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10 apps the BBC should make

March 27th, 2014 · 2 Comments

Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.

I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.

iPlayer

Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.

iWonder

So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.

1. BBC News = BBC News

BBC News app

Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.

2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk

starwalk

Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers. Keep reading →

→ 2 CommentsTags: adrian · apple · travel · tv

Perfection, Quantified

March 10th, 2014 · 2 Comments

I am too lazy to be a good self-quantifier. And yet I persist. I have a Fitbit activity tracker that automatically syncs with the internet whenever I’m near my laptop. For a while it gave me the intense satisfaction of routinely topping the step counts of my friends, reported on Fitbit’s website, until I realised that their totals – and mine – never seemed to change much between weeks.

halfmarathon

In the first year, occasionally my daily step count might creep over 20,000 or 30,000 steps and I would get excited about setting a new record. Sadly, that excitement has gone – having reached 45,432 steps on the day of the Edinburgh half-marathon last year, the prospect of going beyond is now confined to, well, marathons.

leaderboard

Even the flicker of pleasure I gained from the Fitbit leaderboard was extinguished by a ‘friend’ I recently added who now consistently beats me. He probably works in a job where he actually has to walk during the day, or something equally unfair. But it still provides entertainment. My girlfriend and I both enjoy walking and I’ll often ask her to guess how many steps we’ve taken so far. She’s gotten really good at this now: “Six thousand… two hundred?” “Six thousand five hundred. Only four percent off!” I’ll marvel. I can’t honestly say that the Fitbit has made me walk any more than I used to, though.

weightbot

Then there’s my internet-connected Withings scales. I got these as a birthday present from my parents (stop laughing – I asked for them, you jackals!). They’re several times more expensive than my old, perfectly-accurate scales, but like the Fitbit they also automatically sync with the internet, so I don’t have to record the figures myself. At a conservative five seconds saved every day, or 30 minutes a year, in the extra time I’ve saved before I die I could watch the entire first season of Friends. Could that be any better?

While, technologically-speaking, the Withings scales do far less than the Fitbit, its ability to show me long-term trends in my weight makes it very far more useful than looking in a mirror and feeling vaguely worried/pleased.

Finally, Foursquare. Over Christmas, we visited my brother in Portland and then my girlfriend’s family in Toronto. Whenever I travel outside of London and visit normal people’s flats and houses, I am always reduced to a raving madman, rending my clothes in fury. “$350,000 for three bedrooms and two point five bathrooms? You can barely get a toilet for that price in London!”

I have a pet theory (which is wrong and offensive, but I’ll continue) that ‘professionals’ in London only stay there because they grew up in ultra-boring places elsewhere in the UK. When they eventually get to London and see the bright lights and such, they accept the horrific house prices as a necessary evil of not living in a place where nothing happens. Keep reading →

→ 2 CommentsTags: adrian

A Proposal for Managing In-App Spending

March 3rd, 2014 · 2 Comments

This year, the European Union’s Consumer Protection Cooperation network, the EU Justice Minister, and the UK’s Office of Fair Trading have all expressed concerns about consumers being confused or misled about in-app spending; particularly on freemium games, and games aimed at children.

Their recommendations include developers providing better information about the true costs involved in freemium games, and ensuring that children are not exhorted to buy in-app items or persuade an adult to buy items for them. These are a good start but time will tell whether they are effective.

In related gaming (that is, gambling) news, as of this month gamblers in England and Wales will be able to set limits on the amount of time and money spent on high-stakes gaming machines (e.g. slot machines) in betting shops. According to BBC News, there are 33,000 fixed-odds betting terminals across England and Wales, on which approximately £40 billion is gambled and £1.5 billion lost each year. These terminals will now provide alerts to gamblers every 30 minutes or £250 spent. Despite these moves, the UK government said that more could be done, so clearly this is not the end of the road for gambling regulation.

There is a very, very big difference between gambling and (some) freemium games. Freemium games are not even in the same ballpark when it comes to harm against society. However, they also have a few things in common, most notably their use of behavioural psychology and compulsion loops to keep players playing more and spending more. There are plenty of freemium game players who will spend hundreds of hours and many pounds playing them, and then regret their actions afterwards – I know because I was one of them.

What would freemium games look like if they adopted the same kind of limits that fixed-odds betting terminals will have? Here’s a possibility I mocked up:

freemium1

placeit

freemium3

Feel free to repost these images but please link back. These are mockups. Any relation to existing apps is intentional but meant only for comic effect. I welcome any corrections.

