Roel Vertegaal (@roelvertegaal) is a Dutch-Canadian interaction designer, scientist, musician and entrepreneur working in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. He is a Professor at Queen’s University’s School of Computing where he directs the Human Media Lab and is best known for his pioneering work on flexible and paper computers, with PaperWindows (2004), PaperPhone (2010] and PaperTab (2012). He is also known for inventing ubiquitous eye input, such as Samsung’s Smart Pause technologies.
“In the near future, a computer will have any shape or form, and flexible computer displays will start appearing on any product of any form. These Organic User Interfaces will be completely embedded in real world interactions.”
In our wide-ranging conversation, we cover many things, including:
- The future of computing interfaces and why it is not what you think
- What is on the near-term horizon in terms of holograms
- How technology transforms society and cultural norms
- The big problem with conflicting interests creating filter bubbles, fake news and overly aggressive Facebook
- Why AR and VR are overhyped and ultimately not the answer
- The problems with voice and Alexa-like products for functionality
- How communication can break down or be enhanced online
- The problems Roel sees in today’s world and what causes them
- Roel passion for quantum computing and potential implications
- The reason Roel is very worried about climate change
- Why Roel believes startups and tech companies should have higher moral character
- The awesome effects of flexible computers, phones and interfaces
- Why the lab is always 10-15 years ahead of commercial companies
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Roel: I think that what we’re like today society is kind of characterized by problems which are a digital domain. I think the Internet has done certain things to communication that are not desirable and twenty years ago I started working on something called an attentive user interface which is now in the iPhone 10. This idea that you can’t consume the user’s attention forever and think that there’s no consequence. You need a filter. You need to filter messages coming in who who get a notification from who do not get a notification from [Inaudible] things like like [Inaudible]
Right! And so I think the problem. The real problem with the Internet is that it doesn’t have filters anymore. So I perceive future we just had a stack of digital paper it’s like it’s in a paper and you can have as many as you want twenty twenty documents or something like that and you can either use them to render one key document or you have different apps on them. They’re interoperable they work together as if they were windows on a computer.
The only reason we have windows on the computer by the way is because you only have one display so we have to carve out these tasks these task areas artificially you know
Matt: I love the conversations that make you think and make you dive deeply into the different subject matter. Today we have an incredible guest on the program and an episode that for me did just that. We have Professor Roel Vertegaal. Roel, a Dutch Canadian interaction designer scientist and musician and entrepreneur working in the area of human computer interaction. He’s a professor at Queens University in the School of Computing where he directs the Media Lab and he’s best known for his pioneering work on the flexible in paper computers, paper windows and paper phone and paper tablet. He’s also known for inventing ubiquitous eye input. Basically, if you’re interested in building better systems that work with humans and electronics Roel’s the guy he’s been designing quite a few of the products that have come out over the decades including quite a bit of technology that went into iPhone 10. This was quite wide ranging and interesting episode. We discussed the future of computing and interfaces and why it’s not what you think what’s on the near term horizon in terms of hollow grams. How technology transfers and transforms society and cultural norms. The big problem and conflicting interests with filter bubbles make news an overly aggressive Facebook. Why AR, VR overhyped and ultimately not the answer. The problems with voice Alexa like products for functionality how communication can break down or be enhanced online. The problems roll sees today in the world and causes them a little bit about his passion for quantum computing and potential implications. And now without further ado, I give you Roel to go.
Roel: the future [Inaudible] their faces looks like what we’ve been doing in the lab 10 years ago and he and other labs around the world. There’s many researchers that are actively working on the future of interfaces and one of the things that I think people about realize is that problems they have in their hand inventions that actually come out of universities twenty years ago
Matt: there’s that much of a lag.
Roel: Yes. Wow.
Matt: So what are you working on today what is that. What is the cutting edge.
Roel: We are currently working on holograms. So those are displays that you can show not just for pixel but the angle of light.
So what that means is that you can represent something in 3-D for example and not have to wear glasses. Now there has been various iterations of this ecology but it’s really getting to the point now where we’re able to simulate real life. So other things we recently introduced as [Inaudible] human which is a teleconferencing system that can just beam you up into full size and people can walk around you and see you stand there and talk to you.
Matt: Interesting do you think we’re closer to having more mainstream adoption of a hologram type technology or an AR, VR in the coming years.
Roel: Well I’ve never been a big fan of VR A.R. I’ve done a lot of work on our projected environment so I’m not a big fan of headsets and so I think this is one of the issues just like with Google Glass that’s really standing in the way this technology is that you know not only need to wear a headset but you also need to attract that had said relative to the environment which is a difficult problem [Inaudible] there’s issues with [Inaudible] in not being able to focus properly. So I think I think the classics are AR, VR style interfaces are fairly niche and I think that the industry has started to come to that conclusion as well.
Matt: What about contact lenses. I know Google is looking into something
Roel: I’m not a big fan of augmenting the human to change perception. I’m a I’m a big fan of altering the environment to change perception. So what I mean by that is that you can project our image for example by projecting onto an object in the environment and then projection mapping and we’ve seen that in various shows where you know you have a church or something and artists reject these cool graphics on the church in a way that works is by by mimicking the three dimensional model of the church in the graphics you can actually project something on there that looks as if it’s painted on there and you get to that with regular objects that we’ve been doing that for over 15 years
Matt: and had a way. You said you’re a bigger fan of projecting versus augmenting. Is that ethical or performance reasons?
Roel: No I think well I think it’s both. I think I think that what we’re like today society is kind of characterized by problems with digital domain.
I think the Internet has done certain things to communication that are not desirable and twenty years ago I started working on something called an intended user interface which is now in the iPhone 10. This idea that you know you can’t consume that user’s attention forever and think that there’s no consequence.
