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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Talking Brains, Hardware, and Privacy With Facebook’s AR Guru

Facebook doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to keeping user data private. So when it revealed a few weeks ago that it was working on a prototype wearable computer that would interpret neuro-electrical signals, people had questions. The wearable—still very much just a concept—is designed to be worn on the wrist, where it could read a wearer’s nerve signals through their skin and translate them into device commands. It’s an idea straight out of sci-fi, and one that could actually be useful in VR and AR applications. But why is Facebook, with its massive software portfolio, working on hardware like this in earnest? How much more “connected” should we all be to Facebook apps? And should we trust the company to handle our data responsibly?

This week on Gadget Lab, we interview Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality and the bigwig behind this prototype wearable. We press him on Facebook’s intent in making hardware, how that hardware can shape social interactions, and whether ever-present connected tech—especially the kind infused with algorithms—can truly be value-neutral these days.

Show Notes

Read more about Facebook’s wrist wearable here. Read Lauren’s story about how the internet won’t let her forget here. Read Mike’s review of the VacOne Coffee Air Brewer here. Read Boz’s blog here.


Boz recommends Hexclad pans. Lauren recommends Nomadland, which you can watch now on Hulu with a sub. Mike recommends season 2 of the podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones.

Andrew Bosworth can be found on Twitter @boztank. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.

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Lauren Goode: Mike.

Michael Calore: Lauren.

LG: Mike, how frequently would you say you go on Facebook these days?

MC: These days, I would say I go on there about once every three days.

LG: And does that include Instagram and WhatsApp and everything else?

MC: Oh, no. I'm on Instagram every waking hour of every day.

LG: Yeah. So you're on Facebook a lot.

MC: Yikes.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

LG: Hey everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: And I'm Michael Calore, I'm a senior editor here at WIRED.

LG: Today we're talking about Facebook. Earlier this week, we had a conversation with Facebook's Andrew Bosworth, also known as Boz. Bosworth is a longtime Facebook exec. He's currently vice president of augmented and virtual reality at Facebook's Reality Labs, where they work on futuristic stuff. We talked about Boz a few episodes ago, and then he decided to come on the show and offer his take on things. So now basically, I'm just going to talk about Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai on this show until I run out of breath, in the hopes that they decide they need to come on Gadget Lab too. But anyway, a few weeks ago, Facebook had just shown off a prototype wrist wearable that is controlled by your thoughts, sort of.

It's an electromyography device, which means it picks up electrical nerve signals and translates them into computer commands. Now, if this sounds like something out of dystopian sci-fi, you're not alone, it's a little out there. And there are at least two sides to this to explore. One is that this thing could actually be pretty useful in terms of AR and VR applications, which is what Bosworth and his team are working on. And the other thing to consider is that Facebook's many missteps with user privacy have given people some trust issues—and now Facebook is asking you to let it read your body signals. So, that's what we talked to Andrew Bosworth about this week.

It was a pretty lively conversation. We talked about Facebook's hardware, ambitions, privacy, trust, and whether or not all of these connected technologies, especially the ones that are now infused with AI and machine learning, can really be considered just tools, which I think is how he looks at some of them. Mike, what would you say was your favorite part of this conversation?

MC: I think my favorite part was the conversation around privacy, because this is uncharted territory for companies that have to deal with user data. So I thought that was really interesting.

LG: All right. Well, let's get to the interview.

[Music plays]

LG: Andrew Bosworth, also known as Boz, thank you so much for joining us on Gadget Lab.

Andrew Bosworth: Thank you for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.

LG: My first question for you is, are you wearing the wearable?

AB: I am not currently wearing the wearable. I'm a little more careful with things like this. Keep in mind, we've talked about this. You guys have seen some of the demos in public of what they look like. Right now, they're not really consumer-ready. While the technology for doing EMG and having these neural interfaces is in the prototype phase, you can play with it, you can use it, but they're not really consumer form factors yet. That is obviously the thing that we're working on today, and you've seen those demos that are a little clunky. The path to miniaturizing those is there, but it's still a matter of active development.

LG: Are you wearing anything on your wrist? I'm trying to see through the Zoom right now.

AB: Oh, sorry. No.

LG: That's an Apple Watch.

AB: I have an Apple Watch, which I enjoy. I use it 99 percent of the time to log into my laptop or to find my phone. Those are the top one and two use cases. A distance third is checking the time, and actually, that's the only three things I do.

LG: Yeah. It's remarkable how at the time that it launched back in 2015, there was a lot of conversation about whether or not Apple Watch is going to become another platform for third-party apps. And it does seem like the core use cases anecdotally are the ones that are just totally native to this wearable and the things that are just built into it that make life a little easier.

AB: And it's such a tight environment. I do think that's one thing that we've got spoiled at as consumers. The web is this wonderfully expansive thing where technology you buy just suddenly gets better and better, and has access to more and more experiences overnight. And when you're dealing with these really tight thermal environments like the wrist, like glasses, it's just really constrained, and that space is hard for third-party developers to make use of—if they even have the tools to do so. And that's going to be the story for a lot of these new technologies: They're going to come up with some certainly good second- and third-party integrations, but a lot of the value has to also be delivered first-party.

MC: Just for the benefit of listeners who may not be familiar, I'd like you to just walk us through what the wearable that you showed off last month is. And you mentioned EMG technology; if you could just take us through that, I think it would be helpful.

