Software studies: interview with Federica Frabetti

Software studies: interview with Federica Frabetti

Janneke Adema interviewed Federica Frabetti – author of Software Theory: A Cultural and Philosophical Study. The conversation includes topics such as the materiality of software, code and writing, deconstructive readings of technology, the originary technicity of the (post)human, and the politics and ethics of software.

Interview conducted on February 23rd 2015 at Oxford Brookes University.

News found on Culture Machine Live.

[Paper] Human-level control through deep reinforcement learning

Google Deepmind‘s scientists have built a software that can play video games as a human being, or even better. By exploiting the theory of reinforcement learning, Google’s software is able to improve its performance after hours of play. As stated in the abstract:

The theory of reinforcement learning provides a normative account, deeply rooted in psychological and neuroscientific  perspectives on animal behaviour, of how agents may optimize their control of an environment. To use reinforcement learning successfully in situations approaching real-world complexity, however, agents are confronted with a difficult task: they must derive efficient representations of the environment from high-dimensional sensory inputs, and use these to generalize past experience to new situations. Remarkably, humans and other animals seem to solve this problem through a harmonious combination of reinforcement learning and hierarchical sensory processing systems, the former evidenced by a wealth of neural data revealing notable parallels between the phasic signals emitted by dopaminergic neurons and temporal difference reinforcement learning algorithms. While reinforcement learning agents have achieved some successes in a variety of domains, their applicability has previously been limited to domains in which useful features can be handcrafted, or to domains with fully observed, low-dimensional state spaces. Here we use recent advances in training deep neural networks to develop a novel artificial agent, termed a deep Q-network, that can learn successful policies directly from high-dimensional sensory inputs using end-to-end reinforcement learning. We tested this agent on the challenging domain of classic Atari 2600 games. We demonstrate that the deep Q-network agent, receiving only the pixels and the game score as inputs, was able to surpass the performance of all previous algorithms and achieve a level comparable to that of a professional human games tester across a set of 49 games, using the same algorithm, network architecture and hyperparameters. This work bridges the divide between high-dimensional sensory inputs and actions, resulting in the first artificial agent that is capable of learning to excel at a diverse array of challenging tasks.

Read the full article on Nature.

[Paper] Using Design Competitions in Crowdsourcing UI/UX Design: An Experimental Grounded Theory Study

[Paper] Using Design Competitions in Crowdsourcing UI/UX Design: An Experimental Grounded Theory Study

In this study, Micky Chen (University of Amsterdam) presents an experimental study in form of a contest to analyze how design competitions might be used in crowdsourcing user interface design. From the abstract:

Crowdsourcing has gained great popularity over the past decade. Using the power of the crowd might be a useful source for next-generation software designing. However, little is known about whether the quality of one’s design can improve by using parts of other designs. To address this gap, I conducted a grounded theory study to analyze the role of crowdsourcing in creating user interface designs. An experimental study was conducted in the form of a contest to analyze how design competitions might be used in crowdsourcing user interface design. In the two-round contest, participants created a UI, which was subsequently distributed to the other participants, so each has access to all first round designs. The second round required a revised UI design, with participants being encouraged to borrow each other’s ideas in creating a revised design when they saw a fit. The results show that on average, participants’ designs improved and everyone used at least one idea from another person. This indicates that recombination and crowdsourcing leads to high(er) quality user interfaces. However, due to the limitations of the experiment setup, more research is needed into how to set up UX design contests so as to maximize the benefits of crowdsourcing.

Read the full paper.

Nest and the failure of emotional design

About Nest and the failure of emotional design

In a recent article, Kara Pernice shares her personal experience with Nest Thermostat – a little object that seemed unable to keep the promises of the emotional design. She says:

Don Norman’s 3 levels of emotional design (visceral, behavioral, and reflective) helped me understand how my pure love for the Nest thermostat morphed into abhorrence. I was a proud early adopter of the unique, cool, and pretty device. It helped me save energy, and communicated to me. But things went bad when it let me down emotionally.


