Episode 1: Interview With Sina Bahram Transcript

Welcome to Episode One of Making Better.

The Making Better podcast aims to create a solid framework for optimism by interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers. Our guests will include scientists, musicians, philosophers, activists, skeptics, writers, artists and any other sort with ideas for the future. Now, let’s meet the hosts of Making Better, Dr. Francis DiDonato and Chris Hofstader.

Chris: Well, Francis, this is episode one of Making Better.

Francis: Yes, I’m really psyched, it’s great to collaborate with you again. I think the last time we collaborated was in front of CBGBs maybe in the 80s?

Chris: I think the last collaboration we did was a fanzine we started out of your apartment..uh on the Bowery just south of CBGBs. I think that was 1981, ’82..so

Francis: My, how time flies..

Chris: Yeah, it sure does, and it means that we’re old now

Francis: Older and wiser, perhaps?

Chris: Perhaps.
(chuckles)

Francis: I was thinking that, these past 35 years, it’s almost like Ronald Reagan pushed society and society has just been falling down for like 35 years, but like now, because you know, we’ve sort of reached the end point with this guy that we have now in as President, it’s like this new sense of possibility again, like we could not be reactive and actually start looking ahead at what’s possible in the future.

Chris: Well, we’re seeing so many ..new activism starting up, everything from the Women's March to the Parkland kids and ..there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic and a lot of people out there doing all kinds of interesting things to get society back to its normal pace.

Francis: Right. You know, I ve spent the last 35 years working in science, getting my PhD, and just being very heavily invested in that, and you have moved on to your…maybe you can describe what you’ve been doing..

Chris: Well, I did..most of my career, after 1983 was in software engineering, and then for the last 10 years I’ve been a full time activist in the disability rights space.

Francis: Yeah, so the things that were possible when we were hanging out originally at those hardcore matinees with your band, and my band, and..there’s new possibilities now, new opportunities technologically, and people have learned a lot about ideologies as well, so that you know I think that the excitement I’m having with this program is ..we’re almost on a fact-finding mission, what is possible, like what is this new world that we have the possibility of creating now?

Chris: This month’s guest is inclusive design specialist Sina Bahram. I’ve known Sina since he was about 16 years old, when he lied to me about his age and told me he was 19, which was easy to believe because he was already most of the way through his undergraduate degree at Nc state. Sina has gone on to form a company called Prime Access Consulting, and focuses most of his work on making museums accessible to all kinds of people, whether they have a disability or not. Our conversation with Sina discussed his work we talked a bit about museums, and we went as far as discussing even the nature of beauty. and a number of other topics, and we think you’re really going to enjoy our conversation with Sina.

Chris: Sina Bahram, welcome to Making Better!

Sina: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Yes, welcome

Chris: Sina, you’re most well known for being a universal design specialist. And when you look up “universal design” on wikipedia, it’s less than obvious what it’s describing. So, can you tell us in a manner that our listeners might understand, what you do and what universal design, inclusive design, and those kinds of things are?

Sina: Yeah, sure. I guess a few definitions of terms might be in order. So, you look up “universal design” on wikipedia and you see some things about the Center for Universal Design at [?]..State and you see Ronald L. Mace’s name tossed around, etc. any of (?) this broad spectrum of ideas, designs for ..used in the design of services and products and other offerings, etc. it enumerates these different kinds of things but doesn’t really tell you, what this is all about. And what it refers to is a methodology that incorporates thinking about all of the possible ways your users might be able or unable to interact with your offering due to, let’s say, disability, due to a difference in language, ..in my company, Prime Access Consulting, we like to use the phrase “the entire vector of human difference.” This is not only ability but it can refer to age and gender and orientation and so on and so forth. And these things matter because when we think about making a product, whether it’s an iPhone, whether it’s an apple corer in the kitchen, whether it’s a piece of software, we need to consider all of the possible users so we can make these things accessible and usable to the widest possible audience. So, in a nutshell, that’s what universal design, inclusive design, these things are. Now, there’s some nuanced differences between things like universal design and inclusive design, I tend to prefer “inclusive design” just because inclusive design, to me, well it has the word “inclusion” at its heart and that really is at the heart of my practice. So I tend to go around talking about inclusive design, but you’re absolutely right to point out that the Wikipedia page, for example, is on “universal design.” Some textbooks that exist in this space, they’re on universal design. That’s the more formal name over the years, but a lot of folks have been gravitating towards this idea of inclusive design. It also just feels a little less..totalitarian in a way, universal design, I’ve seen a lot of developers, especially, with a very pedantic mindset, be turned off by that phrase because they feel like they need to boil the ocean, right, they need to do all of the things, all correctly, all of the time, in one go. And that’s not the idea, the idea here is that you fail forward, you iterate and you make things progressively enhanced and more accessible to people in future iterations. You learn from your mistakes and you fail forward. That’s the impetus I bring to inclusive design work.

Chris: Now, you mentioned the name of your company is Prime Access Consulting..why don’t you tell us a little about the business that you run and how it’s been growing and then we’ll go on to my favorites of your clients.

Sina: Sure. So, Prime Access Consulting, or PAC for short, is an inclusive design firm, we’re headquartered out of RTP, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, we’ve had a strong concentration on folks in the GLAM sector, so this is Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, for several years now. And the work that we …

Chris: So by “GLAM” you’re not referring to David Bowie, are you?

