Friday Five: bots, media and offices

Remember how when you were young Friday took forever to roll around? Well, I must be getting old, because now it leaps out at me before I realize it’s not Monday anymore… Anyway, here you have a roundup of interesting articles from the week:

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Bots, the next frontier – from The Economist

Just when you thought that you’d gotten your head around apps, you find out that apps are so yesterday. The thing to focus on now is bots: automated text-based services that can do just about everything from helping out (“book me a flight tomorrow morning to Amsterdam”) to entertaining (“did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman that walked into a bar?”).

“Users should find bots smoother to use, which explains another of their monikers: “invisible apps”. Installation takes seconds; switching between bots does not involve tapping on another app icon; and talking to bots may be more appealing than dealing with a customer-support agent of a bank or airline, for example.”

Apart from the novelty, bots do offer advantages over apps and service desks. Enhanced interaction will benefit the brand. And, the relatively low cost compared to apps, the cloud-based flexibility, and the ease of use should benefit both users and developers. Yet the business model is still unclear:

“No guarantee exists, however, that the bot economy will be as successful as the app one, which has created 3.3m jobs just in America and Europe, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank. The economics for developers are not obviously attractive: if bots are easier to develop, that means more competition. Consumers could, again, be overwhelmed by the cornucopia of services and ways of interacting with them. And designing good text-based interfaces can be tricky.”

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Enchanting scenes that you just want to get lost in. By David Brodeur, via Colossal.

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

by David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images

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How can Africa master the digital revolution? – by Calestous Juma, for the World Economic Forum

Here we have a pragmatic look at the use of the Internet in Africa, which bypasses the feel-good and optimistic projections of its impact, and focusses on the obstacles in the way and on ways to overcome them.

“The digital revolution is not just about communication. It is about recognizing that information is the currency of all economic activities.”

And it’s about laying down the infrastructure to be able to use that information. A currency that doesn’t have “rails” on which to move is not very useful.

Once the infrastructure is there, people need to be trained to use it. It’s not as obvious or intuitive as it seems. And the nature of the training is key: it’s not just about messaging and web pages. Information-powered tech can do so much more.

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Working for yourself is not freedom – by Jon Westenberg, via Medium

A refreshing look at what being an entrepreneur is really like. It’s hell. The stress, the hours, the uncertainty, the problems. But, it’s exhilarating. Empowering. Intensely satisfying.

I worry about all the young things starting out on the startup journey with stars in their eyes and a dream in their heart. I worry about them hitting their very first big brick wall, and thinking that they failed. I hope that articles like these open eyes and lower expectations, to reinforce determination. It’s a marathon, and it requires more toughness than you ever thought you had. But if you want a challenging, evolving life, then being an entrepreneur is the path for you. Just don’t expect it to be fun.

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If Work Is Digital, Why Do We Still Go to the Office? – by Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, for HBR

The intersection of technology and the way we work is a well-trampled subject, but this article deviates from the typical discussion of flexibility and always-on easy access, to focus on the physical role of our offices. With the means at our disposal to work at a distance – from home, from the beach, from a mountaintop – why do we still go to the office?

My answer would be that it’s because companies are slow to adapt. But that’s because I actually really enjoy working from home. Just taking into account the time I save on the commute… But, the article argues that we continue to go into the office because we enjoy seeing other people. I can’t argue with that. Interaction is indeed constructive, and relationships are hard to build via a screen.

“What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere, that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries. And that is why the quality of the physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever — bringing along watershed changes.”

If I didn’t like working from home, I would choose one of the many co-working spaces that seem to be spreading like mushrooms. The ones that I know are attractive, peaceful and yet stimulating. Relaxed and yet motivating.

“As they strive to engineer creativity, coworking space providers are also experimenting with quantifying human interactions. And this is where they may have the biggest influence on how offices are eventually designed. Understanding how the workforce connects within a flexible working environment is crucial for designing and operating next-generation offices.”

