Let’s talk NLP

Imagine going in front of a printer, and, instead of clicking buttons, starting a conversation: “Hey, could you make a copy of this document?”. “Sure”, it replies. “No, I think a bit smaller should do it, maybe half an A4 page”. This isn’t impossible: thanks to Conversational Design, this is how we’ll interact with devices in the Internet of Things era.

Up until short while ago, whenever a new technology was launched on the market, the end customer had to learn how to use it. In the future, this will be part of the past, and devices will finally speak our language – all thanks to Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a ubiquitous form of artificial intelligence that focuses on analysing human language to draw insights from communication, its context and its deeper meaning.

In mankind’s history, the first means of humans interaction was through Natural Language be it speech, sign or body language. Conversation, and all of the complex nuances it implies, is something inherent in all of us: it’s the most natural interface we have to exchange information between each other and, ultimately, build relationships.

The main reason Natural Language is so easy is that it’s something we’ve been doing, as a species, forever; it’s a ‘chip’ that is part of our mindset. When we participate to a conversation, we constantly adapt to our interlocutor, using the new information we receive and storing it in order to be able to use it again. Conversation, however, is very complex: it relies on a constantly changing contexts and is ultimately ephemeral.

Now, other than humans, there is something else we all interact with in our daily routine: laptops, smartphones, washing machines, and so on, also known as the widely-anticipated Internet of Things (IoT). However, communicating with a device is not as easy as talking to someone, and we constantly conflict with the potential of our devices and the inability of conveying our intentions to them. The reason for this is because devices don’t speak our language: they’re made of settings, menus and folders, “log ins” and “log outs”  a dichotomy that does not belong to humans and leaves out all the intricacies that complete human communication and which we are used to. This model, already complicated enough, will no longer function when IoT will become part of our lives: imagine being surrounded by connected devices and having to command them all in the old-fashioned way.

As the Head of Design of Google Search & Assistant, my aim is to make Natural Language the interface we communicate not only with each other, but with technology too. The goal of our team is to tap into technologies such as AI to finally make the human-machine interaction a natural one, a real two sided dialogue where devices not only formulate responses that make sense but know your habits and are even act as conversation starters, too. To give an example, over the next couple of years our devices might remind us to take the umbrella when it’s raining outside, or tell us when we are late for an appointment.

That’s not an easy task, and there are two main issues to be faced. First of all, technology is becoming cheaper, faster, and smarter. Sometimes, though, we forget that its ultimate goal is to make people’s life better: and this also means being able to communicate the value of this shift to the final users. Different generations have different views and different levels of knowledge. But a revolution without supporters will fail: that’s why we have to guide people, and make everyone understand that this will change their lives for the better.

Second, in order to mimic a complex interaction between two or more participants in a device, we have to make machines able to understand context, which is an extremely critical aspect for interface designers as it is the key to an appropriate participation in the Human-Computer Interaction. At the end of the day, it’s all of these nuances that make Natural Language so easy: Conversational Design’s aim is to capture the essence of this and build it into the devices. It’s a hard, unexplored area that constantly evolves: that’s why our team is made of voice talents, interaction designers, programmers, linguists and more.

It’s true, there is no set path, but we do have an endless source of inspiration: humans. By looking at how they interact, we can make this vision real, and, finally, technology will adapt to us.

Dinner is printed

We spoke to Marcio Barradas, CEO and Founder of Moodbytes, a company focused on the application of the latest technologies in the food sector and how 3D printing is changing the game.

What’s the future of food in your opinion? 

It is future shaped by big change: we have to come to terms with the fact that the world is tremendously overpopulated. The people that grow food – as well as the industries that are in the food sectors – are now becoming more conscious about the change that is happening. Besides overpopulation, another problem is the principles that we use to create food: they are damaging our planet. There are traditions about acceptable ways of rearing cows, acceptable ways of growing vegetables etc., but these traditions have been adulterated and manipulated. We are now in a world where a fast-food culture has permeated all areas of the industry: so we rush rearing cattle, we rush growing vegetables, we rush everything in order to have it available to hand for our consumerist society.

If we want the planet to keep on providing for all of us, we need to rethink the old industries and take advantage of the new technologies that are emerging – experimenting in ways that we haven’t tried before, especially in how we preserve food and avoid wastage. For example, in the future I expect big changes such as dehydrating and lyophilising ingredients that are close to their expiry date in order to extend it for a year or two: retaining vitamins, minerals, acids and proteins among the ingredients.