AB: EMG is not a new technology. It's a technology we've all seen and probably have experienced before where electrical signals are observed through the skin with the placement of usually a small sticker attached to a wire. And it's great for a lot of different purposes in a medical setting. What we've determined is that, actually, you can also detect neural impulses that are going to the hands and activating the hands, and you can actually detect them at a level so that your hands don't even have to visibly move for us to detect that you've sent a signal to your hand. And with that kind of tool, if you had a really high-resolution version of that on your wrist, you could do something, for example, like send a text message without having to move your hand at all.

So, while it's still your brain forming an intention and sending it down your musculature, which is how keyboards and mice work, it's doing all of that without the actual movement, which is quite cool. Especially if you imagine walking around the world with augmented-reality glasses; you're not going to have a keyboard with you, you're not going to have a mouse. You can do things with your hands, but that's going to look a little bit unwieldy. Plus arms do in fact get tired. And so the ideal, if you want to have access to silent interaction and communication, is a neural interface, something that allows you to use your thoughts to power the device itself very directly.

And so it's science fiction that's become a near reality, thanks to tremendous research, in particular in our group by Thomas Reardon and his team at CTRL-labs.

LG: This is just one of many concepts that you and your team are working on in Facebook's Reality Labs as you call them, which was really born of this series of acquisitions of other hardware companies like CTRL-labs. And I think the most notable one of course is Oculus. But I think what most people think about Facebook, they're using your apps, they're using your software, and to quote Marc Andreessen, software's eating the world. Tell us how you're thinking about hardware these days. Why is Facebook so focused on making hardware?

AB: Yeah. Well, first I want to invert your premise. The acquisitions were born of, in fact, this deeper desire that Facebook has to help people connect better. There's an old saying attributed to Alan Kay, a famous computer scientist, that people who are serious about software build their own hardware. And we were in a sweet 20-year period there in the industry where that wasn't true. Software was really pretty separate from hardware, with the exception really being Apple. But what we're finding is that as mobile phones reached the top of their maturity curve, there's just not a lot more that they're going to do, which means if you want to do more than a mobile phone is capable of, you have to move beyond it, you have to do something different.

And it's not just Facebook, it's the entire industry moving in this direction, where people realize, hey, to achieve the goals I want with my software, which in our case is to connect people, I have to go beyond the platforms that are available, because they simply aren't going to do it for me. And so I do think that it's really important. The causality here is that that was the fundamental desire. And quite a bit of our work didn't spin up out of acquisitions; the vast majority of our research was first-party. Portal was first-party. The vast majority of our work really came from Facebook itself trying to manifest some concept of connection into the world. And so that's what leads you on this path to do this work.

LG: But does that mean a company like Apple, which fundamentally started in hardware and likes to tell its full-stack advantage—which means it makes all the parts, or designs at least, all of the parts that go into the product from hardware to software—are they just always going to have the advantage? Is it possible for a "software" company like Facebook to catch up?

AB: I don't think it's super static. The industry is one where, at any given moment, we all think we know the direction it's going to go, but we can all go back one decade and we would not have predicted the world that we live in today. The same is true of two decades and three decades. The pace of technological change is unyielding, and that creates opportunities and it creates risks. I think for companies like Apple—and again, it's a company I like, I've got their product on my wrist, I've got another one in my pocket—they've got really successful product lines, and they're going to want to attach things to that. They're going to want to make the iPhone more useful, and you should expect that. That's a huge advantage that they have, but it's also a potential liability.

If someone sees a world that potentially makes the iPhone obsolete, what does that mean? And can any company confront the innovator's dilemma to really disrupt their own successful business to keep it going? It's a challenge that we all face, and few companies thrive through that. So I think for me, it's a very competitive marketplace. Apple is certainly one of the best, is probably the best in the world right now at it, and that's great. I'm an enthusiast. I want this technology, and I'll be happy when it exists in the world, but I'm going to give them a run for their money. And I think we've got some advantages as well. In particular, we care about different things.

Facebook really wants to connect people. And this is a debate that goes back to the very earliest eras of computing in the '50s and '60s. Quite a few people see the computer as a tool to extend the individual, to make the individual more powerful, smarter, more productive. And they are that, but they're also a tool to connect people. I love the Mother of All Demos; we talk about it all the time. Doug Engelbart, 1968, doing a video called “With Live Document Editing, Co-Editing Across Distance.” That was a profound statement at the time of where he believed the technology had to play. He believed it lived in a collaborative space. And that's what we represent, I think.

I think there's a lot of great technology companies out there focused on the first bucket—on making you more powerful as an individual, making you smarter, being able to get information, have access to tools. That is awesome, I love it, I use all of it. I also like the other side, though. I also like to talk to people, communicate with people, and if you made me choose, I would pick the latter. And that's a different point of view. And we just benefit when there's a competitive market, with people with different points of view bringing their products into the marketplace.

LG: But then Apple would probably say if Facebook's goal or philosophy is to connect people, Apple would probably retort that their goal is privacy, and that Facebook doesn't necessarily have the best track record for that. And let's just pretend here we've sought a comment from Apple, and that is what they've said, what would your response be to that?

