegraph cables being laid in the 19th century to the point when Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented what become the World Wide Web in the 20th century. Design Fiction can help us understand what will enable products to get across the chasm or what will prevent them from doing so and, even more importantly, to understand what the world might be like if those products did become widely adopted. Design Fiction can help us to understand the implications of IoT, artificial intelligence, and even robots in the future.

Design Fiction is very much part of the design discipline, which know as Speculative Design or Radical Design. Rather only solving exiting problems, these approaches use design to ask fundamental questions. Design Fictionists, ask how things might be in the future, why things might be that way, to highlight potential problems and opportunities. Some argue that Design Fiction is a way of using science fiction to understand what it will be like to live with future technologies, or a way of influencing popular understanding of modern issues like sustainability, climate change, nuclear waste, healthcare, cybercrime, increasing power consumption across data centres worldwide. Design Fiction that allows us to prototype tangible objects, services, with a deliberate specific aesthetic and implicit narrative. With these objects, we can navigate through future scenarios, explore science, and reflect on how we want tomorrow to be.

To be continued.

Illustration — Sourajit Sengupta

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