You need a filter. You need to filter messages coming in. Who do you get a notification from who do you not get a notification from to combat things like [Inaudible] contradiction? Right. And so I think the the problem the real problem of the Internet is that it doesn’t have filters anymore. There used to be something like called journalism and that’s going out the window. I mean I know I’m talking but you know what I mean.
Matt: Oh no no I’m definitely not a journalist. Let’s get that.
Roel: Well, the classics sort of like idea behind journalism is that certain stories do tell other stories don’t tell you fact check. There is a low pass filter on the information and Twitter just doesn’t have that.
And it’s really detrimental. And so anyway the reason I’m saying that it is because you know we we embed the technology in our body or you know or in the case of contact lenses it becomes inescapable. And there is lots of mechanical problems with that.
So I prefer to give one example by have these if I had these contact lenses you know am I still able to talk to a normal person in a normal way or is that person out of an avatar that’s being generated in my world right.
So I think humans have evolved for millions of years to act in certain ways. Use for example proximity to initiate a conversation. Skype doesn’t quite work that way and I don’t think anyone has figured out how to make these interfaces work according to norms that we’ve evolved to use culturally but also biologically proximity is a pretty basic parameter and there is not a videoconferencing system or a phone that supports it.
Matt: Do you think it’s more proximity or eye contact just where the cameras are based or both
Roel: not so that the two are scaffolded right. It starts with proximity and then body oriented. So if I walk up to you my back turned towards you I’m not very engaging in a conversation. And then when I when I turn around there’s also orientation of course. And then finally eye contact eye contact is the most powerful here. And I did a lot of work from my Ph.D. on this. You know this notion that if people don’t look up to him in face to face conversation you basically don’t talk. It’s a very powerful mechanism. And Skype does not support it because the camera’s not on the right spot. And this is why the reasons why you need this hologram.
Matt: Which I imagine is one of the main reasons that these massive online education programs are not all that effective. People don’t complete them and the scores don’t go up all that much because you’ve got to be focusing. It turns out having a human they’re within arm’s reach or at least someone you can look at and make contact who has a significantly higher efficacy rate.
Roel: Projected into the real world. It is a hologram behaves exactly like a normal person would behave in face to face conversations. And because it’s a hologram you can correct for her eye contact because we use depth cameras not regular cameras to shoot the video body orientation is a given. If I you know and it’s multi party by default you know a person stand somewhere and they see exactly the angle from from where they’re looking. And so you can have a multi-party conversation and I’ll see the left side of your face and the other person sees the right side of your face just like normal. And so I’m really a fan of making interfaces that that learns from and implements shoes and ways. It’s almost like a language and remember it sounds these non-verbal languages that that we’ve evolved with for so long and implement the math here.
Matt: Turns out that old wives tale about 90 percent of communication being non-verbal. In fact it’s true.
Roel: So this is why I wanted to build an eye tracker into a fall so that your phone knows when you’re looking at the screen. And for example, doesn’t ring when when you’re looking at the screen begins a visual modification so it doesn’t bother others. The sort of considerate interfaces Interfaces that that think about what your condition is or situation as before they barging into into your office you know phones ring that’s already crazy. The fact that a phone just rings you know if you would do that in a regular let’s say you’re in a restaurant and there’s somebody saying I want you to barge in and take over the conversation. That’s one of them. That’s every time and nobody thinks about this.
Matt: And why do you think about this.I wanted to take a quick time out and give a shout out to the first principles of thinking here by the role in his team. How often do we reexamine objects in our daily life our routines and daily life in question? Why do we do this this way? Clearly, with the phones there is something inherently broken their role and his team are focusing on one of the solutions. But I imagine there are billions of billion dollar businesses just looking at who we are and what we do and why we do what we do.
Roel: So I started life as a musician and am using electronics to perform live music. It shows that how [Inaudible] interfaces are how hard it is to express yourself in subtle ways. Like for example, you have a violin you can say Wah takes an hour 10000 hours to learn how to play a violin. But there’s a reason for that is that your body can get fused with the Hargreaves of the violin you don’t have to hold it in a certain way against your chin to be able to convey that subtle emotional expression. And I became fixated on creating interfaces that were do that not just in music but also in communication and eye contact is actually the visual equivalent of touch in a musical instrument.
If you look a person in the eye you change a lot of in their grain you up their psychological arousal levels. They paid better attention to what it is you’re saying. They know that you’re talking to them. These are very important cues that we routinely use that are lost in digital devices so just one of her right. So our communication. So think about for example text messaging text messaging is probably the most impoverished way of talking to a person you could possibly imagine yet to become super confrere and be all that at you know Janey’s and Margie’s but you know we don’t really solve the fundamental problem which is how do we convey for example subtlety and purling mystics and the way in which you say something using pitch structures in particular really is very important page what if something is a joke and if you don’t do that people might get offended and before you [Inaudible] your feelings. And we see the same thing happening on Twitter. Twitter is an ever more impoverished interface because you have this limited number of characters and as a consequence we see these very bipolar conversations appear online. And it’s not necessarily just because there is a lack of filter which is a problem number one that we talked about earlier but also because there is a lack of negotiation channels that they called back channels that are very normally used in today’s conversation and just just to give one example read I’ve talked about proximity the rules of proximity are based on the ability to to touch a person. So conversational distance kind of starts to arm lengths and it ends at one [Inaudible].
And this is very normal very natural if you think about it because you wanted to be a conversation but it becomes too intimate. When I get too close because I touch you.
And there’s also the potential for doing harm that way you know this is why we use our dominant hand in order to shake hands to show that we don’t have a sword for example. These are things that have evolved culturally at least for thousands of years and we’re not supporting them in technology at all. You know I like exposure to my to my camera on my laptop. I just maybe look a little bit more you know like a fish lens or something and it doesn’t really do anything to modulating conversation. There’s no way for me in a text message to really other than you know using some kind of symbolic form of negating what I just said by doing a smiley for example. There’s no there’s no good way in real time to use a back channel where it would be beautiful if we could somehow incorporate pitch structures in texting
Matt: As part of the problem here or just the incentive structure. So part of it is part of it is internal to health systems are built but part of the reason the systems are built this way is a move fast and break things and b what drives what drives revenues. So you’re looking at things from a user perspective. Facebook Facebook’s looking at things from how much of your time can we monetize.
