Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently asked:
“Suppose we build community curation systems, just like Wikipedia is a community curation system for an encyclopedia. Can we build real-time curation systems for what we think is appropriate? Can we build systems that lead people to being more constructive, and more likely to understand what it’s like to be on the other side of a cultural divide, and more likely to figure out what these other people who speak different languages are like?” [TheGuardian15thMarch2021]
Somewhere in North London, Justin Hopkins, one of the founders of soon-to-launch technology non-profit, Augr was reading this piece and smiling. “I was very excited because that is almost exactly what our international team is doing at Augr” he explains. “We are offering the world something completely new. An AI-driven biography device for people to record and share their life stories. It is part of a technology driven, non-profit social enterprise that we hope will change the world.”
NOT EVERY STORY IS REMARKABLE
Hopkins had recently pointed me to a collection of recent articles about celebrities who were turned down for ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ because their stories weren’t interesting enough apparently. Many were quite annoyed. Initially, I dismissively found this amusing and whimsical (the glitterati all thinking their stories were extremely interesting and worthy of broadcast), but it was Dr Who lead actor Christopher Ecclestone’s broadside towards the programme’s makers that made me look at this from a very different perspective; one that connects to a larger malaise:
“They tugged aside the leaves on those branches and concluded, ‘Nothing to see here.’ Generations of working-class people dismissed. Individuals with their own hopes, dreams and stories. Not army generals, industrialists, vaudeville singers, but factory workers, farm labourers, cleaners, nothing in any way ‘sexy’ enough for TV.” Hopkins takes this up:
“For as long as history, ordinary people’s life stories have remained untold and unremembered. Only the lives of the most powerful are recorded. It is a terrible loss. So we have decided to change that. To help people tell their own story, in their own way and their own voice. To give everyone the opportunity to record and share the story of their life with friends, family and the wider world.
“If we are successful, we hope to collect and curate many millions of different life stories from across the world. Stories that will live on for future generations and help create a community of understanding that crosses all cultures, faiths and national borders. A huge thing. Like a modern-day ‘Domesday book’ helping future generations understand how we lived, what we thought and what made us tick”.
Justin, who in his own words, has “been gripped by the importance of real life stories and telling of real life stories for a long time”, explains the whole backstory below.
THE AUGR STORY, 2000
“It’s true, it has taken 21 years to get here! That was when I first sat down with my grandfather, Richard, to make a recording of his most treasured memories. It was a marathon session and, at the end of it, we had about seven hours of stories from when he was a little boy, all the way through to his late 80’s.
He told me the stories I’d never have heard if we hadn’t sat down with a basic digital recording device. Many of the stories he’d forgotten himself and may have been lost altogether had we not sat down and talked off the cuff. They just came out naturally while we were in conversation.
That was a wonderful experience to hear him tell the stories. He really enjoyed the process of thinking back and telling me some of the highlights of his life; some great, some weird, some strange, and some difficult that were tough to talk about.
Unfortunately he died unexpectedly after that. He was in his mid-eighties so he wasn’t a young man but this was unexpected. He’d had a sudden heart attack. We were devastated as a family.
At some point soon after, I went back to the recordings we’d made. And I realised we had something amazing that most people wouldn’t have in those tough times. We had him telling us his own stories in his own words in his own voice. So although we had lost him, we hadn’t lost who he was, what he stood for, what he thought, what he said and what he sounded like. We have all these great stories right here and didn’t have to piece them together through odd photographs or bits that had been written down here and there. I still listen to them now. Hearing his own voice makes me feel like he’s in the room with me. There is sadness but there is also such joy.
When things had settled a little bit, I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could help other people record and share their life stories and the stories of those that they love – to make sure these stories didn’t remain untold and were remembered in the purest authentic way – the same thing that I was able to do with my grandfather.
But back in 2000, it would have set you back about £2000 to have your own personal story recorded and documented. The human expertise and technology was just too expensive. Not many people had a spare £2000 in their back pockets to transcribe a small portion of their family history. And we wanted the devices to be available to as many people as possible, not just an elite bunch of people. So I put the idea on hold and told myself I’d just wait for technology to catch up with my thinking. I never really doubted it would catch up with my thinking, I just didn’t know how, when or what that would look like”.
THE EMERGENCE OF ALEXA, CORTANA AND AI VOICE TECHNOLOGY, 2014
“Fast forward to 2014/15 when Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana burst onto the scene, introducing AI speech recognition and command response algorithms that would change how we communicate with many of our devices forever. For the first time we could see a way to substitute the human element – the interviewer – for machine learning or an AI routine. It suddenly meant we could roll these devices out for 10% of the original cost – and make them affordable to the average person. That was exciting. Finally we had the tools to make Augr a reality”.
’21 YEARS LATER’ – THE LAUNCH OF AUGR & HOW IT WORKS
“Augr is launching in early June this year now we’ve more or less completed everything. The device is designed specifically to be as easy to use as possible. Something that just needs to be turned on. 100% voice-controlled. No software downloads. No complicated apps. No touch screens. Just you, your voice and the stories you want to tell. What’s really clever is that the device actually initiates a conversation with you and asks you questions. It talks, listens, interviews and records as you tell your life story.
“The questions are obviously guided in the sense that it’s got one objective which is to interrogate you and encourage you to tell your life story. It’s not there for random conversation, it has a specific purpose and it engages you in a conversation accordingly. The AI is put together in such a way that it feels natural; just like you’re having a conversation with a friend or someone who’s interested in what you have to say rather than someone who’s just asking questions for the sake of it.
The hardware side is a very thin client-server and all the processing work is done in the cloud. So the device itself is very light and thin, 100% voice-activated and voice-driven. So you only need to turn it on and the rest of the functionality is taken care of through the voice controller.
“On the AI side, we have specialist AI software partners in the US who worked on both Cortana and Alexa. So the AI is implemented and more or less complete and we’re now starting to push that technology out to everybody, starting with the English speaking world where our initial presence is.
The third element of Augr is the web side of things. We will provide a digital home: a blog space for people to keep their recordings, a bit like a ‘Facebook for your memories’. You will be able to upload your recordings, curate your stories and choose who you share them with – friends, family or just yourself. You can add other biographical stuff like photographs, written materials or anything else you might have that helps to illustrate your story.
Importantly, the recordings and other materials posted belong to the user and they can choose what to do with them. They are entirely privately owned by the user: Augr has no ownership over these things in any way whatsoever.
So those are the three elements: the AI, the hardware and the biography web space. The AI and the hardware are pretty much there, the web part we will develop after we’ve launched the crowdfunding exercise”.
“WE WANT TO PRESERVE MILLIONS OF ORDINARY STORIES“
“The ultimate mission is to collect many millions of these stories, creating a safe place for people to reflect on their life and share their experiences. Compare that with how so many of us use the internet at the moment – sharing random photographs and posting strange memes. There are so many other more productive things we could be doing.
It is sad that there are so few ways for people to do that. There is so much more we could be sharing and learning from each other. I know a lot about my grandfather [pictured above] because I helped him record his story, but I know a great deal less about my grandparents on my mother’s side, because I didn’t have an opportunity to be able to talk to them, and for them to share their stories.
Those stories are so important. They help us to understand where we have come from and how we belong. They help bring families and friends together. And if there’s anything we’ve learned recently, it’s that we need to find ways to be forever close to the people that we love”.
Augr is launching on Indiegogo in early June 2021
Justin Hopkins was speaking to Davis Mukasa. The interview has been abridged and amended for reading-clarity.