Design Ethicist Imagines How Apple Could Help Combat Tech Addiction in Future iOS Updates

A little over one week after Apple investors urged the company to do more to protect children from smartphone addiction, a new column by The New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo has looked into potential ideas that Apple could implement in a future iOS update to curb addiction for all users, including kids.

Manjoo spoke with Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google and owner of Time Well Spent -- an organization that works to improve technology's impact on society -- and Harris offered a few suggestions for ways Apple could help combat smartphone addiction. While Harris's ideas are not confirmations for features coming to iOS in 2018 and beyond, it is an interesting glimpse into potential solutions Apple might implement if it decides to tackle this issue down the line.


To start, he suggested a way for Apple to offer feedback on the iOS devices that customers use, imagining a weekly report that would include the time spent within apps in a sort of ranking system. Users could then set prompts for future weeks that would pop up when their time spent in a specific app is reaching their set limit.
Imagine if, once a week, your phone gave you a report on how you spent your time, similar to how your activity tracker tells you how sedentary you were last week. It could also needle you: “Farhad, you spent half your week scrolling through Twitter. Do you really feel proud of that?” It could offer to help: “If I notice you spending too much time on Snapchat next week, would you like me to remind you?”
Harris then focused on notifications, which have long been an area that iOS users have asked to be updated. The new idea was for more granular, "priority level" notifications that Apple would require to be placed on every app. Harris explained there would be three levels for "heavy users, regular users and lite, or Zen," and then Apple would have to pen the rules for which notifications would go to each level.

So, for example, if someone chose the medium "regular" level, a DM from a friend on Instagram would appear on the lock screen. But at the same time, something less important -- like when Instagram sends out a reminder to view a friend's Story -- would be prevented from appearing. "And then Apple could say, by default, everyone is in the middle level — and instantly it could save a ton of users a ton of energy in dealing with this," Harris explained.

If Apple implemented similar features, Manjoo pointed out that it could set a precedent for the industry as a whole.
Every tech company needs a presence on the iPhone or iPad; this means that Apple can set the rules for everyone. With a single update to its operating system and its app store, Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked (as it has done, for instance, by allowing ad blockers in its mobile devices). And because other smartphone makers tend to copy Apple’s best inventions, whatever it did to curb our dependence on our phones would be widely emulated.
Following the investors' open letter last week, Apple stated that it thinks about its products' impact on users, and it takes this responsibility "very seriously." With a larger spotlight being shined on the issue, Harris said that now is Apple's "time to step up" and really get behind anti-addiction features for its devices. Harris went on to say that in regards to this problem, Apple "may be our only hope."


Discuss this article in our forums

Apple Developing Self-Driving Campus Shuttle Service as Part of Scaled Back Car Effort

Apple is planning to develop a self-driving shuttle service that will transport Apple employees from one building to another as part of its autonomous vehicle efforts, reports The New York Times in a piece that explores why Apple scaled back its car ambitions.

Apple's "open secret" car project shifted focus from a full autonomous vehicle to an autonomous driving system last year, and to test that system, Apple will reportedly use employee shuttles.

One of the Lexus SUVs Apple is currently using to test its autonomous driving software

Called "PAIL," an acronym for "Palo Alto to Infinite Loop," the shuttle program will transport employees between Apple's myriad offices in Silicon Valley. Apple is said to be planning to use a commercial vehicle "from an automaker" paired with its own autonomous driving technology for the shuttles.

Five Apple employees familiar with Apple's car project spoke to The New York Times about the shuttle program and also shared some details about the technologies Apple explored before the project was downscaled from car to software.

When Apple first started exploring car technology under the "Project Titan" name, it hired hundreds of people with expertise in everything from automation to car manufacturing. The team explored a wide range of technologies, including silent motorized doors, car interiors sans steering wheel or gas pedals, augmented reality displays, an improved LIDAR sensor that protrudes less from the top of a car, and spherical wheels.
Apple even looked into reinventing the wheel. A team within Titan investigated the possibility of using spherical wheels -- round like a globe -- instead of the traditional, round ones, because spherical wheels could allow the car better lateral movement.
As has been previously reported, Apple's car project suffered from delays, internal strife, and leadership issues. According to the people who spoke to The New York Times, there was no clear vision for the Apple Car and there were internal disagreements over whether Apple should pursue an autonomous vehicle or a semiautonomous vehicle and what language should be used for the CarOS software (Swift or C++).

Steve Zadesky, who initially led Project Titan but stepped down in early 2016, pushed for a semiautonomous vehicle, while Jony Ive's industrial design team wanted an autonomous vehicle that would "allow the company to reimagine the automobile experience."

Bob Mansfield took over the car project in mid-2016, and the project shifted from vehicle to software. Many members of the hardware team were laid off, but morale is said to have improved under his leadership now that Apple has a clear focus on an autonomous driving system.

Apple is now far enough along in its software development that the company is testing it in several 2015 Lexus RX450h vehicles equipped with a host of sensors and cameras. The vehicles have been out on the roads in the Cupertino area since April. It's not yet clear when Apple plans to expand that testing to encompass the campus shuttles.

Back in June, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke publicly about Apple's work on autonomous driving software in a rare candid moment. "We're focusing on autonomous systems. It's a core technology that we view as very important," he said. "We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It's probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on."

Related Roundup: Apple Car
Tag: nytimes.com

Discuss this article in our forums

Apple to Add Grade Crossings to Maps After Federal Recommendation

Apple will add grade crossings to Apple Maps after a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), reports The New York Times. The recommendation comes after a two year investigation into an accident that occurred after a driver got his truck stuck on railroad tracks while following directions from Google Maps.

applemaps
Grade crossings are places where the road and railway lines are at the same level.  The case the NTSB cites in its recommendation is that of Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, who misinterpreted directions from Google Maps and wound up on a poorly marked grade crossing. His truck, which was hauling a trailer, got stuck on the tracks. While Sanchez-Ramirez was able to abandon his vehicle, a train struck it and resulted in the death of an engineer and injuries to 32 others. There were more than 200 fatalities at grade crossings last year in the U.S.

Today, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation that Google and other map providers, like Apple, should add exact locations of more than 200,000 grade crossings to their mapping data. The Federal Railroad Administration has been lobbying Apple and other tech companies to add the data for the past 18 months.

Apple and several other companies, like Google, Microsoft and MapQuest, have agreed to add the data but have not disclosed when they will integrate grade crossings into its mapping apps. The NTSB's recommendations are not binding, but they can used to pressure companies and lobby Congress to take action.

Investigators believe lack of warning in Google Maps was one of several factors that contributed to the accident, including driver fatigue and a lack of more distinctive signage at the grade crossing. There have been five accidents at the crossing since 2008.


Discuss this article in our forums