→ 2 CommentsTags: adrian

My 2014 Podcasts

January 16th, 2014 · No Comments

Earlier today I tweeted about the podcasts I’d added — and removed — for 2014. A few people asked me about what else I listened to, so here’s a list. I might also write another post about why you should listen to podcasts and how to get set up.

New Additions

The Memory Palace (7 min): The first episode of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace I listened to was Six Stories, about Otis’ development of the elevator. Lest you think this would somehow be an informative yet dry treatment, let me assure you that it was a beautifully told story about the sheer danger and romance of those early elevators. Six Stories was rebroadcast by 99% Invisible (see below) and convinced me to investigate The Memory Palace further.

I don’t take subscribing to new podcasts lightly — we don’t have unlimited time, after all — so I test them out for a while. The next episode I heard, Shadowboxing, ensured that The Memory Palace immediately exited probation. Shadowboxing was even better than Six Stories, about the life of John L. Sullivan, a champion boxer. There are a lot of conventional ways in which you could tell the story about such a person, but this one was different and its path was satisfyingly unguessable. “Now I get why Nate only podcasts once a month,” I thought. If anything it reminds me of what 99% Invisible was like before Roman Mars (IMHO) mistakenly heeded some listeners’ requests to lengthen the show.

The Memory Palace doesn’t appear to have any ads, which simultaneously pleases and worries me. I should totally go and donate to him right now, and maybe hire him to do an audio tour of some museum I like.

Snap Judgment (50 min): Take 16 minutes and just listen to Where No One Should Go. It has the quality of the very best radio, a personal story that unfolds deliberately and then ratchets the pressure higher and higher and higher. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.

From NPR and PRX. I cheated a bit on this one because I haven’t listened to many episodes so I’m not fully sure I’ll stay subscribed, but the linked clip was so good that I’m happy to give it a shot.

Harmontown (2 hours): Heard of Community? This podcast is by its showrunner, Dan Harmon, and it’s actually a live recording of a weekly ‘town hall’ stand-up session he does in LA with his friends. About 50-75% of the episodes are absolute gold, full of ridiculous free-wheeling one-up joking, and enhanced by a never-ending cavalcade of guest comics and writers (last week was Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development). Apparently Robin Williams was on a couple of episodes, so I’m saving those for a rainy day. There’s also usually a live D&D session at the end as well.

The remaining 25-50% of episodes can be pretty dire; this week saw them talking about gender relations. It was very earnest and well-intentioned, I’ll give them that, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to listen to undergrad bull sessions any more. If it sounds like an episode is about to turn into this, just skip it – there’ll be another good one along next week! Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · radio

The Public Service Internet

January 14th, 2014 · No Comments

When Google extends its grasp on our personal data by acquiring yet another company, there are three responses you can take:

1. Boycott Google services (Gmail, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Docs, Android, Chrome, etc.) and hope that if enough people follow, they’ll be forced to change their policies on advertising and retention. This may require you to lower your standards, since the open-source or otherwise ‘friendly’ replacements are not always as good as Google; moving to another VC-funded company’s services is not the answer as they may also be acquired by Google, or emulate their practices.

2. Decide that you don’t really care that much and continue to use Google. Perhaps the cost and hassle of switching would be too much, or perhaps you simply don’t believe that the data that Google holds and its reach across the internet (and increasingly, the ‘real world’) is really that bad in comparison to other bad things happening in the world.

3. Contribute time and resources towards the development and maintenance of alternatives to Google services that inherently cannot adopt Google’s practices (such as their blithe disregard for people’s contact information) — that is, non-profit and/or open source alternatives.

Full disclosure: I use Google services all the time. I’m typing this in Chrome, and I have Google Mail, Calendar, Docs, and Play Music open. I’ve taken a trip in an Uber taxi. My company receives a substantial amount of its income from selling apps on the Google Play Store, and I’ve given a talk at their campus in Mountain View. I also use plenty of services that Google might reasonably buy in the future, such as Dropbox, Foursquare, and Medium.

I’m not here to castigate you. I’m just as much of a hypocrite as everyone else. But the vociferous reaction to Google buying Nest has demonstrated that a lot of people are concerned about where Google might be going.