Over the last few years, another trend that has surfaced is people wanting to be informed about what their food contains. If in the past we had to read a label describing what we were eating, soon they will only have to pass their mobile over a bar code that will light up a green, yellow or red light depending on what’s contained in that package. This will be a kind of Shazam for food, signalling how it was sourced and its benefits for the body.

What is a Superfood? 

Over the last few years, many studies have been conducted on how food can affect our moods and immune systems. Ingredients such as chlorella and goji berries contain high amounts of protein and amino acids.

So, as an example, if I were to make a normal milkshake and then add a small amount of one of these ingredients, my body gets increased, super benefits. I would not just be satisfying my hunger, but also giving my body a boost of something extra, either for my immune system or to have my body detoxed. We can use many of these ingredients present in nature and mix and match them to create what we now call a superfood.

What other developments have you noticed in the food industry as of late? 

What I see is that the major companies dominating the sector are really learning a lot from startups. Big companies are looking into food tech startups or following their example in creating a circular economy, from growth mindset to conservation. There are quite a few new examples of how to grow food and rethink space. Vertical greenhouses for example, can still yield lots of food but use much less water.

The fact of the matter is, we are not too late to save our planet but we are also not in the best position either, if we want to continue to prevail as a species and keep having access to what we like to eat. We can really only work with and purchase from companies that are future-thinking. As consumers we must stick to principles such as no waste and no plastic, ultimately re-evaluating what and how we eat.

What’s the biggest challenge in convincing people to adopt these new foods? How do you persuade consumers that this is the right path?

The biggest challenge stems from the fact that most cooking techniques and traditions worldwide are ancient. So over time we have stopped thinking about how and why we do things, resting solely on the fact that we have been doing it the same way for centuries. But our reality today is much different from the past. Now we have an excess of people in the world, which demands more of the Earth’s resources, yet we are still attached to the traditional way of doing things even if we are now modern-day consumers. Once, we ate because we were hungry, there was no room to be inventive or picky about we put into our bodies – we simply didn’t have enough. Instead, we ate what was available. Nowadays it’s different, we consume much more than what we actually need and our planet cannot handle it.

Which means we need to rethink the way we process food for the masses. I made a world tour across many Southern European countries like Portugal, where I come from, Italy, Greece, Spain, etc. We are much more attached to our food than people from Northern Europe. Tradition counts for much when it comes to what we eat. So these new technologies can be rejected at first, because people don’t understand them. So when they saw me printing food, several people came to me asking how many chemicals I was using, what do I put inside the machines, if it prints by itself. In London and in the Netherlands such questions never came up. People think this is a wonder of the modern world so it must be using all kinds of chemicals to replace food. In Lleida, Spain, a city with an important agronomic culture, I brought the printers and shot a documentary showing that we pick the freshest ingredients and then transform them into a purée or recipe and then use the printer only to add aesthetic beauty. So 3D printing is adding beauty to dishes but it is not adulterating the food’s base components in any way.

People who are more motivated and think we have to act in a more responsible way when it comes to food are generally very open to such advancements. This nuclei of people tend to be more aware and conscious about what they’re doing, they keep looking for new solutions in the market and they are normally the first adopters of this technology. Once we have created a community of first adopters who benefit from this, then it becomes very easy to ignite a trend that everybody wants to follow. Without them, we wouldn’t get anywhere.

Where else do you think 3D printed food will be better received and why?

I can say that it is becoming a trend is Japan. Japanese people love innovation and they are really keen in having their meal printed. I see it every time we take part in a worldwide event. If I’m printing food, I can be sure that European spectators will come to me and ask me lots of questions. For sure they will ask me if the food is edible, how it is printed, how the printer works. An American audience expresses wonder and then asks me if they can try. I’ve noticed that Japanese people will just try it, no questions asked. So it’s a question of how our mind is prepared to absorb novelties. Japanese are very innovative and they are ready to try new things. Americans love innovation and are very open minded, while Europeans are too informed to break with tradition. It’s a cultural difference.

Who can benefit the most from 3D printed food?

3D printed food is fascinating. One problem in the world today is that 6 percent of the total population suffers from dysphagia, a disease that prevents the sufferer from chewing. People affected can only eat purées and baby food throughout their entire life, which is very sad. But by bringing 3D printers to the centers where this disease is treated, we can print food that is shaped and tastes like chips, chicken nuggets or any other shape normal food has. We can even cook or boil it, generating more flavours and adding a lot of value to these people’s lives.