The old long-corridor, name-on-the-door approach to working spaces is obviously very last century. The new offices are turning work into a much more social activity. And in the process, helping us to refine what we actually mean by “work”.

“Far from making offices obsolete, as the digital pioneers of the 1990s confidently predicted, technology will transform and revitalize workspaces. We could soon work in a more sociable and productive way, and not from the top of a mountain. The ominous “death of distance” may be reversed with the “birth of a new proximity.””

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With new roadblocks for digital news sites, what happens next? – by Ken Doctor, for Nieman Lab

You thought that legacy media had it hard? Well, they do, no doubt about that. But new digital media is suffering, also. Not so much in traffic figures – they seem to be doing pretty well. But in income. Buzzfeed, Mashable, The Huffington Post, and other big-name new media businesses have all been reducing staff and diversifying income streams, in a relatively strong economy. What will they do when the economy starts to turn down again and Trump is no longer so interesting? (And yes, that will happen – please God.)

“If people expect these companies to have figured out how to replace the legacy news companies and navigate this new world, they’ve got to think again. There is no secret sauce in news publishing.”

It seems that the new media format that everyone wants is video. Could it be that we are giving up reading?

“What we have gained: a wealth of new national news and analysis, often spirited, occasionally groundbreaking, and instructive to a news craft that needs shaking up. Most of that remains in place, and we can hope it will continue to do so.

But overall, we’re seeing the economics of text-based (not print, but text) content turning more generally dismal. Well-funded startups like Vox Media and Mic have all been talking up video, or even TV itself.”

It turns out that it’s not so much the audience demanding video. It’s that the ad rates are much better. (Although why would they be better if the audience isn’t demanding video?)

“Now, all that audience growth must turn into money, into some kind of sustainable profit over time. Almost universally, those running these newer companies say, when asked about their profitability: “We could be profitable if we wanted to be.” That sounds silly, but it offers the ring of truth. Translation: If we stopped plowing all this money into international expansion or video build-out, we could turn nicely into the black.”

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A summary of climactic cinematic moments. Completely unrelated to anything tech, but surprisingly fun (or maybe not so surprisingly – who doesn’t like cheesy one-liners??). Is your favourite in there? Mine is:

Witch King: “You fool. No man can kill me! Die now.”

Eowyn (ripping off her helmet): “I. Am. No. Man!”


Have a great weekend!

Twitter bots: The weird, the strange and the truly odd

I’ve talked about Twitter bots (automated Twitter accounts – the “bots” is short for “robots”) before, about their role in education and the weirdness that is social media. Today, however, I’m going to show you a different type of example: some are quirky, others interesting, and a few are downright entertaining.

One of my favourites is the Big Ben bot. On the hour, every hour, it tweets Big Ben’s bongs. This is possibly more useful if you live in the UK, but it would provide a fun distraction no matter where you are. Although I confess that I do not understand why so many people favourite and re-tweet this one. “News” it is not.


Do you remember the movie The Sound of Music? Of course you do, we all do, or at least you do if you’re over 30. So, you remember the song “My Favourite Things”? Of course you do, that movie has the most inexplicably memorable songs of any movie, ever. There is a Twitter bot that will send you a snippet of the song’s lyrics, with certain key words substituted. Very amusing. The annoying part is that once you see the tweets, it will be impossible to get that song out of your head the rest of the day. Trust me on this.


This is really very clever. Dear Assistant is a search-engine-based bot created to answer your questions. Sure, Google could do that as well, but this is more fun.


I actually follow this one: a bot that tweets random images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, several times a day. Eye candy, or brain candy, or whatever, it’s a break from so much tech stuff.


The MomaRobot does the same, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


CongressEdits is one part surreal, one part worrying, and one part encouraging. It detects when a Wikipedia entry is edited from a government IP address. The surreal aspect is obvious, I suppose (why would we care?), the worrying part comes from the “why aren’t they revising policies and improving accountability?”, and the encouragement comes from realising that the people running the US government know a lot about a lot of different things.