The question is, why are people concerned? Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: tech

The Phantom ‘Global Race’

October 16th, 2013 · No Comments

There’s been a lot of talk from Conservative politicians in the UK about the ‘global race‘. This race, we’re led to believe, involves all the countries of the world. The winners are those countries that can compete the best, presumably by selling more things cheaper than anyone else can, by dint of working harder and being smarter.

Races, and competitions in general, are perfectly reasonable for situations where the thing you want to find out (or to optimise) is easily and directly measured; so, for example, if you want to find out who the fastest runner in the world is, then you hold a series of races where you measure everyone’s speed. No problem, everyone’s happy.

Now, while such races are entertaining to watch and may tell you something about the human spirit, etc, they are not of direct relevance to most people’s lives because most people are not that interested in becoming the fastest runner in the world. They may want to run, because it’s fun to do so or because they want to lose weight, and in the process they may find it fun to try and run faster, but in all the 5k and 10k and half-marathons I’ve run in, there’s only one winner and about 5000 losers. None of those losers consider themselves losers because they aren’t really competing against anyone except for, perhaps, themselves.

That’s where the problem with the global race comes in. The metaphor is chosen because we all know what races are, and we all know that sacrifices must be made in order to win them. We all know about Olympic athletes who swim for eight hours a day or who run on Christmas and New Year’s Day just to get a bit more training in than their rivals. Therefore, if we’re in a global race, everyone in the country must pull together and make sacrifices in order to win.

But what does it mean to win the global race? What, exactly, are we measuring?

GDP per capita? According to the International Monetary Fund, the top spot is held by Qatar, with $100,889; the UK lies at 24th place with $36,569. It’s safe to say we won’t be winning that particular race any time soon. More importantly, I don’t think anyone in the UK is particularly jealous of Qatari citizens other than the fact that they probably own some really nice cars and electronics.

Productivity rates? Out of the OECD countries, Luxembourg and Norway come out top when measured by GDP per hour worked; as of 2007, the UK lay in 11th place. Now, I like Norway a lot, but I suspect the Tories don’t, otherwise they’d be renationalising the energy sector, employing more government workers, expanding the welfare state, and giving parents 46 weeks of paid leave.

Neither measurement is satisfactory. Taiwan, Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the US all outperform the UK. Does that mean they’re winning in the global race, and so we should mimic whatever they do? Singapore is well up there, perhaps the UK should also become a one-party country. Or maybe, like Germany (who are also beating us), we should require large companies to have workers councils and also adopt proportional representation.

We don’t know who the winners and losers of the global race are because we don’t know what the race is for — and even if we did know, we couldn’t simply just copy what the winners do, because we aren’t about to magically discover more oil in the North Sea, or because we aren’t prepared to adopt the policies of Taiwan or Singapore, or because we know that what works for smaller countries won’t work for us.

As for GDP and productivity figures (which are easily manipulated and hard to compare between countries), they’re only useful as a means towards an end, which may, depending on your politics, include healthier and happier citizens, or citizens who have a great deal of autonomy, or citizens who live fulfilling lives. Those ends can be achieved in many different ways and it’s not always clear that money will help, otherwise Qatar would have the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and most fulfilled citizens in the world. The vagueness of the global race is deliberate, or at least, extremely advantageous, because it allows the Tories to justify more or less any policy they want.

But what’s most disappointing to me is not the vagueness. It’s the lack of vision. We know we don’t want to be poor. But what do we win, and what do we sacrifice, by being rich?

→ No CommentsTags: economics · politics

Why The Circle Won’t Happen

October 10th, 2013 · No Comments

(in which, yes, I discuss the plot of the book)

This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.

It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.

But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.

www.randomhouse

The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.

All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.

Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.

Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.

It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why: Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: book · future · tech

How do we make a friendly AI?

October 6th, 2013 · No Comments

How we do avoid creating a superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) that does not end up harming humanity? This is a question of great consequence to AI researchers and thinkers who believe that future AIs will have capabilities and will act in a way completely different and unfathomable to humans, just as our actions may seem unfathomable to apes. Such beings could pose an existential threat to humanity even if they weren’t of the ‘killer robots’ variety; instead, they may be completely indifferent to humans but may decide that it’s just more efficient or interesting to disassemble the Earth in order to create a wormhole (or whatever). It’s safe to say that this kind of indifference most certainly counts as ‘unfriendly.’

My extremely cursory reading suggests that few people have any good ideas about how to ensure that any superhuman AI will end up being friendly — that is, generate positive effects for humanity — rather than unfriendly. Part of the problem is that while we may intuitively think that we should raise them like good parents by giving them solid moral instruction, provide good examples, and so on, this assumes that any AI we create will be sufficiently like a human for that to work.

