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Alec’s MinneWebCon Blog Post Reflection

Last week on Monday April 23, 2018, I took a 5:30am bus from Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota to the University of Minnesota in Dinkytown, Minneapolis to attend MinneWebCon 2018. MinneWebCon is a conference that “encourages inclusive grassroots knowledge-sharing” (http://minnewebcon.org/) and lasted over the course of two days. The first day, which I attended, consisted of panels and the second had workshops. While I had never been to a full-day conference before and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, I had an excellent time attending MinneWebCon 2018 and become exposed to innovative developments in technology and the ethical issues brought with them.

First Keynote Speaker: Molly Wright Steenson

The opening keynote speaker at MinneWebCon, Molly Wright Steenson gave a talk entitled Sometime to Return (Click here to watch her talk). The talk consisted of an overview of how we reached where we are today in AI and the relationship it has with user experience in technological design. It was interesting to learn how many principles in architectural design led to computer design. One of the most influential sources of these principles was A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. A great quote from this architect that demonstrates how architectural ideas can apply to computer science is “but in practice master plans fail – because they create totalitarian order not organic order. They are too rigid; they cannot easily adapt to the natural and unpredictable changes that inevitably arise in the life of a community.” This carries over to web design because as we build websites for online communities, we need our sites to be malleable, adaptive to the users. This belief in adaptivity was also held by architects such as Cedric Price, who design buildings that would constantly alter their structures to suit the users’ needs. Dr. Steenson shared a famous quote of his: “Technology Is the Answer, But What Was the Question?” The way I interpret this quote is what are we actually looking to solve with our new advancements in technology? At the moment, it seems that we are often making progress for the sake of progress or inventing things with solely money in mind. Moreover, I wonder whether many modern developments in technology are built to let us escape necessary the problems of life and that companies are encouraging this escapism so that they can sell their product. I was surprised when Molly told us that while Artificial Intelligence is sold as a recent development, with such articles claiming “AI is the New UI,” basic AI technology dates back to the post WWII period with such inventions as voice recognition technology. Finally, Molly’s proposal of how we might understand ourselves as humans better if we look at AI is deeply interesting to me: AI is the closest things to humanity and will one day force us to draw the line between a simulation and an individual when they become self aware. Furthermore, with the questions of ethics with AI makes me think of a video discussing the implications of rights for Artificial Intelligence.

Second Keynote Speaker: Jade E. Davis

The second keynote speaker, Jade E. Davis, gave a talk called The Already Augmented and Virtually Real (Click here to watch her talk). In this talk, she raised the importance of being cautious as we make technological progress and made the audience question their purpose as developers. She explained that when using technology to design the future, we have to be careful because the biases in our imagination will impact the worlds we create. As Jade said, we might all think the sky is blue, but the sky can be gray, pink, white, green, and red. She also added that we can’t escape biases and trying to use technology to transcend the world is the wrong answer because you have to face the problems of reality, not run away from reality. Furthermore, what we build can get out of control, reminding me of an article explaining how twitter went from being a small silly viral app to being how world leaders talk to each other.

I don’t find Jade’s idea that progress might be bad surprising at all. I often think that progress can be dangerous: just look at what the inventions of fossil fuels and plastic have done to our planet, the constant looming threat of nuclear war from the atomic bomb or the danger of genetically engineered bioweapons. Science, technology, and design are tools whose creations reflect the inventor and their goals. Most inventors want creations that benefit humanity, which is why I support scientific progress, but I agree with Jade’s point that maybe we need to think a few steps back to think about what we’re doing and what future we’re creating, since those creations may be unintentionally biased, designed with profit in mind, or just recklessly thrown into the world with no thoughts of potential consequences. Technology can be fun and improve lives, but there’s also too much of a good thing and with developments occurring so quickly, maybe we’re not ready for all these new innovations. As Daniel H. Wilson, a convocation speaker at Carleton who writes about technology, said “this is the age of candy.” Inventions, whether good or bad for us, are available if you have the money to pay for them. There’s no rules or restrictions despite the potential negative effects on our brains and character. For instance, Wilson was concerned about how his son might be negatively impacted by Alexa since Alexa has a female voice and will do as he says no matter how rude or condescending he may be. Thus, Wilson has his son say “please” and “thank you” whenever his son asks Alexa to do something.

Takeaways From Other Panels

In addition to the keynote speakers, I enjoyed the other events that I attended. While it was interesting to learn about how to build third party apps for Alexa and Google Home (Practical Frameworks For A Voice-Enabled Future – James Squires), and how we can use the unity game engine to help design AR apps (Best Practices: Getting Up & Running In AR – Brandon Johnson, Max Thorson), those two talks were fairly technical, so the main idea I took from them was that adapting existing tools for your project is faster and easier than starting from scratch.

From the AI and Improving the Experience of Users Living With Disabilities talk with Sue Ann Rodriquez, I gained a greater understanding how users with disabilities interact with the web through tools such as braille displays, screen readers, and captions. While I didn’t learn that much about how AI assists users with disabilities, I learned that since the goal of AI is to be able to do what humans can, AI could help individuals with disabilities by making intelligent decisions about the best way to present information to the user. This is a great practical positive use of AI.

The Capturing Reality: An Introduction presentation by Colin McFadden and Samantha Porter showed a new way of how technology can be used. I hadn’t heard much about reality capture other than in a article about a professor who used reality-captured artifacts to document the atlantic slave trade and then printed the objects in 3D (https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2018/03/23/jane-landers-3d-printing/). The presenters showed how accessible reality-capture technology is and that while it takes time to develop skill using it, it has many applications including archaeology, creating realistic graphics in video-games, and artwork. One key idea from this is that new technology further blends the line between the real and the virtual. We can now transport items from one to the other and this will only become easier with time. AR and VR bring the digital world to us but reality-capture lets us bring real things into the digital world.

Conclusion:

I am incredibly glad I attended MinneWebCon. I feel very grateful for Carleton college by funding my attendance ticket and bus fare. I’ve seen how AI lets us do more with accessibility and personal assistants, and how technology, such as AR, VR, and Reality Capture has turned our window into the digital realm into a doorway. I am now more aware of the biases we need to address as we continue building virtual worlds and how media will try to sell technology in a way that doesn’t always reflect its true history. Attending a conference to learn about the latest innovations in technology has given me a better idea of how people stay on top of the latest work of the field and the ethical questions leaders in the field must keep in mind as they continue their research. In addition, this trip was a great way to bond with the other interns. I learned more about their interests, what they hope to do, and what things I can do for my own career.

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