Sina: I am not. Sadly, although the MCA Chicago did have a David Bowie exhibit that benefitted from our work, and actually incorporated visual descriptions as part of the [coyote] project that we did with them. Essentially, what we do is we work with museums and folks in this sector on the entirety of their offerings. Right, so this could be a website accessibility project, looking at things like WICAG, the web content accessibility guidelines, an accessibility especially around persons who use assistive technologies like screenreader and screen magnifiers and things of this nature, but it can also refer to policies. It can refer to building out accessibility roadmaps, it can refer to working with boards of trustees, all the way down to the intern that just got hired last week. And understanding that this commitment to inclusion, this commitment to making our offerings, whatever they may be, content, digital, etc. available to the widest possible audience, that’s the responsibility of every single person in the organization. It’s not just one person’s job or one person’s role, or some system you can buy that will fix all of your problems. And so, we try to weave this idea of inclusion into the entirety of our clients’ practices. and so we do that through a variety of ways. We do that through working with their developers, we do that through testing and evaluation and audits and that sort of methodology, and we also do that occasionally when we are really lucky to get called in at the very beginning, and by the very beginning I’m referring to something that’s being built and the shovel hasn’t even hit the dirt yet. We’re talking early days, and we then have the opportunity in those cases, like we did with Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to lay down a groundwork where we can prevent inaccessibility and lack of inclusion from even cropping up in the first place. There’s always going to be little things, don’t get me wrong, but we’re laying the groundwork that the baseline expectation is that everything starts accessible and inclusive.

Francis: As a graduate student, my advisor was a big proponent and advocate of basic science. And a lot of the things that have turned into drug therapies, that [] thing, or even the tools to get to that, were done through basic science. And I bring that up because it makes me think that, in doing universal design, you can probably come up with technologies or other things maybe that have unexpected application and much broader scale. You see that?

Sina: Absolutely. Every day. Literally every day, in our work we see that. So, there’s the obvious examples of things like a curb cut. So a curb cut is that sloped piece of pavement or sidewalk that allows, for example, a wheelchair user not to have to hop the curb to cross the street—but that’s not the majority of people who use curb cuts. If you look at the numbers, the majority of folks who benefit from curb cuts are..parents with strollers, people with grocery carts, at the air, roller skaters and skateboarders and bicyclists, etc., and that’s just one example, right? And if you think about curb cuts, you think about the history of curb cuts, they used to be smooth. And then the problem was identified that, especially if you combine a smooth curb cut with not a lot of elevation difference, so there’s not a very steep slope, with the advent of silent or mostly silent cars by way of electri cars, you’ve got a recipe for not-such-a safe-crossing for, let’s say, someone who’s blind, that may not know they’ve crossed into a street from the sidewalk. So, we didn’t, as a society, go, “oh well, curb cuts were great, guess we’re not gonna do that anymore!” Right? That wasn’t our reaction, our reaction was, ok, there’s a problem here, and the progressive enhancement, the fail forward, was “let’s put bumps on it”…let’s put dots on it, it’s colloquially referred to as “foot braille”…(there are no messages, I’ve checked, municipalities are missing an amazing Easter egg potential there, I feel) But essentially, the idea there is that we gradually, you know, put these sloped bumps on it, it’s feeble with your foot, if you’re a guide dog user, feel-able with a cane if you’re a cane traveller, etc., doesn’t interfere with a bicycle, and it makes it better, right? So that’s one example of just broadening and it being used by others, but if you think about the advent of just technologies and in general, necessity is the mother of all invention, so the expression goes, and there’s a lot of necessity that comes out of work, especially when you’re thinking about users with differing abilities. So a lot of this work involves inventing solutions along the way…I think what puts our work aside a little bit is that I have a very strong commitment—I’m glad you mentioned basic science—to evidence-based, objective measures, right? It’s not just what I think is a good idea—I think I have lots of good ideas—but they’re not worth anything if you can’t evaluate them and prove that they are effective. And so, evaluation and evidence-based techniques are at the heart of what we do when we try to broaden those things that you’re talking about to wider audiences or spin them off as a technology, etc.

Francis: Can you give an example of that?

Sina: Sure, so let’s talk about visual description. So if you think about visual description, it’s the act of describing what you see, presumably for an audience that cannot see that thing. Right? And usually even additionally, presumably, because they are blind. Now most of these constraints don’t have to exist, you could be describing it to someone over the phone, they could be a sighted individual, but just not physically there with you. So then we could maybe broaden this to say, an eyes-free audience, right? And then you can broaden it even more to say, wait a minute, why are we concentrating on people who can’t see this thing? If you actually look at the work that involves, and we’ve done some of this work, we provide a visual description of a painting to someone in a contemporary art gallery. All of a sudden they go from “wow I feel really dumb in here I don’t know why that thing on the wall is really expensive, or is really valuable to society, or really has a message to say”…they go from that kind of feeling to “Oh, I get it, that little blue sliver in the background was the reflection of the sail of the ship..ok, I totally understand that”…and so it turns it into a prolonged looking exercise or an exercise in really guided looking…and this is, obviously, for a sighted individual. So it returns agency back to visitors of these institutions. you know, it’s really easy to talk about all the good things museums do, because there’s a lot of them, and they’ve been doing it for millennia, but, the idea here is that if you think about how people feel in the gallery, these feelings of exclusions are not just because of differences of ability, they can be about differences of background knowledge. If you’re not an art expert, reading a visual description, yes, that might be critical for a blind user, is still super helpful to you as a sighted viewer of that artwork. So that would be one example of broadening.