Another problem is what counts as a positive effect for humanity. Science fiction is littered with examples of naive do-gooder AIs that try to maximise some variable or another, like human lifespan or happiness or numbers, with the end result being some horrific dystopia of miserable immortals or blissed-out drug addicts. These stories, while presenting entertaining evil genies-in-a-lamp updated for modern audiences, are perhaps not giving AIs enough credit. Still, the question remains: what would be a good effect? Most people can barely agree on a political framework, let alone what constitutes the good life; and most humans don’t have the capacity for ultra long-term thinking. Maybe a utilitarian-leaning AI might decide that in the long term, it’d be worth throwing an asteroid at the Earth to kill a billion people today in order to unite the planet and improve matters a couple of centuries hence.

Now, even this kind of cold-blooded AI is preferable to our indifferent wormhole-generating one, but would we prefer a different kind of friendly AI? Amid the fervour for creating AIs as soon as possible lest we waste even a second of AI-enhanced goodness, it seems odd not to reflect on what, exactly, we want from them as individuals and as a species. Perhaps the reason why this feels like an difficult issue is because it poses uncomfortable questions — not about the future, but about how we govern ourselves today, and how we live our lives today.

Related: How to get Posthuman Friends (2062), Object 93 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Also related: Episode 10 of The Cultures podcast

→ No CommentsTags: science · tech

Could health insurers subsidise the iWatch?

October 5th, 2013 · 1 Comment

A major reason why Apple has sold so many iPhones in the US is due to the unusual way phones are subsidised by carriers over there. Very few people buy an iPhone for the full, off-contract $649+ price — instead, they get it for ‘only’ $99 or $199, with the rest of the phone’s cost being built into the hefty monthly contract that they’re bound into for the next couple of years. As far as the US is concerned, there’s not a huge amount to be gained by making a ‘cheap’ iPhone since you can’t get that much cheaper than a $99 subsidised cost.

Yes, things are very different in the rest of the world where pay-as-you-go plans are much more popular and there’s more flexibility in subsidised plans. But there’s no doubt that carrier subsidies have been — and continue to be — a fantastic way for Apple to get people to amortise the cost of a very expensive piece of technology over 24 months. Most people never really used to do that for laptops or computers (unless you count the indirect method of credit cards) but they’ve managed it with phones.

And now there’s the putative ‘iWatch’, the wearable device that many smart people believe Apple is frantically developing right now. This watch will, of course, look amazing — and given Apple’s hires from Nike and from sensor manufacturers, it’s clear the iWatch will have a heavy healthcare focus.

In other words, the iWatch will make you healthier — and who doesn’t want to be healthier? No-one. But who’s willing to pay $200 or $300 for it? I think it’s a hard sell, no matter how many accelerometers and heartrate and blood pressure and pulseox sensors it contains. We aren’t as rational as economists think we are — even if buying an iWatch would make us more than $300 ‘healthier’ (through reduced future healthcare expenditures), we wouldn’t necessarily be convinced. The iPhone is fun and eliminates boredom; the iWatch is much less fun and also kind of a downer, since it might show how lazy you’ve been.

But what if health insurers subsidised the iWatch? They already subsidise lots of other crappy pedometers and gym memberships, which must cost them dozens if not hundreds of dollars per year per member. When I belonged to Pruhealth in the UK, I practically got a premium gym membership for free.

Here’s Apple’s pitch: if you give an iWatch to all of your customers, you can:

a) Incentivise them to walk more/eat less/sit down less (because, yeah, they consent to be monitored) in return for reducing their premiums

b) Provide a shiny enticement for people to join your plan, which is more important than it used to be due to the new healthcare exchanges

What used to be a $300 device now only costs $50 or $100 to the end-user after subsidies (assuming the user stays with the insurer for two years); not too much at all. Insurers get an easy way in to the wonderful world of ‘big data’, customers get a shiny new thing, and Apple gets a steady income stream with a clockwork two-year upgrade cycle with sales driven by insurers that already have hundreds of millions of monthly-paying members.

Related: Micromort Detector (2032), Object 39 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects

→ 1 CommentTags: apple · tech

A Preview of A History of The Future

September 8th, 2013 · No Comments

Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.

That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.

Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.

You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.

The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · future · history · writing