Roel: I think it’s [Inaudible] I think it’s you know I think that one of the problems in Silicon Valley is that there is this focus on on engineers and technology focused individuals who are very good at creating softwares that do very interesting things. But there seems to be hardly any respect for people in the humanities who actually study how users use those tools and or not use those tools. You know I mean there are so many examples where the classic example let’s say it’s a lay out if it play out it is horrible and it just tries to grab your attention all the time because you know it’s perfectly possible to have a calm lay out and still have an effect. And so that’s I think problem one is the people that are building these things don’t necessarily have the proper regard for users because they don’t understand them and they don’t have a psychology background to learn how to understand them. I think the second problem is that these people don’t get empowered to go all the way to monetize. And if you don’t a product like Apple and Facebook is that Apple has a product and Facebook the users the product and so that means you become a service. And if you then go all the way monetizing that service there really is no limit to the amount of time that I want you to spend on Facebook. But the reality is you have to be my kids I have to go to work after the while these other things and that’s become a problem and I did foresee that when I was working on an attentive user interface 20 years ago. But what I did not proceed was people’s ability to adjust to this and adjust their norms you know and actually get addicted. I didn’t foresee the dopamine release that you get from getting a light or even a light or or from getting a text message. Oh my God somebody likes me because they sent me a text message. What’s your? Who was it that kind of instinct is being used fairly ruthlessly and it leads to problems like Cambridge Analytica. You know I think those two are retired. I realize they are separate problems but they are tied.
Matt: They’re kind of. They’re kind of the same problem as just one leads to the other.
Roel: I would definitely agree with that.
Matt: I think that texting is less of a problem because typically at least you know who you’re dealing with so you’re less likely to get into these type of situations. And if you are you can forgive someone because they’re a friend as opposed to an evil anonymous person online.
Roel: Correct. But I mean this is the essence of the problem is the same is that we have very very very poor tools to communicate with and like the boards of the phones. Why is it so small. Why can’t you have a sunscreen that you can hold out like a piece of paper? And so we’ve designed these what we call that organic user interface a user interface that adapts its shape to your communication style. Why can’t you use the accelerometer in your phone or the shape of your thumb to communicate a certain expression? Right. So we’ve done studies on that as well where we used a phone to measure whether people could convey certain states of emotion by flapping the phone or about crumpling the phone or shaking the phone and it turns out they can’t. You can actually convey nonverbal expressions by changing the shape. That’s pretty cool.
Matt: Elaborate on that.
Roel: Well, What we did was we had a basically a sensor laden surface that was flexible and we showed participants in this experiment a number of fairly common emotional labels we were seeing first [Inaudible] labels but they were made in a map. It’s called the balance arousal map where you can actually identify coordinate which relates to a positive emotion certain amount of that emotion which is the arousal level. So so we make these labels continuous because dealing labels is complicated because if you’re not identifying the correct label you’re off by an entire label whereas if I have some kind of continuous scale I can score a on I can actually measure the distance. So it turned out that we had people before and the movements with a flexible cellphone and then we showed animations of that flexible cell phone to a completely different set of porcupine’s and ask them what the emotion was that was being conveyed. They were only off by one. Usually, they may have guessed the wrong label but if you look at where the ordinate of that label was in the violence arousal plot they were really only off by one unit usually out of fight. So that means you can actually use the shape in order to communicate emotion and it’s probably much more effective to do that than to send an emoticon. It may not be as easy to do that well first of all because we don’t have flexible smartphones yet but also we have to figure out a way to do this but it’s not like this isn’t being used like if you listen to Jimmy Hendrix on the guitar. We’ve got a wedding bar and he’s pulling the strings and so he’s he’s communicating is a motion by by yanking the thing and we also build the phone but does that work. When you when you when you bend the phone it goes you know that kind of squealing sound from a guitar. It’s beautiful. Now that’s the kind of interfaces we need we need we need more subtle ways of interacting that actually correspond to our modalities of processing emotion.
Matt: So let me let me see if I get this I can I could definitely guess I have I have a paper phone in my hand. I get pissed off by crush it in my hand. How are some of the others? How are some of the other motions thing represented just institutionally or did you do people what to do.
Roel: No we didn’t tell them what to do but to get a very easy one. People would make a smiley by curving the phone upwards or a sad face curbing the phone downwards and then the amount of curvature or the amount of flapping they did in this process would be you know how happy they were or house fab work and what they’re doing is they’re actually mapping shapes that you find in human facial expressions and body expressions to an inanimate object and then and then on the other side people are interpreting those shapes by the same kind of neurons that you use in order to interpret for example a smile or or a projected body posture and movement is supercritical there. It’s not just about it’s not just about the shape it’s also about how the shape moves people are able to identify other people using just five points not five markers on a body record that you show you play that back just those points people will be able to tell that’s the human or that’s a dog because they’re so good at processing motion. Now of course if you want to do that with a smartphone you need to have a robotic smartphone that is able to actually shape shifting. And there are researchers working on that as well. We have done some work on that. So you know you ask me where’s the future. I think the future is in creating technologies that are less like you know the graphical user interface of yesteryear and that maybe are more like musical instruments that are more expressive. And that doesn’t necessarily need to be AI you know. I mean humans have a great capacity to communicate between each other. You don’t necessarily need to interpret it.
Matt: Interesting. I want to I want to dive a little deeper so we discuss that we just passed a paper phone a little bit and this has been a big focus of your research is flexible interfaces. I want to dive into that a little deeper. What’s the work that you’ve been doing and what’s the time horizon for when we could start to see a flexible phone, a flexible computer hit the market?
