Friday June 12th

The Future we Imagine

I’ve been thinking about the future for years

  • Before I ever thought about getting into Computer Science, I was drawn to film because of the technology, the vision of what it represented. I still think it’s such a powerful medium; it can erase truth, expose truth, subvert commonly accepted beliefs or awaken a sleeping population.
  • After I got bored with following the gear heads in the Film industry (updates in cameras, just like updates in software libraries don’t really interest me), I was interested in Concept Design. Concept Design is essentially the iterative process of designing movies. Unfortunately, these days, it’s kind of a mindless, superficial industry in terms of its ideas (and a lot of those artists don’t read, which is painful to me because in the US there was a time where it was illegal for people who looked like me to read), but I was drawn to the idea of using hidden messages in the design and fabrication of a movie to spread a broader message about not just the society we currently live in, but the society we could live in.
  • At its best, it’s like an opportunity to tell a moralistic tale through a design image.

The Medium of Computer Science

  • One of the reasons I think that the field of Machine Learning is so interesting is that it again forces us to ask these questions that came up in my film theory classes. Who owns the image, who profits from our indulgence in these images, what are these images really saying? It’s an interesting question to ask if we extrapolate these questions to data.

The most interesting Concept Design

  • The most interesting concept design classes I ever had were some of the worldbuilding ones. Specifically, they were based around ideas. What if the characters lived in a world of depleted resources, but in the future? What would be the currency of the future, given this constraint? What would forms of energy look like? What would houses and infrastructure look like? These questions are so applicable to the field of AI today, and we can draw from existing sources in fields like economics or sociology to make predictions.
  • What’s unfortunate is that they’re so applicable but I never have anyone to TALK TO about these things. The film people aren’t particularly interested in AI (they’re too busy looking at new cameras and as I explained in another post, they see themselves more so as craftsmen and artists than as part of the world of AI/tech!) and the AI people don’t particularly see the value of critical film theory. I don’t know if they’ve quite figured out the connection between the two just yet. A few of us are starting to ask questions, though, and I’m already a part of a book club and a film club that is meeting this summer to talk about these things; race, culture and technology and how it relates to ourselves (as techies; one group is geared towards software engineers in tech, and the other is geared towards computer scientists). Furthermore, there is a lack of a common language between the two; it’s difficult to be heard if you don’t have a technical background in the CS community, and the people in film aren’t particularly interested in Computer Science research. So it’s definitely a strange space to be in with that background. So many things sound so familiar, but out of reach simultaneously.
  • There is also the problem of forgetting; if you are in one field, persons often forget that you can have the introspection of a person who used to be in another, so you are often lumped as one or the other. A friend of a friend who works in that industry recently tried to explain what a professional camera was to me, for example. I’m often mindful of this bias when meeting others; I don’t assume that they have no background in a field (people have many lives, and you never know. Plus, the world is pretty open for learning if you have the curiosity, so why brand someone’s ability to learn and limit their understanding based on their perceived field?)
  • Some of the most interesting classes I ever took acknowledged that there were inequalities (just as there are today) that are economic, racial etc and that these inequalities would still be embedded in societies in the future; they would just be represented differently. And some of the most interesting teachers actively told us to subvert the expectation of these ideas in our design pitches; why not have a black lead; Hollywood doesn’t have that.
  • Alas, unfortunately the most interesting work typically came from the very students who were exposed to and very aware of such inequalities (either through lived experiences or otherwise), but their survival in that field was difficult, because it rewards those who already have a safety net that involved nepotism and generational wealth. It rewarded those designers in learning who could pay the high tuition without blinking and saw design as little more than flashy colours in Photoshop and fancy brushes, adding a filter bloom here and there, with a radial blur. Having seen behind the curtain of Hollywood, I’m perpetually underwhelmed by the lack of new ideas and critical thought, but now I understand why that is the case.

I’m thinking about this stuff

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of stuff in the context not of just what is going on in the world, but in terms of representation.

  • Years ago, I made this image in concept design class. It’s one of the few I ever kept, and I always had a sense of humour about work in that world, because I often thought that a lot of the work was pretty but shallow. The title was an inside joke about sequels. I guess I kept it because I liked the idea of a lead character who was represented by a group that wasn’t typical (that is, an elderly person), frail, but whose technology empowered him. In this case, it was this sort of futuristic breathing device. It’s still a bit of a strange image because it’s a fake movie poster.
  • Especially in grad school, though, it’s very typical to hear students over and over think aloud about themselves, but not groups like the elderly. The typical researcher in Computer Science isn’t rushing to publish in NeurIPS on AI for the elderly. Maybe there should be a track that specifically considers the ways AI might harm this particularly vulnerable group, and ways to mitiage those risks. But what do I know? I’m just learning.
  • Oh, btw, you can usually tell if I’m writing a fair amount of code on this blog, because I won’t be writing about code. Sometimes I will, but if I’m fairly consumed in code for most of the day, I’ll do something else instead. I’ve been thinking of doing a pop-up book or something like that this summer, but I haven’t fully decided yet. Covid makes it more difficult to get access to such tools. But we’ll see.

Today I feel grateful

  • I have a long way to go, but I feel like coming with my background, and having been exposed to these ideas, and learning Computer Science research, I’m painfully aware of a lack of these perspectives. I’ve often said that most of the time, I feel like I’m an impostor. Not just by virtue of the way I look in these halls, but I think that having a curiosity for the field might just not be enough. I’m often afraid that the gatekeepers will discover me and deem me not worthy. Interestingly, a similar conversation occurred on a Women’s Sailing group I’m involved in. All the women are excellent in that group, many own their own boats and they have sailed all over the world, but they still feel like it may never be enough, and that there are insecurities because so much of what we do is just never enough. Sometimes, that just gets inside of your head. Beware of self-sabotage.
  • However, that curiosity I had, that imagination for what the future might look like, really keeps me going. What if we did the right things to mitigate all the bad things that might happen? It’s exciting.

Wanting to make the world a better place

  • Many children, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, often talk about making the world a better place. In my generation, a popular answer was “World Peace”. In my mom’s generation, it was “by being a nurse, doctor, or some professional in the medical field”. I’ve heard from a Concept Designer professor that in his time, “everyone wanted to be a marine biologist” (that really was a generational thing; you see these in waves growing up, and it’s dependent on when you grew up!).
  • Perhaps it’s better to have a different view on that; which is that, you can be whatever you like, do whatever you like, and impact the world through change by lived experience; seeing the world for what it is, interacting with others and understanding that there are things that even you who wanted to be a marine biologist just don’t know, but can work with others to figure out. Maybe in the end that’s really what will “make the world a better place”. Lived Experience. Empathy.

And that’s it

Written on June 12, 2020