AB: I think there's two different things here. One of which is maybe the most fundamental difference in our philosophy is actually the business model. Facebook wants to give as much away to people as possible, Apple wants to make as much money off of each person as they can. Our business model I see is extremely aligned with what consumers want to do, which is to keep more of their money for themselves and have access to great tools and services. I believe in that every day and twice on Sunday. I worked on Facebook's ads business for a long time. Nobody works harder to keep your data private, because that is the competitive advantage that Facebook has in the ads marketplace.

And I think there's a little bit of a question of, OK, moving beyond business model, there's a second piece, which is, like I said before, Facebook wants to connect you with the people around you, and Apple wants that to be a tool that you use primarily for yourself. And that's valuable for the market to have, that degree of differentiation. The only challenge is that over the last several years, there's a dearth of real explorations of what mobile phones could be. They've really settled into a rut the last six or seven years. The phone that you have in your pocket right now is pretty similar to the one you had in your pocket five or six years ago. There's not a lot of innovation in that space; there's not a lot of new things that you're able to do in that space.

And that's OK, that's what happens to all technologies, they ride this S-curve up. So I think one part of it is, Apple and Facebook have very different business models, and no surprise, I have a lot of confidence that ours is the business model that is the most friendly to consumers. But at the same time, we also have different fundamental visions of technology. I don't think either one is right or wrong, and I think they have a relationship to each other that is ideally symbiotic, but it takes time to get there. You don't just show up and be like, "Hey, Apple, do it our way." Or they don't stop us and say, "Hey, do it our way." It's a conversation. And when one side of that conversation gets too powerful, you can see what happens.

I think when one side of the conversation starts to dictate to everyone else how their software needs to behave, that can be uncomfortable for those of us who see ourselves as providing valuable services and innovation.

MC: All right. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we'll have more with Boz.


MC: One of the things that comes up a lot whenever we're talking about user privacy, particularly the hardware that you guys are working on at Facebook Reality Labs, is that a lot of the computer intelligence functions for the products happen on the device. I would like you to just tell us what that means.

AB: Yeah. This is super important to me, and I didn't even get into the question, forgive me earlier, Lauren, about privacy, which is such an important one. Privacy is one of these expectations that is wonderfully well aligned with the limitations I described earlier about the capacity of these devices. When we can avoid activating the wireless transmitter, we always want to, because it's really expensive in terms of power and thermals to operate that thing. So we want to do as much computation locally as possible, we want to keep as much data locally as possible. And then as the use case, as what the consumer wants to accomplish becomes too complex to be done in a thermal or compute space of that device, we have to explain to the consumer, "OK, here's the data we collected …"

Actually, before that, the consumer should already know what data is on the device to begin with, then here's data that we've got to process on a server. And here's the terms of that, here's the reason for it. And to justify it, here's the explanation. And they've got to have control over that data so they can know it's there, they can delete it, they can take care of it. And then there's even a third layer of like, "Hey, here's some optional functionality that if you wanted to do is a good thing, but you don't have to do." And what falls into these buckets of being core functionality versus optional opt-in functionality, what can be done locally in-device, it's a technical question to some degree. And I think here's where Facebook has some superpowers.

I think we're the best in the world at taking machine-learning models and miniaturizing them down to run locally on a device. And that's just from a long time of running on lower-end feature phones, even of the kind that very few other companies could support. We've been able to bring some of our models down to those levels. And we were pioneers here, we were doing Portal, handling the wake word conversations on-device as much as possible; all the smart camera work for Portal is on-device and has been. So I think for me, this is hugely important to us, whenever we can do it on-device, we want to do it on-device. There are some things you need to go to the server for, at which point you need to make sure the consumer is in control and understands.

LG: Describe that then. What does that actually look like when you say the consumer's in control and understands? Because my thought is, maybe, and we're seeing this from other products as well, for example, the new Google Nest Hub, Google Home Nest Hub. I can't keep track of their naming, but they're doing some of these functions on-device—for example, their sleep tracking, which uses this miniaturized radar solution that they've developed in their labs. But then ultimately it's still suggesting that you share that health data or sleep data to Google Fit, which is this cloud-based application, so there is an encouragement for the user to share things.

And then after that, it's this giant, I'd say like it's a shrug emoji, what happens to it after that. So ultimately, if someone is using a Facebook Portal, or Facebook, let's say, the air glasses that may eventually come out, if there are some functions that are happening on-device, but ultimately, there's still data being sent to the server, how do you actually give a consumer control over what happens after that?

AB: Well, it's actually quite straightforward. The execution of it is not, but the doing of it is straightforward. On Facebook, you have access to all the data that Facebook has on you, and you can individually or collectively remove it. And we take that incredibly seriously. That's obviously a matter of policy, global policy at this point. So from a data-control standpoint, it's straightforward; likewise, from a sharing standpoint, that's always been straightforward. It's like, who am I sharing it with? What's the audience? Those two, I think, are pretty well-established types of controls that people have on the internet and on the devices.

More generally though, look, it's a question of, does the consumer want to exchange the value? Look, this goes back to the, man, Microsoft in the early 2000s. Like you install the software, and it says, "Hey, can I share crashes and analytics reports with the server to improve the software?" And a lot of people check on that box because they're not worried about it. They feel, "Yep. I understand what this is for, how it's going to be used, what the data consists of, and I'm comfortable with it." And it hasn't really been a problem for twenty-some odd years you've been doing it. That's really commonplace.