Roel: Well we did our first flexible interface in 2004.So at 15 years so that would be 2019
Matt: if that isn’t a little bit mind blowing that it takes 15 plus years for technology to get from research into commercial use then I don’t know what is.
Roel: It really is that simple. So I expect next year to be some kind of it probably won’t be fully flexible home but some kind of fold-able thumb where basically you have a flap on your phone and if you open up that flap you’ll have a continuous screen so the screen will bend. And you’ve got twice the amount of screen real estate.
Matt: What’s the actual mechanism how are you doing that was a projection initially.
Roel: Initially we used the same kind of projection mapping I was referring to earlier so it’s a form of augmented reality. And then we had to wait about six years while we were doing other prototypes we did we did you know projection on a Coke can to make. We’re sitting there we did a production on stickies we built around cameras to track these things. We did a lot of stuff but after six years in 2010 I finally got my first flexible display and it was an ink screen that was created by the American military and we use that to create paper found the world’s first smartphone.
Matt: Are you more enthusiastic about paper phone or about flexible paper or just for computer.
Roel: Yeah we then did read it some of the early work which was based on paper and I think they’re complimentary. I think you know I think the idea of bending. So why would you want to venture yours? Why would you want a bendable top? Well aside from the fact that you can throw in the floor and it doesn’t break its glass because of at last and it that thing your pocket incurs according to your body. What’s really nice about [Inaudible] is that it actually reflects interacting in the z dimension in the third dimension. So forget temple if we browse through a book we flip the pages instead of swiping them swiping is actually quite a heavy energy load on your thumb. And people are getting issues with that ergonomically whereas if you just bend the book cover you can actually change the rate of which pages flip. So we’ve built that if you are interacting with 3D models. We’ve done a holographic version of a phone called hollow flex which shows a hologram of a 3D model and you can edited by bending the thumb and the z dimensioned so you can use [Inaudible] for X-Y and then bend it for the z. So I think I think bending is really critical or her operations operations that are away from you. But if you look at the paper computer like paper which we did in 2013 there was a whole other dimension that has to do with multitasking. The fact that we only use one display right now and it’s either your smartphone or your iPad or your computer. Sometimes people use them in conjunction but they don’t really to operate very well.
Matt: Hey Matt here quick time out Roel’s about to blow your mind. If I told you the future was paper would you believe me.
Roel: Whereas with paper if I print out a document I can look at the last page while I’m looking at the first page so I can multitask much better and the displays are what one sent so I can have as many displays as that I want. So we need to move in the direction of displays being cheap and almost expendable. Now how does this play into for example apps? Well it means I can have one display perhaps so I can have a debate that has this app and a display that has that app and I can just put them somewhere on my table and I can also interoperate between those so that if I want to cut copy and paste something I can just do that with a gesture from one display to the next. And this is exactly how we work with paper and so aper is still still has a place in the office because of that because it is actually richer in its quote unquote means of expression than a traditional display which is always rigid. Square
Matt: Absolutely. And it’s just so much better taking notes versus writing them down in terms of retention in terms of call up later on.
Matt: It’s very interesting to you what you’re working on as somewhat competitive with current AR, VR tech.
Roel: I know. As I said I’ve always been somewhat down on on AR, VR. For reasons I’ve explained so I don’t really feel the competition because I I strongly feel that the work that we’re doing and I will be planted. I don’t think AR, VR will be a generic success I think it will be Niche. There’s it’s great for experience as the greats were training. I’m sure it’ll do well in the porn industry. But you know this idea that I would be composing a word document on my wall with gestures. You know that’s just not going to happen because if anything the ergonomics are not right well in your gestures are not very comfortable you want to have support and paperwork is a beautiful metaphor so why not just use paper. And that then means use a flexible display. I mean obviously he’s projection simulate it but if you have a display why not just use these play. Right. So I perceive a future we just have a stack of digital paper it’s like it’s the newspaper. And you can have as many as you want 20 20 documents or something like that and you can either use them to render one could you get documents or you have different apps on them. They’re interoperable they work together as if they were windows on a computer. The only reason we have windows on the computer, by the way, is because we don’t have one display so we have to carve out these tasks these task areas artificially you know anyways back to the question AR, VR. I don’t think you’re going to make it. And I think that this technology will light field displays are going to be a thing but and probably every display will be electoral display. But I it’s hard to tell when exactly I would say within within 15 years or so from now.
Matt: And how does that tie into voice as an interface and the potential synergies.
Roel: Yeah we did a fair bit of work on look at talk back in the day where you know we envisioned IoT and the ability to control your objects in the house with your voice. But of course there was one big elephant in the room and that’s how do you target the object and the obvious answer was through eye contact. So that was one of the reasons we developed the iconic sensor so we can stick it on an object and be able to tell that you’re looking at the object. And then when I say off that light bulb goes off or that TV goes off and I don’t have to go like [Inaudible] in the living room or you know left a light bulb in the kitchen. So this hasn’t been addressed minister yet but I’m sure that’ll come the speech interaction is problematic for that reason is that we cannot afford to access because we don’t have those non-verbal channels I was talking about earlier now human this routinely they look at someone they say something person understands that oh that he or she is talking to me. Objects don’t have that feature. So then you have to use symbols. It’s almost like a command line interface. So when when speech interaction becomes like a command line in your face.