To be fair, Nest got so much right: The website has delightful elements, the apps make adjusting the climate from anywhere possible, the organization paired with energy companies to market it and give rebates, the design was pioneering, and the dial itself is beautiful. From an emotional-design perspective, the visceral, reflective, and behavioral elements were all very strong in the beginning. Over the years the behavioral level started lacking: the device became hard to use, as it stopped working to meet my needs. Interestingly, in turn, the behavioral downfalls greatly affected the reflective level. Once the device became unpredictable, the emotions toward the Nest turned negative. Visceral levels remained strong the longest, with classically good-looking elements, and a soothing style for the apps and email newsletter. But now even those have been damaged, and the device taunts me on my wall. I never stand in front of it and adore it anymore, as I had. (I am a dork.)


Read the full article on Nielsen Norman Group.

[Paper] Recommended for you. The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture

[Paper] Recommended for you. The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture

In this article, Blake Hallinan (PhD candidate at Indiana University) and Ted Striphas (Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication & Culture at Indiana University) address the impact of algorithms on cultural practices through a critical and cultural review of the Netflix Prize contest. From the abstract:

How does algorithmic information processing affect the meaning of the word culture, and, by extension, cultural practice? We address this question by focusing on the Netflix Prize (2006–2009), a contest offering US$1m to the first individual or team to boost the accuracy of the company’s existing movie recommendation system by 10%. Although billed as a technical challenge intended for engineers, we argue that the Netflix Prize was equally an effort to reinterpret the meaning of culture in ways that overlapped with, but also diverged in important respects from, the three dominant senses of the term assayed by Raymond Williams. Thus, this essay explores the conceptual and semantic work required to render algorithmic information processing systems legible as forms of cultural decision making. It also then represents an effort to add depth and dimension to the concept of “algorithmic culture.”

Read the full article on Sage Journal Online.

Grasp by Akarsh sanghi: a mentor on your shoulders

Grasp by Akarsh Sanghi: a mentor on your shoulders

Designed by Akarsh Sanghi, Grasp is a wearable device to place on your shoulders to connect with your mentors while practising. As described on the official project page:

Learning new skills which are more physical and instructional in nature has always been limited by the constraint of a mentor and the learner being present in the same physical space. Grasp is a wearable device which attempts to overcome that constraint by connecting the mentor and the learner across distances. The tool provides the mentor with a real time insight into the learners environment through the coupling of a first person point of view and an instructional laser pointer. Therefore, the mentor can communicate to the person learning via the device and instruct using the laser pointer. It is the idea of having a companion looking over your shoulder and instructing you while learning something new irrespective of distance.


AI + IoT: should we be scared of the conscious web?

AI + IoT: should we be scared of the conscious web?

Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have already expressed more than a simple concern about AI and the threat it may represent for the future of human race. Should we be scared?  In an article published on The Guardian, Stephen Balkam writes:

What are these wise souls afraid of? AI is broadly described as the ability of computer systems to ape or mimic human intelligent behavior. This could be anything from recognizing speech, to visual perception, making decisions and translating languages. Examples run from Deep Blue who beat chess champion Garry Kasparov to supercomputer Watson who outguessed the world’s best Jeopardy player. Fictionally, we have Her, Spike Jonze’s movie that depicts the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falling in love with his operating system, seductively voiced by Scarlet Johansson. And coming soon, Chappie stars a stolen police robot who is reprogrammed to make conscious choices and to feel emotions. An important component of AI, and a key element in the fears it engenders, is the ability of machines to take action on their own without human intervention. This could take the form of a computer reprogramming itself in the face of an obstacle or restriction. In other words, to think for itself and to take action accordingly.


Running parallel to the extraordinary advances in the field of AI is the even bigger development of what is loosely called, the internet of things (IoT). This can be broadly described as the emergence of countless objects, animals and even people with uniquely identifiable, embedded devices that are wirelessly connected to the internet. These ‘nodes’ can send or receive information without the need for human intervention. There are estimates that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Current examples of these smart devices include Nest thermostats, wifi-enabled washing machines and the increasingly connected cars with their built-in sensors that can avoid accidents and even park for you. The US Federal Trade Commission is sufficiently concerned about the security and privacy implications of the Internet of Things, and has conducted a public workshop and released a report urging companies to adopt best practices and “bake in” procedures to minimise data collection and to ensure consumer trust in the new networked environment.


So what happens when these millions of embedded devices connect to artificially intelligent machines? What does AI + IoT = ? Will it mean the end of civilisation as we know it? Will our self-programming computers send out hostile orders to the chips we’ve added to our everyday objects? Or is this just another disruptive moment, similar to the harnessing of steam or the splitting of the atom? An important step in our own evolution as a species, but nothing to be too concerned about?