If you want, go get a Portal out of the box—if you don't have one, you should, so you can go ahead and I'll wait. I'm just kidding. You get a Portal out of the box and it says, "Hey, when you use our assistant, when you use the wake word," it's a really explicit thing, it says, "That has to go to the server because that's where we keep the answers. And that's how we understand the question. And not only that, it might be reviewed either by an AI system or even by an employee of the company." And it's right there written, and you say, "Yeah, I accept it." Or, "Nope, I don't accept that" if it's in the kind of what we'd call the “forced-choice framework,” is the user design language that you use to describe that.

So everyone who goes through a Portal and sets one up goes through that decision. So I think it's very clear about what it is, why it is, how it's used, and they have a choice to use it or not use it. Listen, if I could provide the assistant without going to the server, I'd love to; we don't have the technology. We don't have the capability to do that locally on-device. We can't keep the entirety of the world's knowledge on the device. So alas, it's got to go to the server. And by the way, we want to keep improving this thing, so it could end up being heard by contractors. So if you're not comfortable with that, then don't use this feature. Same with Google fitness: If you don't think the Google Fit cloud thing is useful to you, definitely don't do it.

If you don't think it's worth the rest of your data, definitely don't do it. You don't have to do it. So for me, the point is letting consumers control the experience that they want to have. I do think sometimes we infantilize consumers. These are, broadly speaking, intelligent people who've gone out and paid money for a good or a service, and they want to use that, they want to get value in their life for it, and they get to decide how they do it. So I think from a high-level perspective, the mechanism isn't hard; actually executing is really the key piece.

And that's why I really do feel very fortunate that we're part of Facebook, because Facebook has already built, frankly, world-class infrastructure around this stuff. And so we get to benefit not just from the expertise that the company has, but also from the actual infrastructure of it.

MC: What you're fundamentally talking about is that people are pretty comfortable trading private information, whether it's anonymized or not, for features. Like, in order to get a feature, you have to offer a little bit to the company that's offering it. It reminds me a little bit of when we were in college and we went to the bar, and there was that person handing out free packs of cigarettes if you just gave them your driver's license so they could scan it. And we all did that. And I think that's pretty indicative of the early stages of this type of exchange.

Now, I think as you say, consumers are pretty well versed in how this works, and they're going to continue doing this, they're going to continue offering up private information for features. But sooner or later, there could be a tipping point; there could be a point where consumers aren't willing to give any information at all. And then, at that point, is the product still useful to them?

AB: Yeah. And most of these products that we're talking about are … I think Portal is a good example of one, where it's like, hey, it's a great product. Shoot, I have it on my desk right now. It's showing me a picture of my daughter when she was young. That's a great digital picture frame. Now, it's not priced correctly for a digital picture frame, though it is quite affordably priced. Again, go out and get one anytime you get a chance. That's a feature that doesn't need anything. Now, I happened to import those photos from Facebook, but I didn't have to; I could have easily just done so from my phone.

But the truth is, we don't feel like that's the product. The product that we want to provide is one where it's video calling, and we require a Facebook account because it would say, "Hey, get this product for video calling." If you don't want video calling, no problem, keep your money, save your money and do something else with it, and don't get this product. And so there was really three layers of this. Like, what is the core feature set? What is the core bundle without which there is no product and it's a bad value for someone to exchange their hard-earned money for that good? Then there's the features that are on the periphery of this. I think this device is better with the assistant, but if you don't want to use the assistant, it's still great.

If all you want to do is video calling, and you don't want the assistant, or you've got another assistant in the room already because someone gave you one, that's great. No problem. You don't have to do that. So that's like an extension. I think it's still a valuable product even without that, so people can choose. And then there might be things even further, like, "Hey, let's do an Instagram integration or WhatsApp." You can use WhatsApp on your Portal device, but you don't have to. And so if you don't use WhatsApp—as some people, especially in North America, aren't big WhatsApp users—no problem. That's a thing that might as well not be there; it doesn't affect your value proposition.

If you are in the UK, well, that's a huge deal. You really want to get that WhatsApp support. And so, I don't know, for me, it's actually not that hard. As it always has been with consumers and products, they're going to get educated, and they're going to decide what is a good exchange, not just for money, but overall value. It's like, "Hey, I'm going to get a car." This car might kill you. So let's assess the risk of death here. This car takes a bunch of space in my driveway. It's not all monetary concerns. When engaging in commerce—and I'm not under some myth that everyone is a completely rational actor—but I think, in general, you have to trust people to make their own decisions and be responsible for their own decisions.

And so when they buy these things, they think about what's the total picture of this package. And by the way, to your point earlier, I think the answer is yes, by and large, people love Facebook. Billions of people love Facebook and are using it all the time. People are really loving our VR headsets. They're really loving Portal. We are selling a lot of them. They love them. And I think they're well informed, and it's our job to make sure that they're well informed. And we do that on the packaging, we do that in the press, we do that in how we announce it, we do that in the product itself. But it is their decision how they want to engage with it. And I do trust them.

I guess, fundamentally, that's one thing that I think has been a gap between technologists and sometimes the press that covers technology. I do trust individuals to make decisions locally. There are bad cases, and we haven't done enough to prevent those, and we're aware of that now, and that's the thing that we prioritize, but for the average case, I do think there is a good understanding. We've never had a better discussion globally about privacy than we've had the last several years.