Chris: Since we’re back to art, I know one of the projects you did was the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Andy is somebody I think is both a hero of mine and Francis as well, so if you could speak a bit about that project, ‘cause it’s kind of personal and I think Andy has taken snapshots of both of us at different times…

Sina: (laugh) With the Andy Warhol Museum, one of the things we did was tactile reproduction. So this was, [Edith Whitewall] out of Pittsburgh came up with this really cool technique, to basically laser into I think a sort of [CNC] type of process, into a material called acetol (sp) and acetol is this geometrically inert material, supposedly you can put it in gasoline for over a year and it will not change shape, which, you know, immediately makes you think, OK, this is a good candidate to be felt by the general public. You know, a bunch of people are going to be touching it. So, that’s the material we went with, and then he basically wrote a mapping algorithm to go from color to elevation. And so you have things that are, for example, brighter, that are raised, and darker, that are lower elevation, and as you’re touching something, you then can get a sense of what the painting or line drawing or screen print may represent. But here’s the thing, if I give you these tactile reproductions, just throw one at you, right…you sit down at a table, you’ve got both arms out, right, these are reasonably big, sometimes they’re a foot, two foot, three foot in diagonal. You’re not going to immediately go, “Oh, OK, I get it, this is a reclining nude” or “this is a sports car from a three-quarter sort of profile” being seen…you’re not going to necessarily immediately intuit that, because of how tactile graphics work. And so what we did with Andy Warhol as part of this project is, we provided them two things. We provided them visual descriptions of the artworks, so that you have a general sense of what is being seen, and for all of the benefits I alluded to earlier, but then we also provided guided tactile description. So guided tactile descriptions are the act of assuming someone is touching the tactile reproduction as you are describing it to them, and not only are you describing the visual things that are going on, you’re describing what they feel like. So as you take your right hand and start on the letter “c” this spells out the manufacturer’s brand name, C-a-m-p-b-e-l-l-‘-s. You’ll notice a drop shadow to the right of the “C” and in this font, the “e” looks like a backwards “3,” you know, something like this. Right, so you can start explaining as someone is touching, you know, something iconic like Campbell’s, and this allows you to get much more detail and a much more immersive, rich experience. But, there’s also an awesome side effect—the side effect is, and I saw this happen, this happened in front of me. I was there doing some testing, we were at an evening event there at the museum…this girl, I think she was eight, ten years old, something like that, couldn’t have been older than ten years old, and she’s asking her mom, she’s like “Mommy, why are there dots on it?” because we had braille labels to the right of these things, to explain the work and so on and so forth, and she’s like why are there bumps there, why are there dots? And so mom and daughter had a three, four minute discussion about “that’s braille, someone who’s blind can read it, etc.”…and again, they were not talking about Andy’s works at all, whatsoever, not for that three or four minutes. But that side effect, the museum could not have been more delighted about that, right, that happened in their space, they facilitated that conversation. So you get this awareness building as a side effect of this inclusive work as well.

Francis: I guess a question I also have, that seems kind of simplistic, but I think is important, is ..why inclusion?

Sina: Yeah, no, I think it’s a fair question. Those kinds of questions, I feel, need to be answered through the lens through which you interpret the world, right? So if you want to take a utilitarian approach to the world, or a moral objectivism approach to the world, or you know there’s various philosophies of how we should treat fellow humans and so on and so forth. If you want to be pragmatic about it, we’re all getting older, right? As we do, we are very easily able to enter and sometimes leave the group of persons with disabilities. and this has nothing to do with socioeconomic status, or anything along these lines. And so if you want to take a completely selfish approach to this, this is something that could help you, maybe not now, but in the future, and you’ll be dependent on this.

Chris: In my talks on disability, one of the things I always say, that makes disability different from every other minority, is that a) disability is the only minority that intersects with every other minority, and it’s the only minority that you will ultimately join if you live long enough.

Sina: If you live long enough, I totally agree with that. And the thing is, there’s other reasons, there’s benefits. When we talk about business, we talk about ROI based arguments—Return on Investment—right, and there’s a lot of that. You know Toyota has a lot of inclusive design and universal design initiatives. They’re not necessarily—you know, I don’t want to impugn their moral objectives, but I don’t feel they’re doing it for only moral reasons, they have a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. The reason they’re doing it is, they can sell more cars to more people for longer, end of discussion, full stop. That’s an ROI argument, and it’s a very easy one, because now there’s evidence and data about it, it’s not just what people think will happen or say is a good idea. When we talk about institutions like museums, we don’t talk about ROI in terms of return on investment, we talk about ROI in terms of return on institutional objectives. So by making your stuff more inclusive, you are increasing your visitorship, you are increasing your engagement time, you are increasing your ability to contribute positively to the community. Whatever their institutional objectives are, these practices, they assist that as well.