Read the full article.


DO by IFTTT: one button to rule them all

DO by IFTTT: one button to rule them all

IFTTT has just released DO, a new set of mobile apps designed as a simple single big virtual button to trigger a series of pre-programmed actions – i.e. from sending pictures to family members to control your connected domestic devices.

As reported by Rachel Metz on MIT Technology Review:

IFTTT cofounder and CEO Linden Tibbets thinks the simplicity of the app will make it a lot easier to do specific tasks—especially ones you repeat often that typically require several steps. It comes at a time when many app makers are trying to invent stripped-down interfaces suitable for smart watches (see “A QWERTY Keyboard for Your Wrist”). Tibbets won’t comment on whether the new app, known as Do Button, will be available for the Apple Watch when that device begins selling in April, but he says it “would be certainly applicable there.”+

Although you see only one button when you open the Do Button app, it is possible to program two more, which are accessible by swiping to the side. The app is an attempt to branch out from the company’s existing Web service, which launched in 2011. The website lets users set automated rules to link various online services that don’t normally play together. For example, you can set a rule instructing the service to automatically copy any photo you are tagged in on Facebook to your Dropbox cloud storage account.

DO buttons are available for both iOS and Android devices.

Designing games for wearable devices

In this case study published by Ludomade, authors explore the limitations and constraints of designing games for small wearable devices – i.e. the Apple Watch. Below are some takeaways from the development process of  Mineshaft: Dynamite Blast (Ludomade, 2014) – guidelines you’ll find valuable to design interactions beyond the realm of games:

Game concept

  • Think about how it’s going to feel playing a game that’s strapped to your wrist: holding your arm up in strange ways gets tiresome quickly, so keep play sessions short.
  • Minimize the player inputs – simplify everything.

Touch interactions

  • On a 280×280 screen, space fills up really quick, so consider as few on-screen buttons as possible.
  • When buttons are necessary, think about their placement based on which wrist the watch is on. You don’t want players to cover everything up whenever they need to jump.

Graphic design on small size screen

  • Texture-packed realism isn’t going to work on such a small screen. Choose a graphical style and color palette that maximizes definition at this size.

The role of the form factor

  • Consider square and circle screens when designing UI, keep those buttons out of the corners.
  • Minimize the amount of UI needed – the small screen gets cluttered quickly.
  • You must remove the default “swipe right to close app” function.


  • There’s no audio on most watches so use audio as an accessory.

Check the final game on Android Wears and iOS (smartphone/tablet).

Article originally seen on Dotventi.

Dreeps: an alarm clock to reinvent RPG

Dreeps is a classic (mobile) RPG with a special trick. It features characters, explorations, battles, interactions with other fictional people and objects. The only exception to the classic scenario is that it doesn’t require any input from its player – no grinding, looting, ripetitive tasks or hours spent on quests.

Hisanori Hiraoka, Daisuke Watanabe, and Kyohei Fujita  have conceived the game as an alarm playing game. According to the official page:

For you who don’t have time anymore to play RPG, “Alarm Playing Game” is a new type of game where you just have to set an alarm to enjoy an RPG adventure. Before going to bed just set the alarm in dreeps, and the robot boy will sleep like you.

When you’ll wake up with in that alarm in the morning, as you go to worker to school, the robot boy with go on an adventure though fields, valleys or peninsulas where bosses are waiting for him in dungeons. A new day is starting for you and the robot boy !

In dreeps, you will just have to set the alarm, that’s all. You can have a look at the adventure on the phone put on you desk while working, during snack time, just enjoy the game at your pace. If you woke up with dreeps, the adventure will automatically continue as long as the robot boy has enough HP, even if you don’t open the app. You might be missing some events, but don’t mind about it.
There’s almost no text in the game. You can imagine your own version of the story with the hints hidden in visuals and sound. You can share some screenshots and you thoughts about the game by pressing the « share » button.

  1. Set dreeps’ alarm before you sleep. After a restful slumber, your HP will be invigorated.
  2. dreeps’ alarm will ring when morning comes. As the robot Boy sets forth, your day begins!
  3. Observe the robot boy’s exploits while at work, or at snack time. The game will adapt to your life rhythm.

Downaload Dreeps from the App Store.