So we are already working with a few dysphagia centers. But we are also working with catering for the elderly and replacing part of their diet with (3D) food cartridges. There is also a future for 3D printed food in healthcare, wherein patients can eat food which is light on their stomachs, such as a tasty purée. We can also add medication directly to the food, thus reducing the costs and helping with a less invasive recovery. This technology can also be used to create specialized diets. For example, if you want to gain muscle mass we can prepare cartridges with a nutritionist, for each day of the week make different cartridges containing what you need to increase your muscle mass. By the same token, if a person wants to go on a diet but is afraid of losing some essential minerals, we can create some cartridges with a tailored amount of minerals in order to replace what is lost by the diet, so the person can lose weight without losing the essentials. These are the areas where 3D food printing is benefiting people who don’t have conditions too of course. It can help pastry chefs who with just once click, can make any number of cakes or anything for that matter.

What’s your opinion on artificial food?

If by artificial food, you mean in-vitro food, meat grown in labs for instance, my biggest concern is how it will affect our body in ten years time. I know it’s going to be approved and legalized so it means that right now it has no harmful components, but my skepticism is still there. How is that going to affect our body? We know that food is also energy, it’s our fuel. Normally, our fuel comes from things which have been alive. The vegetables, as they grow, they take some energy from the earth, from the water, from the sun and their natural environment. When you do it in vitro, how is that energy, the vitamins and proteins and everything that is supposed to be in our benefit, being transformed?

So I fear that we will be more and more inefficient because of a lack of natural energy. As I said, food is fuel and everybody knows that a good gasoline takes you farther than a bad gasoline. I think that we will learn the same lesson about in-vitro food. My biggest concern is about how we’ll feel in ten years time and which diseases we may develop from eating that. I prefer much more, an approach based on meat replacement, by using the organic vegetables available, grown naturally or even in a greenhouse, and transform them into ‘meat’. I believe that that is already been proven to be healthier than artificial meat. All in all, with these foods, it’s a matter of let’s wait and see.

This must be the place

“How will our homes look and how will new technologies impact them?”, is a question that is often asked about the future. It’s a question which highlights how improperly we use the term “technology” rather than term “tool”. By talking about technology, one may be referring to both a main area of research or to a device. AI or R+ (VR/AR/MR) can be both domains and tools for example.

Drawing a boundary between these two terms is important, as it is important to define boundaries between different areas of research. Scientists are explorers, they must go beyond but also keep a clear idea of where they are approaching a topic from. In my field of research this is no different, and today I’m exploring and manufacturing the buildings of the future.

My research is primarily in the area of Big Data, with a primary focus on energy efficiency. The main idea behind the research is to find how we can apply Data Science (DS) in building environments or finding ways to completely redesign or rethink them.

This includes resource efficiency, not only in terms of energy, water or waste; but also in human behavior, mobility, transport, city events and weather. To do this, digital layers of the buildings are taken into account. Thanks to the use of data, we can better understand what the building’s environment is like for the end users. In brief, my research is a combination of DS, sustainable building construction technologies, and business modeling, which together are used to understand how this research can be adapted to the market and if it comprises market-ready technologies – all in accordance with the NASA-designed approach, Technology Readiness Level.

The buildings of the future will be quite similar to those we know now, yet very different. To provide an example that clarifies this oxymoronic image, we need to look to the automotive industry. Today’s cars look similar to those of 50 years ago, but functionality-wise they are completely different. Today’s cars are driverless, sensor-based, have climate control and are provided intertwined with many different digital services. Increasingly, they are becoming more software than hardware. By the same token, buildings can look the same but function in a multitude of different and new ways.

The first layer of innovation won’t happen in form. In fact, a building’s form won’t necessarily be innovative at all (at first anyway), but their functionality will. With functionality, our research focuses on two main points: comfort for those inhabiting the space, and resource efficiency – the amount of resources they use. Then we try to build models which find a balance between these two factors. Then we can move to the next layer and ask ourselves other questions: Where is the self-expression? Does this building reflect the occupants’ personality? Does it help them to be more productive? Our goal is that of creating buildings which help users perform better in different ways. With this idea in mind, we also design services and make research experiments – soon we will be testing to the functionality of movable walls for example.

By the year 2045, there will be a deep connection between humans and buildings. In the present day, we are still very much disconnected from our buildings. When we choose clothes, we choose something we feel good in. But in a building, normally we simply deal with what we have, and this inability to tailor our environment creates a disconnect. Future buildings will be more responsive. Another project which I am working on is centered on digital and aims to create rooms that change according to a person’s favorite colors, shape, types of art or music of the person living there.

This customization is bent on adapting environments according to its inhabitants and purpose. If it’s a place for collective meetings and experiences, it should be responsive to those needs. These are the two parameters that count: who is there and why. Buildings in the future will have to address these parameters better.

