Thursday, June 14, 2012

A.R. Glasses for Names: Is it Really Remembering? and Why Asking That Makes Me a Jerk

I wanted to weigh in on the Google glasses project last month [update:  now two months ago] when Google decided to let everyone know they were working on it.  At the time, I didn't think I had very much to contribute to the conversation, so I passed.  Now that I've had time to think a bit more, I think I'll put my two cents in.  Specifically, I want to talk about the Google glasses as assistive technology based in facial recognition.  If you are unfamiliar with Project Glass, you can follow the link, or you can watch Google's concept video, embedded below.

Some can't wait for glasses like these, excited about at least one possible application:  helping the user "remember" names; others think facial recognition technology is "creepy" and are worried about things like stalking:  actual stalking, which is quite different from an interested fellow looking through photos on a classmate's Facebook profile.  I do not think this is a concern to dismiss, but I also do not yet know how much attention I should give it; further research is necessary.  Thus, I have decided to dedicate a future post to the topic of stalking in the digital age.  Stay tuned.

For every person who thinks facial recognition technology is creepy, there is at least one person who wants a pair of augmented reality (A.R.) glasses to enable him or her to address others by their names.  When my dad first learned of the Google glasses project, that's exactly what he was thinking.  As you might have guessed, my dad isn't very good at remembering people's names.  He would love to have a little label, projected into his right eye, to tell him who it is he's approaching.

While my dad finds this application of A.R. glasses to be exciting, I initially found it to be a bit off-putting.  After exploring the reasons behind this reaction, my position has evolved.  My initial reaction, broken down into individual parts, is as follows:

It's cheating! - Yes, I suppose that's why I felt uncomfortable with the idea of assistive technology for name recall.  You can't use technology!; that's against the rules!

It's trickery! - If remembering is something you do with your brain, using technology to "remember" isn't "actual" remembering.  Because of the hidden nature of this particular technology, the people whose names you recall using the technology have been tricked into thinking you "actually" remembered their names.

Your ability is above zero! - As I thought more about it, I realized my discomfort was only with people who are pretty good at remembering names but still choose to use assistive technology.  I realized I was completely okay with people of severe impairments using technology for name recall.  (I'm so enlightened.)

As stated earlier, my position has evolved:

Social "Games" - The genesis of this post is a conversation I had with my brother in the comments on his personal blog.  In explaining how I feel about assistive technology for name recall, I made this admission:
"…I'm biased because I personally pride myself on making a real effort to remember people's names and say hi to people by their names. In my own game, I would be cheating by using assistive technology. It's hard for me to grasp that other people aren't playing my game and have no desire to. Part of the purpose of my game is to be friendly. Others do not accomplish that by playing my game; they just embarrass themselves."
Social "games," and plain-old-games for that matter, can be great; they can make being social fun, and at the same time, motivate "players" to be more outgoing, or better friends, or help players to get more out of their friendships.  But there is no reason social interaction has to be a game.  If it does not serve you well to play a game, and you are thus not playing a game, the word "cheating" is irrelevant.

Hidden Assistive Technology - But is the word "trickery" relevant?  Would that word be relevant if I were writing about other hidden assistive technology, such as medecine?  No, of course not, and I've never thought otherwise.  A person who takes medecine for attention deficit disorder is not tricking you into thinking he is a focused person.  A person who takes allergy medecine is not tricking you into thinking he's a person who doesn't sneeze all the time.  He isn't a person who sneezes all the time because he takes medicine.  Who is to say the person you "really" are is you minus assistive technology?  This plays into a larger conversation about identity:  sometimes your body and mind plus technology equal you, other times your mind minus your body (and sometimes name) equal you.

Decoding an Initial Reaction

What was the reason, then, for my negative reaction to this particular technology?  If Bob remembered my name through the use of A.R. glasses, I honestly don't think I would think much of it, if I would think anything of it at all.  No, I would not feel "tricked."  Why I saw this technology as deceitful is in the perceptions of others, or rather, it is in my perception of how other people will react to Bob and his special glasses.  I worry that people attach weight to remembering names.  Someone remembered your friend's name but not yours.  What does that mean?  Hopefully you don't think like this.  Not only might it cause you stress, but you're assigning weight to things that don't necessarily carry any.  And if "actual" remembering doesn't carry any weight, why should the technology that helps remembering along? If assistive technology for name recall appears on the market, I hope larger society's acceptance level will be greater than my initial acceptance level.  To review, that acceptance level was yea for the severely impaired, nay for the mildly impaired:  Solomon's sympathy threshold.  

Hopefully one day, we will be just as comfortable with assistive technology as we are with medecine today.  (We're perhaps too comfortable with medecine, but that's a story for another day.)  I would love to see A.R. glasses capable of name-recall assistance, and I'll try not to judge anyone who wants to use them.  I don't know whether I would turn on that functionality; perhaps I'll continue playing my "game," but I can't wait to see what kinds of things Google's A.R. glasses, and any others that are to come, are capable of.

Postscript:  I just wasted your time.

Just wanted to say I have no idea how this name-recall thing would work.  Maybe you're supposed to make some kind of subtle eye movement that activates the camera and runs a face recognition command?  I also want to make clear that I have seen nothing from Google outlining any such name-recall function of the glasses, and the name-recall thing is only a concept potential-use for such a technology from whoever happened to think of it (my brother, my dad, Leo Laporte, et. al.).

Update December 28, 2012:

  In the comments on this post, my brother had this to say:

The feeling of being "tricked" by invisible assistive technology isn't totally illegitimate.  It's not like there's no correlation between effort and success in that, so assistive technology does interfere with the judgement of how much effort someone is making.  And we do make (sometimes legitimate) social judgements based on effort.

The problem is that correlation is much better for some people than for others, and it's not obvious when that's the case.  For me, there's a correlation between trying harder and remembering names more (because, for example, I ask people's names more often), but a significantly less strong correlation (if any) between trying hard in a particular instance and succeeding in that instance (there seem to be a lot of factors beyond my control that influence memory storage and retrieval in my brain).  It's a bit of a double-bind, because if I try to remember names in general, then remembering person A's name is used as evidence that I care less about person B.

In response to your statement about "the perception of others", I think a lot of prejudice related to non-material things works that way.  Even with things that don't bother you directly, it's easy to get caught up in the worry that a person will get you into an embarrassing situation (or themselves, there's something about how embarrassment works that can make it pretty uncomfortable to know that someone else is doing something that you think should (or could) be embarrassing).