This is the second post in the series Pictures, people and machines.
For what a picture’s worth
An interesting perspective, to eye catchy colours of an abstract, contrast and the grain of a black and white, to photographs of our friends and family; we have several reasons to click and keep photos. As part of the project we did for Intel, we brainstormed around the various roles a photograph plays in our lives. [the following map tries to map out the objective of photos!] The significance of this exercise was not only to create such a map but to find areas where interventions are possible, –not to mention, Intel was interested in distributing the computing power of [their] processors to creation and consumption part of the spectrum as well, where as now the intermediate editing stage consumes most of the processing power of a computer.
These first thoughts were the reason I started thinking about the difference between what machines see and what humans see in a photo. With the advancements in computer vision, machines can detect and find objects, people and their faces; track objects in a video stream, estimate the 3D pose of an object etc. These algorithms still fall short when it comes to making sense of a photograph or seeing the symbolic meaning it has! Perhaps one of the nicer things computers can do is to recognise the people, objects or space [symbols] that people see in a photograph and try to augment the static photograph in a meaningful way.
A meaningful way
“We are in a picture together. We are in the same place and time and I am keeping this picture to remember that. We are family, friends. Remember that time when we took the road trip?…”. Photographs more than anything captures a moment in time. Frozen in that moment are our family and friends, things that we care about. And that is so important to think about the time itself, because the meaning of that photograph depends so much on that moment it was captured. People and objects age and what they mean to us may change over time. Moreover a photo can take us instantly back in time, bring back memories and lets us tell the story.
Do meaning and context of a photo change if the photograph aged with its subjects? Can photographs age gracefully with its subjects?
Do meaning and context of a photo change if the photograph aged with its subjects? Can photographs age gracefully with its subjects? A meaningful way to explore these questions could be to explore the scenarios assuming such an ageing photograph exists. This explorations could feed itself back into designing something tangible to answer those questions. There are certain innate qualities of a photo that has to be maintained, the context, relationships between the subjects and the aesthetics of the image itself. Also this new medium derived from a static photo will have some new qualities as well, how would the subjects age and change, what are the interactions possible with it when it changes?
One possible way is to think photographs as a collage –a collage of people, things and the space. Then introduce the concept of ageing, changing time. And recreate this collage as there are new photos taken of the same subjects, by recognising them and introducing them into the former picture. Just like making a collage from magazine or newspaper cuttings! The meaning and context of the old picture more or less remains unchanged, but the people and things in the photo is how they are now!
“At CIID we are nearing the end of the course and everyone toiling away on their final projects. People are making their prototypes and codifying mobile apps, laser-cutting planks of wood and plastic and making boxes, assembling electronics to fill those boxes, shooting videos and preparing the presentations to explain the concepts. There is a quiet feeling that lingers. I think we are closer to each other than ever. There will be a photo shoot in a few weeks when all of these end, may be at our graduation ceremony. After the ceremony and party everyone will go home. Months and years would pass and we will get on with our lives and careers.
Our group photo changed over time as we changed. Everyone kept the photograph with them, it is on the school’s website. Occasionally I see someone in a wedding dress or covered in confetti at a birthday party. It brings back so many memories. My friends haven’t changed even a little in my imagination, but they have changed so much, I know, I can see that in the photo. It is now a wonderful collage of everyone’s pictures overlapping each other. I kept it on my phone and running my finger across its screen, I can go through a small slice of everyone’s past all the way to the day the photo was taken in Copenhagen. Everyone’s doing well. Usually coming across this old photo ends up in me texting or calling someone or visiting their Facebook page.”
More than just pixels
Moving away from the technical and implementation details was helpful in developing on the core idea and how it would affect the people and their behaviour. I did various experiments that I imagined would help me in implementing the concept without losing the experience of the basic idea. These experiments included explorations into gestural interfaces, the aesthetics of an ageing photograph, and explorations into various computer vision algorithms for extracting people and objects from photographs and identifying them.