We’ve actually made a step backward because one of the features the graphical interface is recognition versus recall. You know if I if I pulled out of you I could never make a mistake as to what command you shoot to the system because they’re all there. And I can always like the ones that are visible whereas with speech or with a command line I have to come up to recall what the command is and then say it and there’s lots of mistakes in the process. So speech and speech is often seen as the holy grail of interaction. But you know here’s another problem repair. If you if you talk to a human being and they don’t understand what it is you’re saying they might interfere or or interrupt it’s called and ask a question or are or show with an operable impression they’re not quite following and then you adjust your speech so that there is a common understanding that’s called grounding. As a professor at Stanford Colker Clark came up with that. So the conversation is really about a feedback loop in which you create this grounding process. I don’t know of any conversational interface where her computer engages in the ground. It’s like Allex it you know ordered this. It’s all command driven. And so until speech becomes similar to the way humans use it which they are for also it was similar intelligence interpreted that speech and understanding when you don’t understand and being able to repair. I think it’s it’s you know it has gadget value. It’s not a real interface and certainly, it will not supplant touch interaction.
Matt: Have you seen the Google duplex demos.
Roel: Yes [Inaudible]
Matt: Google basically a voice assistant. Call up shops they call up a Chinese food.
Matt: That seems terrifyingly futuristic. Obviously those are their best case scenarios. Those with the most successful ones but those seams though seems to be able to catch mismatches.
So what you’re going to hear is that Google system actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you. Let’s listen.
Matt: it’s definitely wrong.
Roel: Well it’s exactly the kind of example of like engineers that get a call I can actually protect that this is a real human and you know nobody nobody realizes it’s it’s a computer did well but they they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Right. They don’t understand that maybe I don’t want people to think that this is a person. I mean maybe it would be appropriate for them to know that this is my digital assistant so they realize that the differences might make certain mistakes. Right this idea of sort of photo realistic rendering is is not necessarily good one it’s a nice technological end goal. There is a there’s a conference called [Inaudible] that’s all about that. You know how can we render Graphics as realistic or as beautiful as possible but then you see movies like the picture makes you notice that they actually pull back from graphic realism and they put a filter on it. They literally put a filter on their communication and that’s really interesting. Right. So this ability to do stuff as if it’s like you know as if it’s mimicking real ism it’s not necessarily an end goal that will lead to an effective interface and in fact, the interface is a caricature just like your caricature when you’re a dad or when you’re at work. You know we humans have these roles. They play different roles. And you talk to a 2 2 2-year-old. You talk very differently from when you talked to your wife from when you talk to your boss and were able to switch these contacts and use these roles but those are essentially their caricature’s. We we have our own caricature’s and caricaturists can indicate really well Brenda Laurel wrote a book about this a long long time ago 30 years ago computers as theater and so this research has all been done. These are all known things yet engineers at for example Google and other places don’t read that or or don’t have that as their goal. And I think that leads to issues that then magnified interests. We have millions of users using these technologies.
Matt: No disagreement from me I want to transition a little bit now. So part of the program is also looking at not just your expertise but other fields of interest so what else are you looking at or interested in these days.
Roel: I’m very interested in quantum physics right now. I kind of want to build the quantum computer so that when a physics is amazing
Matt: How deep are you into the quantum rabbit hole.
Roel: Pretty pretty deep yeah pretty and you learn things that where are you going I really really like for example a photon. So one single particle of light actually travels every possible path before it decides to render itself somewhere and rendering itself is fairly arbitrary but the ultimate path that wins is the one at least action. It’s the laziest path it’s not the shortest path necessarily it’s that is the path that takes the least time. And this is why lenses work.
Well that’s just astounding
Matt: When I hear quantum explained it sounds to me like the easiest way to explain quantum computing would be a running of a simulation and just a massive simulation. It gives credence at least for me to simulation theory what are your thoughts.
Roel: Well I think that is what they are right now for the most part. I don’t think that a real quantum computer.
Matt: No no not in terms of in terms of what quantum is but to be able to explain the quantum physics that we see today it almost seems like someone coded a computer with some some statements and that’s what we’re seeing.
Roel: Yeah but the essence of quantum computers that you can do many calculations at once so you go back to what I said earlier about the particle traveling every possible path and then deciding to take one that’s really the power of a quantum computer is that it can it. Because what we’re dealing with is a probabilistic function it’s called the wave function but it really is just the way function doesn’t necessarily scribe anything right it doesn’t describe the reality is just a perimeter set that is described by way waveform and then that waveform takes one particular setting of a parameter. Once it interacts with another waveform, for example, an electron. So photons interact with electrons and a photon only render itself once it’s interacted with an electron. So it kind of doesn’t exist until it interacts and that’s when you see it right. It interacts with the electron cigarette for example. So that probability function is really literally taking every possible stage that it could possibly have simultaneously. And if you can somehow influence the chance of a particle rendering itself in a particular state with for example a particular electron spin then you could do a calculation massively parallel and that’s what everybody is after. But to do so most of the approaches of used electrons that have to be super cooled and put in magnets because they can’t interact with other electrons because the moment this probability function interacts with its environment with another wave function. So at the moment, the electron interacts with another electron it renders self is a particle and then that massive parallelism is gone because it renders itself in a particular spot with a particular router set right. So the trick is to keep it suspended somehow so. So it stays in that state and right now the best quantum computers I think can do that for like I know nanoseconds or a few nanoseconds it loses that state.
Matt: So you want to build a quantum computer. How serious are you about this.
Roel: I don’t know how serious I am about it but it’s a nice hobby. It keeps me keeps me occupied.
Matt: You’ve got to get out of the water. They’re doing quite well out there. My understanding at least in terms of cutting ads.
Roel: Yeah yeah yeah. There is definitely a lot of action there [Inaudible] student. We also have a great group at our physics department which won the Nobel Prize in Physics two years ago. And that group is in Photonic. They’re working with the Photonic crystals. Why do things that they’re working on the spotting dots which you know you see people recruiting efforts for TVs? So this idea that you can actually resonate light in a particular cavity that particular size and then filters certain colors and make a slice out of that is very interesting. But it’s something that nature figured out a long time ago. This is how Peacock feathers work. You know if you ever wondered why a black bird radiates in the sun it’s because it’s using small holes and those holes don’t fit the wavelengths of different colors the same way and therefore at different angles you get this kind of rainbow effect.
