I usually look through my camera roll to recall events as I start writing these posts. It’s telling me nothing much happened this week.
That’s not true; it’s just a lot of it was spent online. You might have noticed the excitement and fast pace of advancements in AI recently, and it seems I’m spending a correspondingly larger amount of time playing with, reading about, and discussing the impact of it on our work and lives. It’s enough to make one consider taking a gap quarter or year off work to focus on this stuff.
One catalyst was a colleague being invited to do an interview on what it means for design, and so we had a conversation about the trends beforehand. Unsurprisingly, the media is still thinking about both design and AI simplistically: will image generation mean fewer jobs for illustrators and that sort of thing. I find it hard to be optimistic in the short-term, in that AI is lighting a fire under our asses and it’s going to cause a lot of pain. But the potential for us as a discipline to evolve under pressure into something greater is undeniable.
It didn’t help that the next thing I saw was The AI Dilemma, a talk by the creators of the documentary, The Social Dilemma, wherein they say the problems unleashed on society by social media were just the prequel to what AI is on track to do if we don’t prepare. And let’s just admit we don’t have a great track record of preparing for things we know are going to hit us later. It’s about an hour long but I’d file it under essential viewing just for awareness of what’s building up.
The above talk was given at The Center for Humane Technology, and coincidentally this was the week we finally got a look at what Humane, the secretive product company founded by a load of ex-Apple designers and engineers, has been building and teasing.
I’ve been anticipating their debut for a long time and had a pretty good idea of the core concept from their leaked pitch deck and patents. Essentially, a device achieves AR by projecting a digital interface on the world around you the old-fashioned way, using rays of light pointed outwards, rather than on the inside of glasses. At some point along the way they started mentioning AI a lot, and it looks like the secret ingredient that turns a nothing-new wearable camera + laser projector into a real alternative to smartphones. In other words, an intelligent assistant that isn’t primarily screen based, so we can be less distracted from “real life”.
It’s probably best to withhold judgment until we see more at some sort of unveiling event, with more demos, a name, a price, a positioning. But it’s worth remembering that when the iPhone came out, it was a phone good enough to replace whatever you were using at the time. Humane’s device is said to be standalone and not an accessory to be paired with a smartphone. It’s also shown taking calls. The bar for replacing your telephone is now much higher after some 16 years of iPhones.
An intelligent assistant that let you do things quicker with less fiddling was always my hope for the Apple Watch from its very first version; that Siri would be the heart of the experience, and the UI wouldn’t be a mess of tiny app icons and widgets, but a flexible and dynamic stream of intelligently surfaced info and prompts. We all know Siri (as a catch-all brand/name for Apple AI) wasn’t up to the task at the time, but I keep hoping the day is right around the corner. Fingers crossed for the rumored watchOS revamp at WWDC this year.
There’s now also a rumor that iOS 17 will add a new journaling app, and my expectations are already very high. They say it’ll be private, but tap into on-device data like Health and your contacts and calendars. That goes beyond what Day One does. I’m imagining the ultimate lifelogging app that automatically records where you go, who you met, what you did, how tired you were, what music you were listening to, and your personal reflections, all in one searchable place. I’ve tried a bunch of these before, like Moves and Momento, but nothing lasted. If Apple does do this, I may finally be able to ditch Foursquare/Swarm, which I still reluctantly use to have a record of where I’ve been. Its social network aspect is nice but not essential since hardly anyone else uses it now.
I remember there was a Twitter-like app called Jaiku on Nokia smartphones over 15 years ago that had a feature where, using Bluetooth, it could tell if you met up with a fellow user, and post to your other friends about it. I was excited by it but had few friends and even fewer ones on Jaiku. Just like with AirTags and Find My, tapping into Apple’s giant user base could finally make this concept viable. As long as Apple isn’t trying to do a social network again.
Oh right, back to AI. What have I been doing? Some of it was playing games with ChatGPT, essentially asking it to be a dungeon master using the following superprompt (which I did not create btw!):
I want you to act like you are simulating a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). Subsequent commands should be interpreted as being sent to the MUD. The MUD should allow me to navigate the world, interact with the world, observe the world, and interact with both NPCs and (simulated) player characters. I should be able to pick up objects, use objects, carry an inventory, and also say arbitrary things to any other players. You should simulate the occasional player character coming through, as though this was a person connected online. There should be a goal and a purpose to the MUD. The storyline of the MUD should be affected by my actions but can also progress on its own in between commands. I can also type “.” if I just want the simulated MUD to progress further without without any actions. The MUD should offer a list of commands that can be viewed via ‘help’. Before we begin, please just acknowledge you understand the request and then I will send one more message describing the environment for the MUD (the context, plot, character I am playing, etc.) After that, please respond by simulating the spawn-in event in the MUD for the player.
Try it! I even had success asking it (in a separate chat) to come up with novel scenarios for a SF text adventure game, which I then fed back into this prompt. I can’t emphasize enough how fun this is: you can take virtually any interesting, dramatic scenario and immediately play it out as an interactive story.
Here’s an example where I played the role of a time traveler who has to stop a future AI from destroying humanity by going back in time to prevent the invention of certain things, starting with the Great Pyramid of Giza, which will purportedly become a power source for the AI.
And here are a couple of new products made possible by GPT. There are so many, all asking for about $10/mo. Most won’t survive as this stuff becomes commoditized, but for the moment they are all amazing because these things weren’t possible before.
- Tome: It’s a sort of PowerPoint that can create entire decks on its own from a short brief you give it. For example, ask for a sales deck and it’ll set up a working narrative arc over multiple slides, not filled with placeholder text and images mind you! But actually generate text and original pictures to fill every one of them. Of course, it will use common storytelling structures — the portfolio introduction I made as a test looked like 90% of the applications that we see, using very familiar language for describing one’s experience, design philosophy, values, skills. This is fine, of course. You can edit it, or use it for as long as “what went before” continues to have currency in this society. When quality is everywhere, quality becomes meaningless. Fire under buttocks.
- Rationale AI: Describe a decision you’re trying to make, and it’ll tell you the pros and cons, or generate a SWOT analysis, or work out the causal chain of the path you’re on. For many people, this sort of reasoning is not hard to do, but perhaps it’s a game changer for those who can’t. For example, if you’re in an emotionally distressing situation and cool logic is evasive; it could help to show the bigger picture. I tested it with such a scenario and it gave some solid insights (be careful with advice from an AI, of course). But that this thing works at all is a marvel! “Should I become a full-time influencer?” is not a question a machine could have understood in the past, and certainly it could not have forecasted that failing down the road might put stress on your finances and lead to harmful self doubt and regret over quitting your job.
- Summarize.tech: I found this by accident when someone shared a two-hour YouTube video essay in a group chat and everyone said “I ain’t got time for that”. I remarked that it sure would be great if an AI could watch that and write a tl;dr for us. And then I thought… surely that exists. And it does.
It was also my birthday, and I saw John Wick 4 and ate a lot of Taiwanese hot pot. Also binged all of the new Netflix show, The Diplomat, and it was actually good. Life’s alright when that happens.