Mothgenerator uses Javascript to generate images of imaginary moths, assigns them believable names, and shares them with the world. Why? No idea, but it’s cool.


This one is actually quite beautiful. Micropoetry on @poem_exe. I don’t know how they do it, but some of them almost make some sort of sense.


While not exactly Artificial Intelligence, these Twitter bots are surprising, uplifting and sometimes hilarious. Although usually the hilarity stems from the split between their apparent depth of meaning and their beautiful irrelevance.

Twitter bots, teachers and inspiration

Until this morning, I had no idea how Twitter bots work. To be honest, they haven’t impinged too much on my consciousness, but a friend once commented to me that he uses bots to tweet stuff about media (I had no idea what he meant), and a MOOC that I’m taking uses “Teacher bots” to reply to tweets from students.

That really intrigued me, especially since the MOOC is all about the automatisation of learning (not advocating it, just asking us to think about it, and giving us lots of thoughtful readings to show us how little we really have thought about it…). The course goes into depth on, among other topics, how technology affects our definition of what it means to be human, so I’m not sure if using a teacher bot is irony, conscious tongue-in-cheek-ness, or a sinister sub-plot to see if we’re paying attention.

can bots replace human tweeters?

So, what is a Twitter bot? And what do they have to do with Teacher bots? And will Teacher bots take over education feedback?

Bots are a little computer programs that tap directly into the Twitter feeds, extracting tweets or even only parts of tweets according to criteria that you set. They can be created in pretty much any programming language (and if you want some guidance as to how, check here and here), and if you don’t have the technical experience to do it, a developer could whip one up for you in a few minutes.

According to Twitter, almost 10% of its active accounts are automated bots, which means, doing the math, that there are probably over 20 million automated Twitter tweeters out there. What on earth are they tweeting about?

About half of the bots are spam, trying to sell followers, trying to manipulate the trending topics, or trying to sell you body parts enhancers. Twitter has a strict anti-spam policy, and spam accounts are eliminated once caught. Catching them is not that easy, unfortunately.

But the majority of the bots are simple re-tweeters. I noticed the other day, for example, that anything that I tweet with the hashtag #startup gets retweeted by another account. It doesn’t do that because thinks my tweets are particularly insightful (although they are, of course, #humblebrag). It does that because it’s programmed to. And those kind of bots can be very useful.

You can program a bot to retweet any tweet with certain words in it, hashtags or not. Companies are increasingly using this tactic to find out what people are saying about them. You’ve probably noticed it when you tweet something nice about a particular brand and it’s suddenly retweeted by the brand’s account. Or that if you complain about a service or product, someone from the Customer Experience department gets in touch with you right away. Media outlets are increasingly using this technique to find sources and information. Their bots retweet messages that include certain keywords, such as “Ferguson” or “immigration”, which feeds them both material and potential collaborators.

As with the media outlets, bots can also help students and teachers to find information and sources, for use in class debate or in essay preparation. They provide up-to-date, real time information which can be incorporated into presentations and assignments, giving a different and more emotional perspective than text books or even prepared videos.

Programming bots to automatically retweet is pretty simple. However, we are beginning to see a rise in the number of bots that attempt “dialogue”, using a mixture of algorithms and basic artificial intelligence (AI). And here’s where its potential impact on education gets interesting…

For now, the AI bots are still clunky. Tweets like “That’s a very good comment, Hank” and “Why are you saying this now, and how can I help?” aren’t really going to fool anyone for long. But as we get more experience with this, and as we learn more about AI programming, we will soon be receiving messages that seem almost… human.

Tofu tweets

So, is that a real-live human tweeting a reaction, or a bot? Is that your teacher responding to your query, or a computer program? Does it matter?

Yes, it does, very much. It’s a question of trust.