LG: There is so much to unpack there. When I hear you describe technology and some of the things that you yourself are finding valuable in technology, I hear you describe it as a tool, which is, I think, how some of these products were originally designed to be tools. Not everything was internet-connected and wirelessly sharing data or sharing data through social media. I think that's an optimistic view, though, of technology, in the sense that it positions it as being value-neutral. Do you believe that the technology products we're using today, specifically the very connected products, are or can be value-neutral still? Is it fair to say that some are better for society at large than others?

AB: No, I certainly didn't mean to imply that technology is neutral. I don't think I've ever said that, and I don't believe it. As soon as humankind invented the hammer, I'm sure somebody murdered somebody with a hammer, and such is the nature of leverage. I'm always reminded of the first engineering book I ever had as a child, The Way Things Work, and it featured the inclined plane. And it talked about how the first thing that humans did with the inclined plane was roll a boulder up and drop it on a mammoth. I don't think that's really historically accurate by the way, but that was the first thing they did, was like, "Oh, good. We found a hill that allows us to push this heavy boulder. We couldn't lift it straight up, but we could push it up this hill and drop it on that mammoth."

So, technology isn't neutral. I'm not saying it is neutral, and as a consequence, it does require, I think, a degree of trust in humanity and humankind that is understandably fleeting at times, especially in modern times. But you have to believe that when you give people these tools, you're giving them a power that is an equalizing force potentially. Again, not a neutral force, but an equalizing force, especially the types of tools around information. I think we would all be very wary if I suggested that we actively limit the information available to poor people, but make no mistake, that's what internet policy in the United States has done for the last 20 years. It's really a shame then.

And I think most people would agree with that. And yet, when we propose to connect people, there's a lot of hand-wringing about it. And so, as with any technological advancement, once you have the hammer, we need to have some rules about that hammer and how we're going to use it and how we're not going to use it. And there have to be consequences for people who use the hammer the way we didn't intend the hammer to be used.

LG: I understand what you're saying at the policy level, but isn't there also a way in which technology itself could be nudging people into behavior that normally they would not necessarily participate in, or it could be exploitative? There could be a fundamental dynamic that exists, but the technology ends up exploiting that? There are also, I think, controls at the tech level, as well as the policy level, that affect the way we're interacting with it.

AB: Well, let's talk about two things. First of all, again, you can't surprise people. None of the things that are happening should be invisible necessarily. I think people should have as much visibility as they can into how these systems work. And so if you think about the conversation we just had around privacy, or even the conversation we had before that around data and access, the actual number one principle, which has a number next to it and a name that everyone on my team will know, is “Never surprise people.” So that's number one. Once you've cleared that hurdle, and you say, OK, people are informed, they are aware of what this thing is, I do think people make decisions. I'll ask you, Lauren, a direct question: Do you feel like you've lost agency in your life as a consequence of the tools that you have? It's a fair question, and I think people can answer it differently. I'm curious what your answer is.

LG: Well, I don't know if you happened to read the story I just published in WIRED …

AB: What a punch! I just missed it. I'm sure it's in the queue and I just haven't gotten to it.

LG: It's basically about my experience as a technology journalist over the past decade or more of using all of these various applications, partly because of my job, partly because I was compelled by them for some reason, but a lot of it because of my job and feeling a little bit alarmed at how massive my digital footprint had become. And then not realizing how out-of-control my internet experience was until I went through this traumatic life experience and felt as though I just didn't have control over my feeds, the advertising I was seeing, my photo memories, my Facebook On This Day notifications, and feeling like it took a lot of labor to go through and try to clean that up. And so I'm probably I'm an extreme case; Mike and I have talked about this on the Gadget Lab podcast previously. Because of our jobs, we have to test a lot of things and experiment with a lot of software. So not everyone will fall into that edge case, but yeah, I do feel like it gives me some agency when I am able to use technology as a tool, but then I feel a remarkable lack of agency when, let's just say, the algorithms start making decisions for us.

AB: Sorry, I thought you might've been referring to a different piece. I did read that piece. And it was an important piece, and obviously, made important, and I think valuable, rounds internally for us. I think you're right. I don't think it's quite as narrow as you've cast it. It's not the commonplace experience, but it's not as narrow. And I've long believed that these systems should have much more semantic control, because that's just how we as humans understand things. Part of the challenge here is, of course, semantic understanding is a challenge of artificial intelligence that is mostly still ahead of us, whereas very basic things around syntax and clustering are pretty mature, and there's an unevenness there, though I do think that will even out over time.

I do think there are very reasonable solutions to the problem that you faced going forward. And I think this might be really the technological response, which is like, "Oh, OK, someone has used the hammer in a way I didn't intend, or the hammer made me feel bad, let's put some boundaries on the hammer, let's build a better hammer." And that is the pace of the evolution. The answer isn't throw all the hammers into the sea; that's a bad solution.

LG: It would be bad for the sea too.

AB: There's a better solution, which is "Let's make the hammers better." It's like, "You know what we can do, we can take nails out with a hammer." The first hammers didn't have that; now use a hammer, you take a nail out and you put it in. It's pretty cool. At some point that wasn't the case, it only put them in. How annoying is that? I put the nail in the wrong place, how do I get it out? My point is, I think you're pointing out very real shortcomings, and by the way, it was a touching piece of work and personal, and I think it was important for people to read. So thank you for doing that. And my solution to that isn't “Throw the hammer into the ocean,” it's like, we got to put a nail puller on this thing.