Few key learnings from the original set of explorations were presented to Intel. And the idea has come a long way ever since I started my solo project, with the kind permission from my team-mate Wan-Ting to take this idea further and explore it.
Can cities be conscious, as an organism? How can cities be aware of itself and its inhabitants and manifest itself as a sensible conscious being?
The scope that cities have is huge in this respect, especially in the modern context where every piece of public object is networked. These public objects can be considered as the senses of the city, and a cities senses spread across a wider geographic area. ATMs, Parking meters, surveillance cameras, weather sensors, traffic lights and cameras, ticket vending, electric meters, telephone and OFC routers the list of the networked objects existing in the public space is quite long. These information exists in multiple layers, and while certain layers spread across a relatively smaller area of the city or the entire city while others span across different cities across continents. Most of these objects are designed and installed in place usually for singular purposes. Life span of a city is considerably longer compared to us and it would be interesting to know how these networked information could amass from such a large scope and be distilled.
Not just these public objects, the people themselves play roles. The swarm of bicyclists leaving for work every morning and teeming the streets, or pedestrians, buses, cars, delivery trucks, police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks… There may be several reasons or authorities and rules behind how these seemingly single purposed swarms form in a city; nevertheless it would be quite interesting to investigate what emergent behaviour comes out of these different agents collectively.
The case of the Super-mind
Kevin Kelly in his book “Out of control” discusses different aspects of a collective consciousness, what he calls a hive-mind. While swarm intelligence is well inspired from, especially in fields like simulated intelligence, there are more intriguing behaviours these systems exhibit. In the second chapter of his book Kelly explains this with an ant colony as an example–
“Ants, too, have hive mind. A colony of ants on the move from one nest site to another exhibits the Kafkaesque underside of emergent control. As hordes of ants break camp and head west, hauling eggs, larva, pupae — the crown jewels — in their beaks, other ants of the same colony, patriotic workers, are hauling the trove east again just as fast, while still other workers, perhaps acknowledging conflicting messages, are running one direction and back again completely empty-handed. A typical day at the office. Yet, the ant colony moves. Without any visible decision-making at a higher level, it chooses a new nest site, signals workers to begin building, and governs itself.
The marvel of “hive mind” is that no one is in control, and yet an invisible hand governs, a hand that emerges from very dumb members. The marvel is that more is different. To generate a colony organism from a bug organism requires only that the bugs be multiplied so that there are many, many more of them, and that they communicate with each other. At some stage the level of complexity reaches a point where new categories like “colony” can emerge from simple categories of “bug.” Colony is inherent in bugness, implies this marvel. Thus, there is nothing to be found in a beehive that is not submerged in a bee. And yet you can search a bee forever with cyclotron and fluoroscope, and you will never find the hive.”
Us, human beings are a very social species. In fact we are still searching for our own socialness and the ever more urgent need to interconnect with each other through every mode of communication that exists, using almost every piece of technology that we know of. yet it is quite uncertain that if we posses a hive mind; we definitely do colonise, we have networked systems for communication, but still we trust in hierarchical models for making decisions and foreseeing the future of our hives.
“Wheeler claimed that an insect colony was not merely the analog of an organism, it is indeed an organism, in every important and scientific sense of the word. He wrote: “Like a cell or the person, it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution…neither a thing nor a concept, but a continual flux or process.””
The search for our bugness within
Is the consciousness of the city the hive mind? Do we posses such a hive mind? Are we too complex as an organism to have such an effective super-mind for our own good?! What advantages do we have? What inherent within us might work against such a system? What continual flux or process do human colonies –cities have? examples? If such mindless creatures can do so much collectively, have a collective mind for the entire colony, what can we accomplish if we human beings had such a collective super mind?
While exploring these questions in a more general fashion, may be it is a good idea to focus on one city, one hive at a time. Copenhagen.