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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Your smartphone is a relic

Your smartphone is clunky. Your social networks, rudimentary at best. In a few short years we will look back at our current interactions with technology and laugh. Twitter, seen through the glass of a museum cabinet, will look as archaic as Ceefax. Facebook like MS-DOS. Smartphones like typewriters.

When people consider the rapid pace of technological change, they often talk about the raw power: transistor counts, processor speeds, storage volumes and data rates. They talk less often of the use to which all this great technology has been put.

So much of it has been applied to making technology more accessible, improving the user interface. In fact, perhaps the biggest change in computing technology of the last fifty years is not its speed, size or cost, but its accessibility.

Plot this curve forward and you see the potential for some very interesting shifts in how we interface with our machines. Let me make a few suggestions.

1. You will have an intimate relationship with an AI

The best interface is often no interface at all. Do you want a switch or do you want lights that are on, at the right level, at exactly the right time? Do you want to have to make appointments, pay bills, buy toilet roll (itself perhaps a product at risk, but that’s another story), or would you rather those things just happened?

We’re rapidly reaching the point where an AI (of sorts) can do all these things for us. But right now, it looks like those services will mostly be provided by one of the big tech giants in return for a little cash and a lot of access to our data.

Soon, I think we’ll see more independent services. Services in which we can have a greater level of confidence that the data that we give up isn’t being used to sell us stuff. This will come at a cost, but I think it’s one that many will choose to pay. I’ve seen a growing level of consciousness of privacy and data exploitation by large companies amongst young people. Those who can, will invest in a personal AI with which they have an intimate and long-term relationship. An AI that acts as an intermediary between them and the rest of the world, handling much of the administration of life, and interfacing with smart devices on their behalf.

This AI will know everything about you. Protecting it will be of enormous importance.

2. You will live in a mixed reality

The day is coming where you will spend the majority of your waking hours seeing and hearing the world with a digital overlay. Where it won’t be entirely clear what is physical and what is virtual.

At first, this will come through glasses. Then perhaps through lenses, though these might present an interesting etiquette problem. Glasses you can easily remove when you want to show someone that you are focusing on them and not the streams of digital data buzzing past your eyeballs. Lenses? Not so much.

In this mixed reality, the nature of the interface between us and our information streams will be radically different. No more scrolling streams of text and images. It will need to be rather more subtle than that. Shades of colour to suggest mood, perhaps at the periphery of your vision. Maybe virtual clouds will warn you of weather changes. Perhaps emoji-fied avatars of your friend inserted into the crowd will tell you of their mood.

3. Your interface goes beyond sight and sound

Today the information we receive from our machines is really only carried on two pathways: sight and sound. Yes, we have basic haptics but, as the saying goes, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

I’ve long been fascinated by the work of David Eagleman on Sensory Substitution — carrying ‘sight’ and ‘sound’ via touch. It feels like we could add a lot of richness to our interface with greater application of this sort of technology — long before we start thinking about neural interfaces. Imagine using heat, or cold, or vibration, to give you a really subtle sixth sense for what’s happening in your wider digital world.


Tom Cheesewright