We are putting nails in places that we didn't intend to put nails, and that's not creating the experience we want to create for people. So when it comes to agency, though, I think fundamentally we can change jobs, we can get off the platforms, we can put phones down. It's actually not the end of the world. I think people are sometimes surprised when I go on vacation, I actually like to unplug a lot more, and I do different things. I use my phone still, but I use it for different things. And so I do feel like we have control over ourselves as individuals.

At some point, I guess it always ends up as the conversation about free will, and I'm not sure how productive that's going to be after thousands of years of mankind's debate on the topic. But for me, the more practical thing, when you get to the nuts and bolts of like, “That tool sucks for you, or that tool wasn't working for you, or it's broken and we should fix it.” And I like that there's a lot of urgency to fix it, I like that people are holding us to a high bar and saying, "Hey, you've got a great opportunity, but you're screwing it up for me. I'm not getting the value that other people are getting out of this thing, and you should be better." Yeah, I agree. You're going to find no argument on that for me, that we should be better. I'm dedicating my life to making these things better. That is what I do for a living.

LG: You were almost on your way out the door. You were almost on your way to sabbatical and you got pulled back into making these products better.

AB: It's a true story. We had our bags packed. I wasn't going to be home for six solid months. I wasn't going to be at my house for six months. And three days out, two days out, I got pulled back in.

MC: Well, if you liked Lauren's story that she wrote for WIRED, then you'll absolutely love the review that I wrote about the Coffee Maker, so I'll be sure to send you that link.

AB: Yes, please do. I'm sure it's equally touching and personal for you, Michael.

MC: It is. I got emotional.

[Music plays]

LG: Let's take another very quick break and then we'll be right back.


MC: On the day we're taping this, Facebook also announced a new suite of audio-focused products. And I would like to know how you see that tying into the ambitions that you have with the Reality Labs. And what I really want to know is, is this sudden interest in audio among users and at Facebook an existential threat to the future of VR?

AB: Oh, I think VR dovetails really nicely with the lessons that we're learning about audio. This actually starts earlier than people realize. I don't know if you guys know this or not, there's a pandemic, it's a global pandemic. People are spending a lot of time on video calls—like us—right now. And what's been interesting is, I talk to Mark all the time as part of my job and also socially, but mostly as part of my job. And he's like—

LG: Are you guys like in a pod? Do you hang out in each other's backyards during the pandemic?

AB: Sadly, no. We were doing our own thing, my family. We talk often, and more and more as the pandemic raged on—it was audio call, we'd be doing an audio. And what a lot of us found, I think, was that video is a little bit exhausting, and there's a lot of psychological research and a lot of articles about this. Some of it is, you're looking at yourself or you're worried about what's in your background, and your voice, and your appearance, and you have to put your face on it. I had to trim my beard for this and powder my brow because it's extremely shiny.

I really did. You're laughing, you don't believe me, but I really do that before I do a video call. I'm a man of little hair on top of my head, for those who are on the audio-only version of this podcast, which I imagine is all of it. So people are doing audio as a way of reducing the pressure on themselves. And I think when I went on Clubhouse the first time—my friends Sriram and Aarthi had invited me and Fidji—and we joined, and it was cool. It was done on like one hour's notice and I was in sweat pants, and I was just in my house hanging out, and I could just have this cool thing. It was very low pressure relative to if I had been doing a video call to the exact same audience; it just felt lower pressure, it just felt easier. And there's something to that.

VR is great for this. You put your headset on and you don't have to be wearing any clothes. I recommend it, honestly, on a personal level, but you don't have to wear clothes. And you can be in VR and be in an audience and have expressiveness greater than audio, but also still not have that pressure that you feel to observe yourself and curate your face or your environment. There's a second thing, too, where I think the work that we do in Facebook Reality Labs was one of the catalysts for the company in spatial audio.

We've done these demonstrations from our research labs now on the importance of spatialized audio. The fact that we're on this podcast, and when you guys speak, it sounds like your voices are coming from between my two ears because I have headphones on, that is very weird. No sound in the universe comes from that place, and my body knows it. And it's what prevents us from having sidebars or different conversations at once, which we do so seamlessly when we're all in a room together, but it's so hard on VC because all of our voices are literally occupying the same space. Whereas when you spatialize audio, Lauren, if your voice was off to my right, and Michael, if your voice was off to my left, it would actually allow me to hear you both, and actually hear you both speak at the same time and internalize that and manage it. And it feels much more natural.

So I think audio is something interesting, and it's worth exploring. I especially love spatialized audio, and it can be artificially spatialized. It doesn't matter where people really are, it just matters that they have a place. So I'm excited to explore that space further.

LG: I'm glad you brought up taking time off, because I just had last week off, and I had the opportunity to just be off of my phone for periods of time, which is great. This is part of my new goal: I'm going to get to live offline more. And I did go on Clubhouse once, and I had been experimenting with the Clubhouse part of that. I'd done a couple little shows and really liked tuning in, but I found that when I was just away from screens and had a moment to breathe, the last thing I wanted to do was try to connect to audio streams. And it's very anecdotal, but I'm wondering if you see this moment for audio being something that is partly a product of the pandemic, of us staying in place, and what happens when we start to move out a little bit more freely again?