Francis: What about from an economic standpoint? Are there economic incentives for this kind of thing?

Sina: There are, I mean, again, with respect to the return on investment argument, you can sell more products to more people for longer, so that’s definitely an immediate economic incentive from a purely capitalistic perspective. Depending on the kind of work you are doing, there’s non-dilutive (sp?) granting that’s available, granting that if you’re a small company, doesn’t require you to give up equity but is just a funding source, you know, think of Mellon Foundation and the Knight Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates, all of these charitable and philanthropic organizations. So there’s economic support from that perspective. There’s also the flip side, which is that there are legal and regulatory requirements to doing these things, whether it’s video accessibility and we’re talking about captioning an audio description, or media companies, or we’re talking about website accessibility, there are a lot of rules on the books now in a variety of different countries, to enforce these things. And so there’s economic incentives and there are a lot of disincentives not to do this, I feel that, in pretty much every layer of the stack that you want to look at.

Chris: One of the incentives, Francis, is certainly to avoid getting sued. And Sina, maybe you want to speak a little bit to the legal frameworks between the ADA, ADA Restoration Act, and IDEA.

Sina: Sure, ..look, I’m not an attorney, nor am I cute enough to play one on TV, so I want to preface all of this…you have legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA for short, it’s going on 28, 29 years now, the 30th anniversary is coming up in 2020 I believe, and the way that courts, especially within the United States of course, have established what it even means for a place to be a public place of accommodation, and subject to things like the ADA and to be accessible, is that websites are falling into this categorization. So what you start seeing is, you don’t see a lot of cases go all the way to settle…excuse me, go all the way to a decision, they mostly get settled out of court. Sometimes they get settled even pre-lawsuit phase, through things like mediation and so forth, but there’s a really, you know, important I think understanding to have here that, if you’re selling something, especially, to the public online, and you are a public website, a public company, etc., there’s virtually no defense you have having an inaccessible website. And so oftentimes, what you’re noticing over the past, oh, 15 to 18 years, is that the caselaw has just overwhelmingly been in favor of any type of plaintiff that brings a complaint on these grounds. Now, there’s something really important to talk about here when we talk about legal frameworks and accessibility and so forth. So, we can agree that a lot of us…on this conversation and most of the time in accessibility conversations, want companies to do the right thing and we’re able to help them achieve those goals etc., the first reaction is not to suit up. These legal frameworks do exist though, when there is no other source of recourse. However, what is happening a lot these days is that you’ll see these drive-by lawsuits, where folks will sue a company or a series of companies, they’ll grab a random person off the street that identifies as having some disability, and then usually it’s a blind person, and then sue under those grounds, and this is the law firm just using this as a purely money-grab scenario. And that does not make for a healthy accessibility environment, because it really makes it so that nobody takes accessibility seriously, they see it for what it is, which is a hundred-fifty, hundred-sixty thousand dollar money grab by a law firm per case, and they’re not actually making the web more accessible. Now it’s important also to give a shout-out here to Lanie Feingold, who is—I would say the country’s, but I would probably argue—the world’s expert in structured negotiation. So she actually goes in, and she’s an attorney by training and by practice, and she goes in and works with both parties to arrive at a solution so that this does not need to turn into a lawsuit.

Chris: In Lanie’s entire career as a disability attorney, only one of her cases, the lawsuit against JetBlue, is the only one that ever made it to a courtroom.

Francis: What was that one about?

Chris: JetBlue absolutely refused to negotiate, so they ended up in court. But it was about the JetBlue website, blind people couldn’t make their own plane reservations.

Sina: Fun fact about air travel, the reason that, at least to my understanding, that the in-flight entertainment systems and such are not subject to accessibility requirements, is because DOT (Department of Transportation) carved out those things as an exception, as an exemption, and what they got in return was all of the meet-and-assist and other facilities that exist to assist disabled travelers and travelers with disabilities in the airport, but as a result, basic ADA does not apply on board an aircraft, in the sense that your screen that could trivially be made accessible, absolutely trivially, is not.

Francis: I was wondering what you’ve seen on the horizon that is particularly exciting in …new technologies, new directions, …where do you see us being in, say, even 10 years from now?

Sina: Well, I’ll rig that up into two different questions. So what have I seen recently that’s pretty exciting? There’s some really great stuff happening in the AR space especially (Augmented Reality) where you are taking the video and audio feed in from a..traditionally a mobile device…and then layering some things on top of that. And in the space there’s some really cool stuff happening, for example, with an app that you can run on your phone—this is still in prototype phase, so I’m going to talk about it in the general sense—you wear it as a lanyard around your neck, and you turn around in the gallery, and as you’re looking around the gallery you are being told what the painting is, the visual description of it, and even immersed in an audio experience of that world. So imagine that when you’re looking at the painting of the Statue of Liberty, you’re hearing the wind and everything go by, because that’s the, kind of the angle of the shot, and then you maybe pan over to a farm scene, and you hear that sort of immersive 3D audio space. And so these are some things that are really interesting because it takes the ability to blend things like AR and VR (Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality) with these needs to make these environments more inclusive. And instead of treating it as a problem and sort of saying, “that’s hard, we can’t make VR accessible, we can’t make AR accessible,” it’s actually flipping that proposition on its head and saying, we can use AR to make the physical world more accessible. So that’s pretty exciting to me, and there’s a lot of projects along those kinds of lines that are using technology, not only to make our digital world accessible, but to make the physical world accessible. This is everything from scanning applications that read what’s on the end of a camera, whether it’s currency or text or objects or faces, to audio recognition to assist communication for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, you name it, right? With respect to looking 10 years forward, I think…you know, there is a lot going on right now. I mean, there’s a lot of things I’m really fascinated to see how it’s going to play out. We are finally at a point where we’re making some significant progress in AI, and in machine learning. I don’t think we’re going to have strong AI by 2029, but I do think we’re going to have expert systems that are, maybe, finally, worth at least their label, and can be expert [at doing stuff]. I’ve always found that …that label to be a little frustrating, because most “expert systems” that I have interacted with have…been anything but. And so you’re going to see more of that, you’re going to see more conversational agents, right, things like your Alexa and Siri and so on and so forth. You’re going to see more integration between these things.