I love the efficiency of Twitter communication, and I strongly believe that it should be used more and more in education. And I believe that anything that can be automated should be automated, to free up time to do more meaningful things. I also understand that the role of the teacher in education is being re-examined, with the advent of MOOCs and flipped classrooms and excellent teaching apps for the tablets that more and more students are using.

But no one can deny the value of the influence of a good mentor. Since the beginning of documented history, students have had figures to look up to and to learn from. Since the beginning of documented history, certain eloquent and intelligent individuals have taught, inspired and motivated the younger generation. That has not changed, even though the methods of delivering a large chunk of the information that we believe the students should learn, has. Ask any young person who their favourite teacher has been so far, and watch their faces light up as they remember how doors were opened, lights were turned on, and a whole lot of other appropriate metaphors. Their faces light up because the sensation of understanding and of seeing a future roll out before you is indescribable, and one of the best gifts we can give the next generation.

Can an automated response do that? The question is actually a very big one, and brings up a ton of artificial intelligence issues. Can we love a robot? Yes, it seems that we can, if they have enough human characteristics (tell me you didn’t cry in Wall-E, or I Robot). But loving something doesn’t mean that we are going to trust it enough to let it inspire us.

Can we count on a robot to care about us? Here’s where things get sticky. Any good teacher has no problem showing that they care about their students, as people. They feel proud when the children exceed their own expectations, they feel happy when the class is excited, they understand if someone is having difficulties. Good teaching is not about imparting knowledge or grading papers, a robot can do that. It’s about feelings. If we feel that someone cares about us, we are more “invested”, we try harder, we want the teacher to feel that his or her caring is not misplaced. It’s natural, and not just in children. (Of course there are exceptions, and they have many posts dedicated to them in the psychology blogs.)

As the saying goes, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” A good AI bot can probably fake it to some extent, but nowhere near enough (yet) to convince us that it’s human. And as for connecting, inspiring, and showing that they care… Can we trust them to do that? It’s also often hard to trust humans, but with humans we have the emotional connection of forgiveness, understanding and affection. The human presence allows for a wide range of non-verbal communication as well, all of which generates the trust needed to really inspire another human.

Is the human presence necessary for learning? No, not for all learning. I can learn from reading books and watching documentaries, and while they were admittedly created by humans, there isn’t a direct human presence. And I can learn from Google search results, I can learn from a walk in the woods in which I observe moss patterns.

Is the human presence necessary for teaching? Yes. While videos, books, online courses are very informative and even instructive, they are limited to “showing”, which is not the same as teaching. Valuable, but not the same. For a good teacher, you need the human touch.

The MOOC that I mentioned at the beginning of this post managed a powerful mix of the human and the automated. The classes were via videos and readings, and there was an active discussion board, as with most other MOOCs. What set this class apart from others is that they also organized Hangouts, live video chats in which students could participate. Participation is limited to 10, but they had more than one session, and the chance to “meet” both the professors and other students made it feel so much more real, important, even meaningful. It’s not the same as a physical meeting, but it’s close enough. It feels personal.

For the course, as an experiment, the professors created a Teacher Bot, which responded to students’ tweets with responses according to recognizable words in the tweets. It has its usefulness, no doubt. But its answers were not human, and so did not carry any “weight”. There was a lack of trust, and engagement. Tweets are useful for receiving information. But that can also be taken care of on a static web page. Twitter is even more useful for connecting, however briefly, with someone else, to exchange thoughts, jokes, ideas and links. While there are many hilarious bot accounts (I’ll tell you about some of them in another post), and I confess that I subscribe to some of them, Twitter’s value is in the human connections. Bots can be worthwhile, and even entertaining. But emotions and inspiration need a human source.

The bots put up a good effort, though. I ended up feeling a touch of affection for our Teacher Bot. His tweets were getting stranger and stranger. He seemed to give up trying to appear human. Although, the last tweet I got from him made me wonder, and almost brought tears to my eyes:

Teacher Bot

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For more information on Twitter, check out my Flipboard Twitter magazine:

flipboard twitter