AB: Yeah. I think what I expect to happen as the pandemic winds down is people will return from the total isolation that many of us have experienced over the last year, but I don't think we'll go all the way back. There are things that we will take with us, some out of habit, but some out of great intention. I believe in the future of remote work. I think this is a great way to do a podcast. I think if we had waited to schedule it until we were all in the same place, it'd have taken longer, it'd have been more formal, it'd have been a lot of weird things. I like this. There's a lot of things that I don't like as well in terms of losing touch with key people that I wanted to have a relationship with just because we haven't seen each other and we don't have a pretext for a meeting, there are things that I'm going to miss.

And so I think we're going to come back to a place that's somewhere in between. And then over the fullness of time, I expect remote work to play a bigger role. I expect people in more geographic diverse places to be working together, to be a more normal thing. You're going to get better access to a global talent pool, global talent's going have better access to jobs. There's a lot of good things there. So I think we are headed down a very healthy path actually. And thankfully, after the pandemic ends, it won't be so forced. We will actually have the time to grow and mature into it. We as humans contain multitudes, it's not my words obviously, but I do believe in that.

We can contradict ourselves. We can at times want to be more connected and we can at the same person, maybe even at the same time, want to feel less connected. And those things as we go about our lives, I will spend time here working, I love my job. I wake up looking forward to doing my job. At the end of the day, I still am tired and I want to go away from my job and spend time with my kids and my family and make dinner, and not be connected. And then later on, I'd be like, "But I want to be connected again, I wonder what's happening?" I'm in control of that. And it's not inconsistent, it's not a problem, it's only just because one moment I wanted to put my phone down and not connect, suddenly all of social media must … Come on now, let's not take things to these extremes.

I don't always play basketball, sometimes I want to do something different. Sometimes I do. These are fine. These are fine. Everything doesn't have to be to infinity or to zero. Things can live in the middle. In fact, everything lives in the middle.

LG: By the way, I did not realize you played basketball, so the next time we do this-

AB: I'm awful.

LG: That's great. We are going to use something called hoops for scoops. And every time I beat you at basketball, you have to tell me something secret going on in Facebook.

AB: No. We'll just skip the basketball. Actually don't ever play basketball because I'm awful at it. We can skip the basketball, you can just ask me questions for an hour, which by the way, I've already agreed to it. So you don't actually have to play basketball at all for this.

LG: You're going to pull back the curtain and tell me all the stuff, the whole product roadmap.

AB: Well, my comms team is now on because there's no chance they're going to let me do that because I am awful at basketball, truly atrocious. Reasonable defender, reasonable rebounder, but I've got no handles, I've got no jump shot.

MC: All right. Boz, here's one final question. When are you going to start a Substack?

AB: Can I tell you, one of the funniest stories about this is I have a Substack, which I've sent zero emails to, but I have, I think 1,000 subscribers. And I think I've decided that's really the key for me is never sending an email, is a great way to accumulate subscribers. I think zero of them are angry at me. I zero of those people are disappointed with my work. So no, I created one just to test it out and understand what was going on over there, and I haven't sent anything out. I have a blog, Boz.com. I really should at least start emailing out blog articles when I put them on the website.

LG: Isn't Facebook also launching a newsletter product? What's going to happen when Facebook has its own newsletter product and you're monetizing your basketball hobby from Substack?

AB: Oh my goodness. Listen, I pay other people for basketball, they don't pay me for it. That's the way that works. Let me tell you how that economy works. Again, I just think it makes so much sense, and the inclination of many, especially I think in the press to frame all these things as zero-sum bums me out, it's like yeah, we should have lots of competing models. We should have different models that have different take rates in exchange for different value exchanges. That is competition. That's the market that you're supposed to want. It's not the market of one person doing it.

In the same way that people don't just use Facebook. They use Facebook, they use Twitter, they use Snapchat, they use TikTok, they use them all, and they all take on their own life, and they have their own content creation, and their own social values and morals. It's a good and healthy and very natural thing for us to have lots of different types of things where subtle differences could make a big difference in outcomes for people. So I'm always glad to see more people diving into spaces that I think are growing. I'm sympathetic to the changes that the media industry has been going through ever since the advent of the internet, ever since Craigslist, really.

And I don't have an answer to that, and I don't have an answer for where it's going, but I do believe that if people go out and manage to create consumer value where consumers are willing to exchange money and/or time for goods and services, that will continue to sustain us as a society. So I'm glad to see people out there experimenting, obviously I'm a huge fan of WIRED. It's an institution, and one that has been influential on me, man, since I was in middle school. At the same time, I'm also thrilled for people like Casey Newton, going out and forging their own path and trying their own thing. And I hope we find a space to have both of those things in the future.

MC: Well, thank you for creating some consumer value on our show.

AB: Well, that remains to be seen, but of course, you're welcome. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MC: OK. While we have you, and before we let you go, we would like you to give our listeners a recommendation. I know you listen to the show and I know you're a big fan. And this is the section of the show where we ask our guests to recommend a thing that they have watched, or read, or listened to, or consumed in some way that they would like to tell other people about.

AB: It's tempting to use the space to talk more about Portal, but as I've done that many times over the course of the show already, I'm going to mix it up. I've been cooking a ton during the pandemic and I love cooking and I lost touch with it when I was commuting more. But it's what I've been able to pick up is cooking for the whole family. And I am hyped on these pots and pans that my wife found through a Facebook ad, true story, called HexClad. Little known fact about me, I used to sell cutlery, that was my internship in college, I sold Cutco Knives. They are the best knives, its innovation, the Double-D edge It's a whole thing. I can sell you a set of knives later, but they had a very similar innovation.

