Recently, on his blog, Joe Blau suggested that we make a new addition to the pantheon of commonly understood digital symbols. This new symbol, which you can see above, would signify 'Context' or that a computer is assessing your context in order to improve your experience. It would be used ubiquitously like the other symbols we use today (wifi, Bluetooth, power, location, etc). Blau provides two examples where it might be useful: Nest (the thermostat would signify that it sees you and is adjusting accordingly) and Tesla (the dash would signify that it's assessing context in driver-assist mode).
I have two conflicting reactions to this idea. It simultaneously seems useful and completely unnecessary. As the computers around us continue to notice us, it would be nice to have a universal way for them to tell us "I'm watching you." If nothing else, this helps us feel like we're still one step ahead of the singularity. To provide another example, the smart assistant hardware we are inviting into our homes (Amazon Echo, Google Home) are quietly listening to us even when we're not directly talking to them. They are listening for keywords but are listening nonetheless. It would be nice to have a visual indication that they are assessing context, just as a reminder that we're being observed.
Beyond that, I question the usefulness of such a symbol as a universal indicator for users. The other universal symbols generally represent connectivity (you are connected to something or not: wifi, the cell network, a keyboard) or universal actions (play/pause, search). The one outlier is the location services symbol (which is not a universal icon between operating systems) that signifies that your device is using GPS to identify your location. Like the 'Location Services' symbol, a 'Context' symbol would give the impression of usefulness but would gloss over detail and tell the user very little about what is actually happening.
An interface should clearly communicate itself to a user. Blau is right that as we increase the number of AI and sensor-aided experiences we are going to have trouble communicating exactly what is happening. However, I would argue that a single symbol is too reductive to be useful. It can't easily say what it's observing or why it's observing. Think about the difference between his two examples: Nest vs. Tesla. There is a severe difference between my thermostat telling me it noticed me and my car telling me it's taking over major cognitive aspects of driving. There are necessary distinctions in how those two pieces of information get communicated.
Perhaps most simply, if we use this symbol to just signify that an AI process is happening, it will eventually be on every device and will be illuminated at all times, rendering it meaningless. We need to investigate more meaningful ways to communicate—or perhaps not communicate—that a computer is thinking for us.
Despite my critique, I think Blau has raised an interesting idea. It's a nice thought experiment and an interesting design problem. Thanks for surfacing it, Joe!
Read his post: https://blog.joeblau.com/symbol-for-context
The Context Symbol on GitHub: https://github.com/design-utilities/context-symbol