Teacher of Algorithms

Teacher of Algorithms is the latest design fiction project from Simone Rebaudengo, who is quickly becoming the unofficial Philosopher Laureate of the Internet of Things. Rebaudengo's previous work has focused on IoT devices that are addicted to being used and objects that can make ethical decisions by crowdsourcing input from humans around the world.

Teacher of Algorithms looks at another aspect of automated behavior: What do you do when your "smart" gadget's machine learning algorithm doesn't actually learn what you want it to?

In the video, the titular teacher runs what is essentially a kennel for connected devices. Like taking a dog to an animal trainer, people leave their misbehaving devices in his care. Then he uses his expert understanding of algorithmic "psychology" to design training exercises that teach each object to act in a way optimized for the owner's habits and preferences—from operant conditioning with digital punishments and rewards, to simulation rooms that mimic the object's home environment.

While the business model is still a little ways off in the real world, the concept isn't that different from the old cliché about paying the neighbor's kid to program your VCR. And it highlights one of the challenges for designers of "smart" products: A device that is capable of learning is great, but the burden is still on users to spend the time and effort to tailor its behavior to their own liking.

And with IoT devices becoming integrated ever more deeply into our daily routines and private lives, the stakes are accordingly higher. A device that latches onto the wrong pattern could cause all kinds of havoc or even create dangerous situations. As Rebaudengo writes, why should users have to "deal with the initial problems and risk that it might even learn wrongly?"

Teacher of Algorithms was commissioned by ThingTank, a collaboration between design, anthropology, and computer science researchers at several universities in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Watch the video below, and find more of Simone Rebaudengo's work at simonerebaudengo.com.

Related: Addicted Products, Ethical Things

Ted Burnham

Professional Combobulator