Matt: Interesting that’s a that’s a good one for Jeopardy for anyone who’s listening. So it’s a quantum quantum computing are there any other fields that you are excited or scared about today.
Roel: Yes. Before we go there there is, by the way, there is a good purpose for us to be working on quantum computing and that was the original purpose of Richard Feynman said in his original paper which is if you want to simulate the fractions you just can’t do it because it’s just madly parallel so you need a quantum computer in order to simulate quantum interactions. And so we need a quantum computer because we wanted to holograms and if we were to use a computer to calculate holograms we would be so much faster. You know one of the problems with these holograms is that you need massive amounts of calculations because you need to calculate every possible direction that a library could go into. So I just wanted to say that there is there is a connection between the interface work we’re doing and interesting in quantum mechanics. But but yeah there are there, of course, there are many technologies that are very interesting that don’t work. I think that example what Elon Musk is trying to do with Tesla is very interesting and with SpaceX and you know I can’t bump into people that are working on asteroid mining for example or that want to bring robots to the moon or put a moon base in place. And I sometimes wonder you know what that drive is that makes us want to lead you know. So I was I was the guy who stood up at one of these conferences and asked the nasty questions to these guys like but why would we terraforming Mars if we could have the technology to terraforming Mars would it not be appropriate to use the earth because that would be so much easier because it’s so hard to care for Mars presumably.
Matt: And I like Elon’s reasoning.
Roel: Yeah. Go ahead.
Matt: I like Elon’s reasoning here essentially a backup plan. So right now if anything happens on Earth there’s a lot of potential essentially we’re screwed. So to get to sustainability we need to have at least according to his calculations roughly three million people on Mars so that we don’t get all completely [Inaudible]
Roel: Well you know I mean I think the only argument that really holds here is that it may only have a short technological window technology to do that and that our society might go back into a dark age. And I think that’s the only convincing argument.
Matt: And this can be in fact a very convincing argument. This is one of the possibilities of the Fermi filter so to speak where we haven’t discovered or detected alien life forms with any advanced forms of intelligence and one of the possible theories is that alien species reach a certain breaking point so to speak where they wipe each other out. What role is referencing is. Are we potentially in a scenario like this whereby we have nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy the world hundreds of times if not millions of times over. Could we be in a situation where we need a backup plan because we’re a little bit too little bit too rambunctious and crazy species? I don’t know I don’t have a good answer for it but I like that role brings this up because it is an interesting point and definitely validates the need for space exploration
Roel: but I still think that we’re spending so much money and so much effort and so many resources on on these endeavors when if that money was spent in an appropriate way and we all know NGOs are able to waste a lot of money from donations. So I’m not sure what the appropriate way is but for example the Gates Foundation seems to have developed a very effective method for for addressing issues in underdeveloped nations you know is it possible for us to address for example this plastic mass that’s in the in the ocean now and there are people that are trying to do that. You know there’s a Dutch teenager actually who set up an expedition and fish for the for the big plastic island in the in the in the Pacific and see if you can remove it. But of course what we need to do is actually get rid of plastic bags get rid of plastic and start going back to biodegradable packaging you know. And of course, there are people working on that as well.
But I’m just I’m just saying you know going to Mars seems like a huge detractor and it’s just one of those things
Matt: I would much rather cut the defense budget than cut what’s going attempting to Mars.
My thought process. If you look at if you look at what happened. I’m a big fan of JFK had a speech of something to the effect of we go to the moon not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. I like to opine on that and drove 90 plus percent of the innovation technology and profit of the coming decades if you just look at what came out of the space race.
There were some incredible technology
Roel: Yeah but that to give you some sort of new perspective. It’s also important to recognize that the only reason the space race ever happened was because we were in a Cold War with Russia and it became a proxy war. It was like if we can develop you know we could show our technology ecological prowess then they won’t attack us because they’ll be too scared to. And that’s the we only had a short window of that. You know it was like what six years or something like that. We went to the moon and it was just way too expensive.
Matt: Time out. What are you listening to us on. I imagine it’s on your phone. Maybe a web player like etc. Either way you’re using some computer and space era type technologies. What role is about to say the results of the space program and specifically money that NASA had left over that decided to throw it an incredible project is mind blowing in its in its change and the impact on the world and all of the Steve Jobs fans I hope you’re listening
Roel: Hi! I do agree with you that a lot of technologies including the graphics are the pace. I talked to Alan Kay who was the GM is behind Steve Jobs he invented invented optical programming. He invented much of the graphical user interface and the personal computer that became the Macintosh. And so he had brilliant insights into how all this where this came from. And he said look there was a 10 million dollar leftover budget from NASA. And I went to Doug Gelbard and some other people at Stanford and they use it to build the mouse and the graphics interface and if I’d left over budget have been good at it.
Matt: Sometimes the ends justify the means. And I think for the space
Roel: Yeah I think so but I mean it is scary and but I mean this is this also relates to so.
So another thing that I’ve been saying about a lot is this sort of like the value of technology and technology being a neutral actor or not being an equal actor and you know I think I think technologies and Marshall McLuhan you know already knew this a long time ago.