Francis: I was wondering if you might touch on any advancements in AI that you’ve come across recently..that are particularly exciting to you…

Sina: I think that, there are a couple of areas that are being worked on right now that are really interesting. One area refers to basically transfer of knowledge between different neural network based approaches. Right, so you have a system that can translate language, great. awesome. And you have another system that can understand what it sees, computer vision, OK? That’s delightful, great. Now, these two things need to talk to one another, but not only do they need to talk to one another…you can always take the output of one and make it the input of the other, in fact that’s how, for example, Facebook’s image recognition stuff and how a lot of other things work, right. This is based on some work out of MSR and Microsoft presearch and several others do this, where you take…um, Margaret Mitchell’s work, and so you take the output of a computer vision system, you feed it into a natural language processing, a natural language generation system, and then that’s how you can get the computer to describe what it sees. That kind of linking, that’s doable. But I’m talking about is, if you have awareness of the world, and a model built up, of understanding of concepts and an internal formalism, if you will..those, in our brains, are hybridized across language, and vision and olfactory and all this other stuff…and so, that’s the kind of stuff that I’m interested in, in AI and machine learning right now, these system that don’t just do one thing well. It’s great that you can play chess and beat any living being. I’m really happy for you. But what I’m really interested in is that I can introduce a new game to you, you know, dear computer system, that you’ve never seen before, tell you the rules, and we can immediately play and start having fun. I can do that with most humans, and most basic card games, in no time flat. But I can’t do that with a computer system, necessarily…we’re getting better about that kind of transfer [base]. Now that’s one area. The other area looks at things like, capsule nets and other ways of representing knowledge. Right now, the way neural networks work for the most part is, they operate off of this insight that we can choose to go one of two ways. We can either see a ton, and I mean a billions of rows of data, and then use a little bit of calculation per observation to arrive at a model, or, we can see very little data, and use a ton of calculation to arrive at a model. Now, the system that most people are familiar with that your phones, your computers, your TVs, everything, your Alexas, they all use the former, right, they are based on billions and billions, trillions of rows sometimes, and then they do a little bit of calculation and they arrive at a neural network as an understanding of the world. But if you think of us, as people, that’s not how we work. We don’t make a billion observations, there’s very few things I think any human has made a billion observations about…if anything. But a baby can start acquiring words in no time flat! Right? So these kinds of concepts of one shot learning…and, if I right now in this conversation said, “Chris—red means 3, and Francis, blue means 4” and then I asked you guys, “what’s red plus green {blue?}, you guys shout out “seven”—that’s great, that’s awesome, we were able to learn a couple of things and then perform operations in a different domain, and we did that…I mean, I did it for you, hypothetically…but we did that in no time flat, as people. Computers have a hard time with that. That’s a trivial example, but you can extend that to things like a robot assisting you. So you want to show the robot how you want to laundry folded. As opposed to relying on laundry-folding algorithm version 4.7.1…and that’s where I think some interesting work is being done as well.

Francis: I was wondering if you could provide a laymen’s description of quantum computing…?

Sina: Sure. I’ll take a crack at it.. Quantum computing is based on some of the observations we as a society, we as a species have made about how the universe operates, at a quantum level. So, without getting into the specifics of quantum mechanics, a subject that I don’t even feel qualified to give a lecture on…

Chris: Richard Feynman himself said, as soon as you think you understand quantum mechanics, you know you don’t ..know anything about quantum mechanics.