HexClad solves the age-old problem of how do you take a nonstick surface, which is great to clean, but unfortunately, it's easily scratched and an all iron-clad pan, which is robust to any kind of tool use, but unfortunately, it's hard to clean. And they've got a pattern of steel and an inset with that is a nonstick surface. So any part of the steel at any given time is very small, and so it's very easy to clean, but the steel is there. So if you're using a tool, a spatula, it's hitting the steel, not the non-stick. And they cook really well, nice, even heat across a wide range of burners and flames. They work on the inductive, which is amazing, I also have gas, and a dream to clean.

So I'm going to put the strong recommendation now, not sponsored, not an ad, for HexClad.

LG: Except now that you have spoken this out loud, we are going to start seeing ads for this in our feeds.

AB: Listen, that's just a coincidence. They were already there, you'll just notice them now.


MC: Right. Well, thanks for the recommendation.

AB: It's a good one.

LG: It sounds good. All right. Thank you so much for the time. Wow, I did not anticipate we would take up your full hour, but we did. And thank you.

AB: I'm a talker.

LG: That was a really, really wide ranging and insightful conversation. Really enjoyed it.

AB: Thanks guys.

LG: Thanks so much, Boz.

[Music plays]

LG: All right. Well, I'm glad we got a recommendation out of Boz. We should probably do our own since our listeners really like these. Mike, what's your recommendation this week?

MC: I am going to recommend a podcast, it is the season two of one of my favorite podcasts just dropped, it's called Cocaine & Rhinestones. It is a history of country music, and it is unlike any other history podcast that you've ever listened to. I've talked about this before, the first season is really just incredible, and it's all done by one person who researches it, writes it, records it, and edits it himself, and self-publishes it. So it's not done in a podcast network. His name is Tyler Mahan Coe. He's the son of outlaw country star David Allan Coe. Tyler did the whole first season, put it out back in like 2017. Everybody absolutely loved it. It's got millions of listens, but season one ended in January of 2018.

So it's been a long wait for season two. The wait is worth it, season two just drop this week. And the entire season is about the career of George Jones. So he's like a huge country star and he had a very long recording career. So by talking about the different parts of his career, Tyler can bring you through basically the history of country music through the entire second half of the 20th century. Anyway, the first episode is a doozy, it's over two hours long, and it starts with about 15 minutes on the history of pinball. So highly recommended, Cocaine & Rhinestones season two.

LG: Wow. This podcast has everything, rhinestones, cocaine, pinball, country music, George Jones.

MC: Well, actually, there was very little cocaine in season one, but if you know anything about George Jones, he's a very sad story of addiction in his life. So there's likely to be a lot more talk about that particular subject in season two.

LG: All right. Remind us of the name of the podcast once more.

MC: It's called Cocaine & Rhinestones. You can find it at cocaineandrhinestones.com, or wherever you listen to this thing.

LG: I just really wanted to hear you say that again, that juxtaposition, it's pretty great.

MC: Well, that's country music for you. It's all about those juxtaposition. What is your recommendation, Lauren Goode?

LG: My recommendation this week is Nomadland. It's a movie based on a 2017 non-fiction book of the same name. It's a really beautifully done and somewhat sad film about a precarious workforce and aging population whose permanent or stable jobs have dried up in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. And these people decide to live in vans or RVs and move around looking for seasonal work. I just watched the other night. One of the reviews I read about it afterwards said that there's a lot of grief in the film, but that it doesn't wallow. And I think that that's an accurate description of it. It's very much about resilience, but at the same time, as you're watching it, you can't ignore the systemic problems or macro-economic issues that have put people in these positions to begin with.

The main character named Fern who was played by Frances McDormand, has these plates in her van that have emotional meaning to her. And at one point they end up getting broken, and she painstakingly puts them back together. And so really is like a metaphor for the entire story and reminded me of Kintsukuroi, which is this Japanese method of rebuilding pottery, but rebuilding it with gold or other materials to make it actually stronger than before it was broken. It's like I said, just this small thing, but this really touching scene in the film. And another part of the film too is that there are people woven into the narrative who reach out to Fern and try to help her, or try to offer her a more permanent living situation.

She just drives away from that, because at this point, this is her life now. Anyway, I'm probably getting a little too into the description here, you should just go watch it yourself, but I recommend Nomadland, it's on Hulu, if you're a Hulu subscriber, that's where you can find it.

MC: You can't see this because it's audio, but I'm doing the Leo DiCaprio pointing the TV meme because I loved this movie. I thought it was really good. I think everybody should see it, especially if they shop at Amazon. Also, you're right, it is a movie filled with a lot of sadness and grief, but true art is never depressing.

LG: I think that's a beautiful way to look at it, Mike. All right. That is our show for this week. Thanks to Andrew Bosworth from Facebook, for joining us and for answering our many questions. And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. We're always on Twitter. Just check the show notes, we'll put our handles there. This show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. And I should also note that two of our biggest advocates on this podcast have been Scott Rosenfield and Megan Greenwell, site director of WIRED.com and the editor of WIRED.com.

And both of them are leaving WIRED, so we wanted to give them a big sendoff and a giant thank you for all of their work on this show. So thanks, Scott and Megan. We'll be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro music plays]

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