You know that technology we first shaped technology and then the technology shapes us. And that’s really what he meant by the medium is the message. You know when you when you create a new medium like like a smartphone like like the web like Facebook or social networks you actually affect how people work interact do business everything. And that is really what the message is. And that is really what we should be designing. So when we’re when we’re designing technologies we shouldn’t focus on per se just on the multi touch or or the way in which you click a button and but also on the larger societal implications and the ecologies abuse that stem from introducing a new technology. And of course, weapons are a good example of that. But I mean you know nuclear or nuclear fission can be used in order to create energy or it can be used to create a nuclear bomb. And I think the simplistic view is that it then becomes an ethical choice from the user or by the user to decide whether you weaponize something or not. And we’ve seen this with the Cambridge and a lot of the gun and political campaigns which are highly unethical in some cases. But it’s really that’s too simplistic a view any tool shapes the world. And so the moment the tool gets born it shapes the world. And so you can be worried about AI as a tool. But I think he can worry pretty much of anything. You know I mean Monsanto and it’s and it’s round up seats and you know changing the ecology of how pollination works, for example, there are many examples and we need to I think if we want to answer understanding and truly become advanced as a species when you understand those interactions better
Matt: well let’s let’s play devil’s advocate I’m not going to say I disagree. But how do we how do we decide what the time is for making a strong decision. So if we have to make important decisions or we have to slow down innovation or the process of testing and seeing how it affects people then at that point you’re you’re kind of listening to the podcast at half speed. It gets it gets boring and bad things can happen.
Roel: No I disagree. I think you know we started this by discussing how you know if you want to know the future of interaction you need to go do it. Visit a laboratory at a university today. And so there’s your window. And that 15 year window is very often used at least by people in my field to do these experiments. You know every [Inaudible] were known for our gadgets and we’re known for our prototypes. But every prototype we built we do a study a limited study usually only 15 years old but we do some kind of slide show that it’s valuable or or what it’s value is. And I think where things break down is not because there’s no time. There’s lots of time. You know you can you can you can stand the implications of a technology you’ve got 15 years to do so. The problem is that that is a simulation that’s hard to run. It’s hard to envision what happens when the genie comes out of the ball. I don’t think I could have predicted that Cambridge Analytica would be the result of social network.
Matt: But you also you also know how empowering it would be for certain people in third world countries. So then there’s always two sides of the coin that’s only thing I’m trying to point out.
Roel: Yeah! No, but I’m saying there’s definitely time to research this. There’s definitely time to run the simulations but there is a very limited interest by the purveyors of these technologies to do so. You know some of the big tech corporations do indeed run a big useability labs. And to see how they can make their products more efficient. But you know we run these experiments on a societal scale and it gets even worse when in fact the intent is wrong. You know I mean I know Facebook, for example, runs these experiments where they have 100000 users use a slightly different interface or or a slightly different way of doing things. Those are social experiments and that’s actually already kind of interesting that they have the power to do so but I’m not necessarily talking about that I’m I’m talking about. What does it mean to introduce a Facebook into the world and how does that affect everything else. Know that’s a philosophical question and I think I actually think that philosophy is underrated in today’s society.
You know I’m a technology makers I’m like the Wizard of Oz who creates these new miracles you know 15 years ahead of time and that’s cool. But there is all these implications that require all the breadth of human knowledge, not just computer science not just engineering but physics but also the humanities to be able to understand the implications of these technologies that are. And that means we need to fund these these areas. And I know I keep harping on about universities. You know it’s an ecosystem right there is universities there’s businesses there are startups but I get the feeling that that in today’s society there is such a focus on startups and such a focus on disruptive innovation done by corporations. The reality is that that’s just not true. You know most of the disruptions come from the public sector and come from taxpayer dollars. There’s a huge disconnect there because there’s no incentive for startups to demonstrate where these technologies came from. In fact, if anything it’s a negative incentive. So if we could somehow come to a better and less adversarial relationship between the private and public sectors I think that would be hugely beneficial for humanity.
Matt: What would that just be scientists and researchers taking products to market.
Roel: No I think there’s you know there’s you know we tend not to go much beyond prototype because it’s just very easy. It takes about the same amount of effort to invent something and make a prototype and maybe study the prototype and then it falls apart to then take that prototype and make it cheap enough for a mass market and small enough to be able to fit in something and you know I mean that the efforts are enormous and they are compliment country. But the problem is is that there’s no interface. You know it would be nice to have a hand off or to be able to loop back.
So I know for example due to a lot of work early work on social networks at MIT it be nice to see her in a tough spot at Facebook to sort of talk about what not to do and how to dial the whole thing back because if you want to create a sustainable business you can’t just suck your users dry. You have to actually you have to have a long term vision. And I think one of the things academic’s definitely do have that that is less common in I think in the startup environment as these as these long term visions are like 20 years
Matt: [Inaudible] and their quarterly earnings and CEO bonuses and stock market completely ruin that that’s part of the point of Fringe FM as we’re trying to have a longer time horizon 100 years so we can get you know it’s not going to be shipped that it doesn’t work otherwise. Short term short term serves up the incentives much too much.
Roel: Yes. So that’s the society we live in.
Matt: I know you’ve got limited time. It is a society within it’s the one where we’re both trying to change outside of what we’ve talked about. What’s the biggest problem that you want listeners to focus on and try to solve.
Roel: There’s so many I don’t know where to start. I mean the environment has a really important place in my heart. You know we live in a beautiful country in Canada and you know one of the things that I’ve been trying to do outside of my work is to help people understand that there are areas of biodiversity that biodiversity that are a little bit more special than other areas and that this can change within one kilometer range from place to place. And if you live in a country where you know there’s 33 million people in the second largest country in the world you would think there’s enough space for everyone you would think that you can just build a building build and that is a little bit. The attitude here we’re seeing in Toronto but we’re seeing it elsewhere as well. And so I think one of the things that’s very close to my heart is that would be very nice if we townships and councils and the powers that decide these kinds of things would consider better. The biodiversity is of an area before they build because the impact of building in bio diverse areas is much much bigger than the impact of building a not so bio diverse areas. So that’s one of the topics I’ve been working on trying to educate people. I don’t think I think there’s concerns that electricity use I’ve been engaging a little bit with the bitcoin community about that you know the fact that bitcoin mining requires secrecy about size country of Ireland or something I’m not too sure how how much it is but that’s unsustainable. Right, so we need a different kind of block chain that doesn’t require that kind of crazy electricity. It’s a really bad idea.