Sina: Having dabbled a little bit, I cannot agree more with that claim, right. At the heart of it, this comes down to an interesting way the world works…the universe operates. At least to our current understanding. And that is that, if you are talking at the quantum scale, at very small, very tiny, tiny microscales, then an electron, for example, does not have a fixed orbit around an atom. It has a probability that you can say, of where it may be at any give time. And the reason for this is that there is an inverse relationship between the momentum of that ..electron and its position, and between momentum and position we can extrapolate to velocity, which is oftentimes what’s used. And we know we can either really precisely tell you how it’s traveling, you know, or we can really precisely tell you exactly where it is. But as you pinpoint one, you lose accuracy about the other, allright? And then, you also start realizing that in quantum mechanics, there’s a concept called entanglement. So entanglement relies on this idea that, if you take two particles…don’t worry about what they are, and let’s just give them a..property, allright? We take two photons, and one of the properties we like to talk about in quantum chromodynamics, for example, is the spin. So imagine that something can have a spin of “up” or a spin of “down” for just the purposes of this discussion. If we take two photons and entangle them with one another, then if we modify the spin of one photon to be up,”the other one is guaranteed to be down…this starts leading to really interesting things you can do. Like, for example, entangling a lot more than just two particles together. So, fast forwarding a lot and doing a lot of hand-waving, quantum computing relies on these fundamentals to allow us to perform calculations in a square root of the time it would take us otherwise. So in other words, if you had to perform a million calculations to do something, on a quantum computer you could do that with a thousand calculations, right? And that’s because these “cubits” as they are called, are entangled with one another, and you can then perform certain manipulations to arrive at a solution, depending on how you phrase your problem. And it’s very complicated, it’s not about adding ones and zeros together or anything along these lines. But what it buys you is some drastic quadratic speed-ups of things like factoring prime numbers, like searching a database, and like modeling quantum effects. So if you think of a modern computer system, think of a chemistry-based system. It has to know all of these rules for every single particle, and the more you can model, the more precise your model is going to be. Well, in a classic computer system, you’re going to quickly exhaust, you know, billions, trillions, quadrillions of calculations in a very small amount of time, just to model just a few drops of a liquid, you know? And so, with a quantum computer, you’re able to do this and with the accuracy of those quantum effects, actually being modeled correctly. And so now you can start applying this to…well, there’s a couple of implications. Number one, a lot of basic assumptions of cryptography go out the window, because factoring prime numbers becomes a lot faster, right? Now there are quantum proof algorithms that we have today, we can look at things like [electric] curve cryptography and [polwart] secrecy and that domain, etc. There’s also applications where you look at drug discovery, or you look at, OK, I want a material that…this is rather topical…I want a material like steel, but I want it to be see-through…and I also, you know, want it to have certain properties, like being able to carry an electric charge on top of it. Well, right now we have to kind of experiment and noodle around and bump into things and use a few first principles in the lab–I’m grossly oversimplifying here–to arrive at some of those things. But if you have the ability to search the space of materials, and start doing parameter sweeps, you could start discovering these types of solutions in a computer system without even needing to prototype it first. That’s the kind of advances quantum computing brings.

Francis: The purpose of the show is to identify..where’s that gap between where we are right now, and what is possible for us…right at this moment. And I was hoping that maybe you could provide a couple of concrete examples of what changes we’re not manifesting, what technology we’re not taking advantage of, that could make the world a much better place right now.

Sina: I think that a lot of what contributes to that gap that you’re alluding to…is not necessarily an absence of technology or engineering or something from the sciences, right—there’s some of that, of course, you know, we don’t have a systemic cure for cancer right now, we don’t have an amazing battery solution, you know, if we could increase energy density by 10X you would ..the world would change. The world would literally just…change. Because energy is really what limits us in terms of ability, your phone could be a million times more powerful…an energy problem, right? and a heat problem, in terms of what you do when you have that amount of energy and you’re generating heat, you have to get rid of that heat. So these are the kinds of fundamental advances that prevent us from jumping that to some of the things we see from sci-fi, right? So your phone can act as a pocket projector and also act as a system that could power anything from an airplane all the way down to, you know, your phone call, your video chat, etc.,…there’s not a lot of practical limitations there, there’s some engineering problems that wouldn’t be resolved, but the fundamental things have to do with energy density, in terms of batteries and the ability to handle heat, right, waste heat. But, I think that a lot of the reason for not crossing this gap has to do with policy, it has to do with the absence of different teams being able to work with one another in seamless ways. It has to do with the lack of efficiency when we try, as humans, to do virtually anything at scale.

Francis: I have a question that goes back to art, and making museums accessible. I think that, for me, as someone who is, I’m a scientist, I’m also a musician, I think a lot about the idea of beauty and I think about beauty and science in the context of elegance and …beauty is a really, really important part of being human. I would like to hear maybe a little about what your views are on the importance of beauty and how what you’re doing is helping people with disabilities to experience …