As I mentioned, the buildings of the future will initially differ from a functional point of view but there is the potential for room to adapt their form too, even so far as shifting into fractal geometry. If we compare the tree and the complexity of its geometry to a building, we see the latter has a very simple geometry. For our brain, it means less work to do, fewer things to notice, less of a canvas to conquer. This is one of the reasons we love spending time in parks because nature is complex and inspires our brains to be creative. In a building, our brain’s activity is stimulated in a very limited way due to most buildings having very limited forms.

Over time, there will be a transition from a functionality based approach to a mission-based one – which is how spaceships are built. In space, there is always a mission to accomplish, one of the more important being the goal of bringing back the crew safe and sound. But when it comes to building a building, the mission is capacity, not necessarily health and happiness. This must and will change.

In the near future, the buildings we live in will know us, and us them. At the IBM Research Center in Dublin, scientists are making experiments on what they call cognitive buildings, which essentially means focusing on the building’s ecosystem in order to listen to what it can tell us. We can then better identify and measure a building’s performance in order to understand how it actually functions and how humans can better interact with it.

This is once again where the cruciality of data becomes apparent. Just as how our condition can be monitored thanks to data on our body’s temperature or blood pressure (to give some examples), the same can be done with buildings. Of course, there are different parameters, and analysing digital layers will play a very important role. As the use of digital services continues to grow we will need something to organize the data flow – this can’t be done without the help of digital layers.

One such could be a physical wall with a digital augmented layer which reflects information about the productivity in the building, not in a numerical way, but in an abstract way, color-wise or through fading/blossoming flowers. At the MIT, this is called a cross-reality window. To interact with this tool, however, we will need another. This is where voice-based services step in, with such a tool, we can talk directly to buildings – rendering, in many ways, the term inanimate obsolete.

If this is too abstract, then picture this scene: A person is sitting in a room when suddenly they start feeling hot, resulting in their asking the building the question: “Can you decrease the temperature?”. The system does not just decrease the temperature but also answers back: “Yes, I agree that it is warm but if I decrease the temperature by 3 degrees, it will cost you 30 percent more energy than if I decrease the temperature by 2; I suggest the second option”. We are talking about intelligent systems which are not simply executors of demands but are able to come up with suggestions.

Beside digital layers and voice-based services, a third tool which is particularly useful in building future scenarios is Virtual Reality. This is a precious tool that can give us an extensive overview of an environment even before it is manufactured in the real world. Inevitably, problems will arise when trying to explain how a place can be built according to fractal geometry. But by building a virtual version of a space, we can invite people to better understand how the space will look and feel. At the same time, we can also collect data related to these interactions, and record reactions, preferences, perplexities etc. This would help us to make decisions and enhance the design process. But this is not the only boon of VR, and the tool is also fundamental to the overcoming of physical and time constraints.

Through VR, a researcher can expand the testbed, go beyond the limits of physical infrastructure and create simulations. Conducting experiments on concepts such as flexible design are made possible without spending vast amounts of time and resources doing so. When it comes to the buildings of the future then, four tools are paramount: Data Science, to develop indicators which provide a better understanding of the environment being worked on; Machine Learning (ML), the technology at the core of the voice-based services that can convert voice to text thanks to Natural Language Processing (NLP), which help us to interact with our surroundings; and R+ (VR/AR/MR) through which we can virtually pre-test, pre-visualize and pre-experience the features we want to have in the future.

Is there any danger in what we are doing? I think that there is always a danger of losing control over the tools and the technologies we explore. We lose control when there’s a lack of explanations, lack of understanding. What is difficult to be understood, is also difficult to be controlled. Think of VR, as an example. The more we experiment with VR, the further we go into this new dimension, the thinner the line between our two worlds becomes, and a Pandora’s box of unintentional developments could potentially arise.

However, I’m not a big fan of fearful scenarios and sinister singularities. I try to be realistic and a bit optimistic. We build things which serve us and I believe that we are better equipped to control them when we know what we want or feel. We need to find the time to develop a better and deeper knowledge of the tools we are working with and a better comprehension of not only what we are doing, but also why we are doing it. That is how we will build the best homes of the future.

Social mania

Our brains have evolved over several hundred thousands of years. Yet in terms of the ways in which we think and interact, there has been relatively little change. That was until recently, wherein the evolution of communication, culminating in the invention of the internet, gave us the capacity to connect over geographical distances in unprecedented numbers. The effects of these developments, including the mass adoption of other digital technologies, are having a profound influence on individual psychology, group psychology, and social behavior. The basic bottom line is that we cannot predict what’s going to happen, but we are beginning to see significant changes which correlate with the rise of social media.