Matt: Roel echoes the previous guest Rob Hopkins who is on discussing some of the woes of bitcoin book chain energy usage. While that may, in fact, be a problem today I find cryptocurrency watching fascinating. I had Kyle Samani on the program if you haven’t listened to that episode I recommend you get a fringe FM and search for kyle or Kyle Samani. He’s a founding partner at Multicoin Capital influential crypto hedge fund and focused on investing in the platforms and Internets of the future. Very interesting. Highly recommend it.
But now back
Roel: And so we were you know we were engaging in many of these ideas that seemed good at the time but then we just don’t understand the implications it has on nature on energy use and so on sustainability and and I’m guilty as charged. I mean I have no idea what the effect is the net effect is of our technology human technology on the environment because we do use you know hundreds of projectors. There are only a projector saying you don’t use very much energy but I haven’t done the equation and I was actually talking to just students this this week about potentially writing a cradle to grave analysis paper about that because holograms give you the opportunity to cut down on travel and therefore change the greenhouse gas equation but they also are quite intense in terms of its use of resources itself tears of electricity, computation, power manufacturing. What’s that equation? Be interesting to actually look at that bigger picture
Matt: the path the path to hell is paved and good intentions. I think that can be a summary of a lot of what we’ve talked about is generally speaking there are good intentions to go around.
Roel: Yeah and if we take a little bit of a long term view I think we might be able to just see that coming at least I don’t know we could stop it. That’s a classic cop out for a guy like me right. It’s like ball you know. Do you ever consider various [Inaudible] technologies and then the cop out. Well you know I mean this this term
Matt: it’s not a cop out
Roel: is neutral kind of a kind of argument. So well the cop out is the cop out is that I’m just inventing this and then the people are evil they’ll use it for evil and if they’re if they’re good things are good. But but what the cop out is is that that technology as I said always has a value. It is not just good or bad. It’s not neutral either it always changes society and you need to think about these things.
Matt: But generally speaking it empowers humans to be what humans will be with it.
Roel: So yes that’s for sure.
Matt: But you can make the argument that you should think about it ahead of time. But sometimes you hear people and they attack Facebook and Google like didn’t you realize that people would be executing people on your Facebook alive thing. And I think that’s a problematic and inherently being optimistic in inherently being pessimistic. So the criticizer are generally pessimists and the builders are optimists.
Roel: Yeah I’m definitely an optimist but I can see people who used to work for Facebook who were actually telling us that they did this by design not necessarily execution videos but a lot of the other stuff that that was an active approach to the
Roel: : To sell this to various uses and and so you know I think I think we live in an age where I think moral considerations are also important. You know it’s not just seeing what the how the tool shapes the world but also how can we make sure that our children grow up in a moral environment you know where how many times do I hear undergrads say like it’s a dog eat dog world out there and like it doesn’t have to be like the end by saying so you make of that. So I think that that is somewhat of a moral breakdown in our society or a breakdown of morals. And I don’t want to get into religion and how that entire place. But but it definitely has something to do with that short term filter. Like people just live in the moment and don’t seem to quite understand the consequence of what they’re doing because they don’t look beyond Q3 for the next election. Right
Matt: Connectivity and real [Inaudible]
Roel: So I don’t know. Yeah for sure and I don’t know necessarily how to change that [Inaudible] other than true things that you’re doing which I really appreciated is to talk about this on a podcast and and hopefully make people more aware of these kinds of issues. You know when they’re just struggling to make ends meet.
But I don’t have a I don’t have a silver bullet. I don’t have a good answer. I mean I can I can see some past that we could take and have already mentioned one which is better funding for the Humanities and for startups to actually interact with them about these and for start ups to interact with universities in a way that’s not adversarial. It’s like oh yeah it’s my [Inaudible] it’s my time you know that kind of thing. But beyond that, you know how can we return to journalism. You know that Jimmy [Inaudible] it’s very difficult to return to to the filters that we had in place. That’s good for good or for bad. We’re not showing us those executions because there was an unwritten law that you wouldn’t show blood on TV. Right. And I don’t want to be I don’t want to be all negative either because I think we’re seeing both positive and negative through the Internet. One of the coolest things about about the Internet is that all this information is there and if you want to learn something you know it’s there and you can just learn it like for example if I want to know more about quantum physics there is whole YouTube channels on that and I can listen to world experts and if I have done my research I will be able to follow them and learn something as if I was in the classroom with them. That’s astounding that we can do that right. So it’s not all bad but I think it would be nice if we could steer society towards the good use of the technologies versus the bad use and that may just be you know I know a little bit to be a little bit of overreach on my part to think that that’s even possible.
Matt: We may have to go totalitarian to get there or we may be a post capitalist society people kind of laugh when you say but I mean if you see the number of people eating at McDonald’s then you can see where sometimes social control is important. But let’s let’s not get into that.
Roel: But I mean it doesn’t. No. No, but I do want to say that this is sort of like this. You don’t have to go totalitarian to have some form of social control. And I grew up in a country called The Mentalists sweater. It’s not was sort of like a social democracy and capitalist capitalism didn’t didn’t govern every good thing right. So dunno ways in which are citing you less extreme less adversarial. And I think that the technology is there. The reason I think this is relevant within the conversation is because our technologies are creating those even somewhat artificial sort of adversarial politics by creating echo chambers where you just hear your own voice. And maybe we should have an anti technology for every technology there’s any technology that is the antidote. And and I do think about these things now and I think it’s urgent.
Matt: [Inaudible] guys Facebook news feed eradicators gets rid of all of facebook except the messaging functionality which is the only thing that really matters
Matt: Roel’s,Thanks for coming on. Where’s the best place for people to find you?
Roel: Human media lab on the queen of university campus in Kingston, Ontario and we will throw links in all the good stuff in the show now. Thanks Roel for coming on. It’s been a fun and interesting conversation.
Roel: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.
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