Sina: Well, one minor nitpick would be that I hope what we’re doing is helping everyone experience it better, not only persons with disabilities. But definitely an emphasis there. I think…beauty is a difficult one to me, because it seems highly subjective, right? Our concepts of beauty in the western world are very different than those in other parts of the world, and over time, these definitions have changed as well. There’s also different interpretation frameworks for beauty, you know, aesthetics vs. simply contribution to the whole vs. simplicity and elegance as you alluded to earlier. So…there’s a lot to unpack in that one word, and I think it’s highly overused…or, I shouldn’t say it’s overused, it’s over-loaded, right? It’s highly over-loaded term. But what I can say is that, what I find beautiful is, essentially looking at experiences, and allowing for and facilitating shared experiences to happen with the same level of enjoyment across the different parties. So if you think of a blind person being at an aquarium, where their sighted friend is looking at the fish and going “wow, oh my gosh that one looks so cool, it’s got these orange stripes on it and it’s swimming really fast but only in the front, really close to the glass..” right? Well, can we translate that, right? Can we use computer vision and an audio landscape to bring that to life, simultaneous with the visual observation? And the metric for this that I use is, do you both go “wow” or “ooo” at the same time? If you do, we did our job right. Win, we succeeded, high five. But, that’s easier said than done. There’s a lot to be unpacked there, we’re talking about cross-domain expressions of beauty through various modalities and being piped into, in your case, vision, and my case, an aural representation, two very different people with different backgrounds, right? There’s so many variables to unpack there. But at least we’re trying to reach parity with the experiential nature of some of these environments, like in the case of museums, as you asked about. So that’s one, I think, aspect of beauty. The other one is, when we talk about a visual description, a lot of people start gravitating toward this unnecessary requirement that they put on themselves, and it is that my description must be objective, right? First of all, I reject this notion. There’s no such thing as an objective description, not one written by a human being, right? I completely reject that, on first principles, definitionally, I feel that that is not true. Moving on past that assertion, I think that we need to start acknowledging principles like, multiplicity of voices, right? So a 26 year old man of color out of Baltimore is going to have a very different visual description of a Carry James Marshall painting than a 45-year old white lady working in the museum, right? And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we should be able to allow for the surfacing of multiple interpretations and multiple objective, you know, pseudo-objective descriptions of these things, and simply embrace that. And so I think that, maybe increasing diversity might be one tactic toward the strategy of beauty, if I can put it into that framework, but I don’t know that I even internally have a definition of beauty that I find consistent enough to then say, how are we maximizing it, necessarily, in our work.

Chris: When I think of memories of various artworks, my favorites are people like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, but I also think of some Abstract Expressionist works, you know, Jackson Pollock and DeKooning and people like that, how do you possibly even start to describe…I mean…

Sina: Yep, no, it comes up..so, with abstract, I would argue that a description is merely the first step. And that you really need to look at multi-modal, multiple modalities, of expression there. You need to look at tactile, you need to look at sonification, which the use of non-speech-based audio, you need to look at, again, different descriptions or guided tactile descriptions, olfactory, for example, etc. And so there are these mappings that can occur, cross-sensory mapping, and that can then start bringing something like an abstract Jackson Pollock piece to life. And I think it’s very important to discuss sequencing, right? You set the scene for someone, you’re like, OK, you’re about to feel this thing, it represents a bunch of paint just being splattered everywhere, just go in with that mindset. It’s not an accurate definition, the curator will have my head for telling you that..it’s fine. Just think about that for a second.

Chris: I think of trying to look at a Jackson Pollock painting with something like a sensory substitution piece of software, like seeing with sound, and that piece of software specifically always starts at the right and pans right to left, yet visually when I see a Jackson Pollock painting, I always would start from the center and work my way out, probably in concentric circles.

Sina: Absolutely, but that’s why I would argue we would hopefully not be using a general purpose tool to interpret this, but it would be one that was specifically, you know, it would be bespoke, specific to this building. Because otherwise, I think, you can’t get there. Now eventually you can start establishing models and different frameworks for saying, in this type of abstract painting in this type of abstract painting, versus that type of sculpture versus that type of line drawing, we should use these other modalities, and these are the mappings, and that becomes then a very interesting machine learning problem, to pick the right output modalities and also to allow the user to customize that. But, I would say, for now those need to be …I shouldn’t even say almost..those need to be treated on a one-off basis.

Chris: That makes sense, certainly. I mean, because they were also painted on a one-off basis…

Sina: Exactly. Exactly.

Francis: One of the things that I think is a failing of the economic systems that we’ve had in the 20th century that, to a large degree, persist now, is that there has been this top-down, sort of implementation of possibilities for people professionally, economically…in a way that eliminates people …to figure out for themselves what it is that they really want to be doing to contribute to society, at least in an optimal way. And I was thinking that part of what we would need for that to change, is a sense that the very same thing that would allow me to have the resources and the freedom to go after what it is that I’m passionate about in life, is the same thing that will enable other people to do that. So I’m wondering if that is, sort of like another reason for inclusion, because the idea is that if we keep thinking about organizing this world in a way that optimal for the maximum amount of people based on this sort of cookie-cutter idea of how people should be, and what should make them happy, we’re gonna make it impossible for a lot of people on the other side of that bell-shaped curve to contribute and to live satisfying life and to give the world the gifts that they are capable of giving…

Sina: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I think that right now, the determining characteristics of what people do, sometimes can hopefully pleasantly align with what they like doing, but it’s about making money to be able to afford food, and shelter, and supporting the family, you know, xyz, these kinds of real-world concerns. So the issue then becomes, allright, you’re now starting to enter a world, we’re a little ways away from it, but it is happening, where automation is going to make that less and less and less needed…at least for certain categories of job, categories of labor and skill. So then, you’re going to have a lot of people who don’t…well, at leat…two things, number one, they don’t need to work to continue making the planet operate…you now, most economists I think say, like, with full automation, less than 10 percent of people have to work, right? So …talk about 8 billion people or whatever it is, 800 million have to work around the world, what do you do with the other 7. 2 billion people? And this is where I think it speaks to your point of, well, what kind of interests do they have and how can they contribute to society and what’s the impetus to do that, and do we all just stay home and exist in a VR environment for 8 hours a day, you know, what’s that future look like? And you know, I think that humans are usually pretty good, as a whole, not necessarily in small chunks, but as a whole, for seeking challenges. So, you’re going to start seeing more stuff with, the moon, or Mars, or solving some of these other problems, or building cities under the surface of the ocean…things of this nature. And I have a feeling…

Chris: With climate change, Miami will be under the surface of the ocean…

Sina: There you go, yeah, exactly. (laugh) A really practical example. Yeah, I mean..I just feel like that’s the kind of stuff that is going to exist, but the impetus for “I must do this in order to eat tonight” is gonna become less and less and less. And so, then it becomes a really, really big problem, it’s a complicated problem with a lot of moving parts involving economics and politics and socioeconomics and just all sorts of things. So…

Chris: How do we avoid then, some sort of Ready Player One type dystopia?