One of the areas that this is becoming most evident is in mental wellbeing. Particularly among Millennials and the student population, a group in which we are witnessing a crisis in mental health. Unhappiness, dysphoria, anxiety, and feelings of having no purpose in life are at an all-time high. However, teenagers by default have always had problems in adjusting to adult life. So the question that remains is it really worse today because of technology, or is it simply because we have a better understanding of these conditions and that people are more ready and willing to talk about them?

Whilst it’s true there was always been a level of anxiety about transitioning into adulthood, the problem has been amplified by a constant diet of perfection – a continuous IV drip of the achievements of others. Given that we are social animals who judge where we are relative to others, it stands to reason that many will feel particularly inadequate if their benchmark is the glistening lives of others on social media.

It’s very difficult to remain objective when what you are being fed isn’t objective at all. The other issue is that technology hinders the ability to develop resilience. In the past, if you were facing some sort of conflict or problem, you could generally work through it yourself and give yourself the time to do so. Now, with the instant access to expertise, information, and opinion, people are not really given the opportunity to work through their problems on their own, which is a necessary process to grow.

The reason these technologies are so successful in the first place is that they tap directly into our deep seeded evolutionary biases. These technologies, just as with gambling, provide an immediate serotonin release, the same chemical which makes us feel appreciated and valued. Technology today is supercharging these mechanisms, and our needs to be a social animal means that we are inadequately prepared for this – which is why they are so successful. Now, as to whether or not that actually changes us in terms of our evolution we cannot be sure of yet. Currently, we are at the beginning of this seismic shift.

Some may suggest that restricting the usage of social media would mitigate this issue. However, we are social creatures, and proportionally we have the longest childhood of any species on the planet – this is unlikely a coincidence. There’s something very profound about childhood, and it is most commonly spent forming social relationships and learning how to socially integrate. If you are in an environment where social media is part of an important social process, then restricting a child’s usage will be anything other than counterproductive.

Another main theme of our present moment is the rise of extremism across the world. Any mechanism which allows you to connect with like-minded people, no matter how extreme their opinions or your own might be, can create a false sense of normality. These communities are built as with any other, just without the social checks which are normal for a community to thrive in a healthy manner. One thing that we do know is that when people communicate on social media, they act and behave in a way which is much more extreme than they would do in a face to face situation. When present, we are always moderating our behavior and acting in accordance with social cues, when communicating through other mediums, that natural behavioral check goes out of the window.

When you’re anonymous and you’re online and rewarded by these feedback systems continually, the groundwork is laid to create which tend to be more extreme. An arms race is created thanks to these feedback loops: as more people ‘like’ an individual’s opinions, the more inclined an individual will be to return to gain the serotonin boost, creating a positive feedback loop. When the whole world who is online, it is no surprise that it is the extremest of views which float to the top and stand out. When enough individuals interact in such a way, you get what is called a homophily – the means of which groups coalesce together.

Rather than the homogenization of views, then, groups holding more extreme ones form. Ironically, digital media is actually not creating a world of people, like-minded people, instead it is actually promoting the voices of many fringe groups which would never have previously existed because they didn’t have the basic mass or the numbers to justify their ideas.

These are few of the unintentional effects on the behavior of social media, but what about intentional manipulation? The kind which has manifested itself in worries of election meddling over recent years. It is currently unclear whether or not by controlling what an individual is fed through their newsfeed will shift their political persuasions. Decades of advertising suggests that controlling what people see does indeed affect their behaviors, yet when it comes to social media, it is difficult to ascertain how prominent these shifts are. Can advertisements actually change an individual’s political affiliations, convincing them to reverse their views? This is less clear.

“We don’t know” is what we know so far, as the experiments required to even begin to figure it out have yet to be conducted. There are many reasons as to why they have not yet been done. Many of the required studies flirt with ethical boundaries and more still require entire populations of test subjects in order to discover what is going on. Which are unfortunately two issues which both universities and researchers tend to struggle to overcome Currently, we have studies such as Facebook’s own, wherein a few years ago they manipulated the feeds of users so that they witnessed primarily positive stories. They did discover an effect on overall mood, but it was so slight that it would suggest that social media is not as strong a tool of manipulation as many today are suggesting. It can perhaps shift or nudge people towards different attitudes, but whether you can change the political persuasions entirely, is an ongoing question.

When it comes to the brain, it is a story of ever-increasing complexity. Exponential technologies too, welcome newfound intricacies into our lives. The two interacting together will inevitably create even more profound changes, what they are and when they will happen, is a question we must answer. We cannot ethically advance as a species if we don’t.