Sina: I think that having challenges is a really good motivator, right? So, I mean, I’m all about using space as a mechanism to solve the problems here on earth, right? I think you do need to start encouraging people to become colonists on Mars. It’s not for everybody, but …you’re going to find, out of 8 billion people, 80 of them that are willing to go out there and have a really crappy life for a couple of years, right? But we’re going to learn a lot from that. And you know, you’re going to find the next wave that’s like, they at least got the water and the air thing figured out, I think I’ll go, I know they don’t really have the food thing figured out yet, but….

Chris: Lawrence Kraus would say, we’d sent graduate students, because they’re slaves anyway…

Sina: Exactly, right? I mean (laugh) that would be…there you go. But I mean…that…I think is part of it, the other part of it is that I think we’re going to have different challenges. You’re not going to need to drive a truck anymore. The robot does that for you…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to be part of the project that is going to start turning all of those highways…you know, let’s say we figure out another form of transportation…you’ll have all these highways around, what are you going to use those for after a while, right? If cars aren’t going on them, if we have hovercraft or something, then what are they going to be used for? Right? Could we turn those into solar…existing solar installations, where you don’t have to do anything, right? There’s all sorts of weird ideas and interesting things that I don’t think we know about yet, …that can provide an outlet so that we don’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia, but I’m not so convinced that we won’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia if we keep making the types of political decisions and lack of concern about climate change and other pressing needs that we seem to be doing.

Francis: I thought of a metaphor maybe also for what I was getting at…you know, in the twentieth century mindset we have this, like bending machine kind of mindset, whereas with automation, AI and all that, even to some degree now with 3D printing and what you can do maybe in that direction, it’s more like we should be adopting—and I hate to use Star Trek a lot, but—you know, like a more Replicator kind of mindset.

Sina: Yeah, I think you are going to start moving towards a world in which things don’t need to be built ahead of time to be available to you. So that would be how I would phrase that. You’re already seeing that to a certain extent, just through things like convenience of, you know, like these coffee pods that you can put in a machine, hit a button and you get a cup of coffee. Well, you didn’t have to grind the beans, you didn’t have to …use a French press to extract that perfectly at below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you didn’t have to do those things, you just hit a button…and you have a pretty decent cup of coffee that comes out…it’s not great cup of coffee, I’m a little bit of a coffee snob, but…it’s totally servicable, and that’s only gonna start getting better, so I do think that is definitely true, where we’re going to start moving towards a something does not need to have been made for it to be made in a short amount of time, or at least assembled or in some way available to you. But, I also again would go back to most of those things require energy. Most of those things require access to cheap and renewable power, and so we’ve got to solve this energy problem. I would actually go so far as to revise my answer from earlier, if you really want to know the thing that I think would make the most fundamental impact on the world, with respect to addressing your gap question, it would be solving energy density and the availability to free and renewable energy. I think that would have the highest impact.

Chris: So I’m gonna go downstairs as soon as we’re done with this podcast and start making my own cold fusion machine….

(laugh)

Sina: Good luck with that, the literature is a little torn on the possibilities there, so let me know what you come up with.

Francis: When you’re testing it, turn off the air conditioner….

(laugh)

Chris: Well, with that I’ll ask you our..closing question we ask everybody, and you already mentioned Prime Access Consulting, your company, but is there anything else you’d like to plus, of your own work or somebody else’s work, or ..anything that you’d like to just pitch to our listeners?

Sina: Well, I would encourage you to just think about whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s at a nonprofit, at a for-profit organization, in your personal life, and think about in which ways you may be inadvertently and unintentionally excluding a group of people, whether it’s because of ability or different backgrounds, etc. and what are some ways that you could make small changes to make that better. Maybe you’re running a restaurant and you can just print out a few versions of your menu in 22 point fonts…a really easy ask, it costs you a few cents of paper and ink, and you can keep them behind the desk…it’s a really simple thing. It’s not gonna solve all your problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. And I think that if, frankly, if every one of your listeners did one or two or three things like that, we’d be moving that needle towards a better world.

Chris: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Sina, for coming on Making Better.

Sina: Thanks for having me.


Closing: We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us on the web at MakingBetterPod.com or follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. Leave us feedback, or, if you really like what we’re doing, send us a donation. Initially, we plan on releasing episodes on a monthly basis, but once we’ve raised $1,000 to cover some of our costs and to encourage us to keep going, we plan on releasing episodes every second week. Just to let you know what’s coming up, future episodes already in production include interviews with: Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics Society; M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath; and Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation. See you next month!