This post is based on the script from two presentations I gave this week at Creative Kitchen in Liverpool, and Tameside Together in Manchester.
You’re familiar with Moore’s Law, right? Coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore back in 1965, it suggests (based on the evidence Moore had witnessed back then) that the number of transistors that can economically be put on a silicon chip doubles every two years. In other words, your computing bang for your buck has been growing at an exponential rate for nearly fifty years.
This law, and a number of parallel laws about the speed of our digital connections, and the amount of stuff we can stick on a hard disk, have described the technology revolution. Devices getting progressively smaller, cheaper, faster, better.
But I think they miss a vital component of what has changed about technology: it has become more human.
I’ve often described early computing experiences as like travelling to an alien planet. The machine you interacted with was a giant monolith, housed in its own environment, speaking its own language and using its own customs.
Now I have a new analogy.
One of the first computer games I ever played was Adventure, or Colossal Cave, as it was otherwise known. It was on a BBC Micro. I was a bit young initially, but I have vivid memories of my dad and cousin getting quite into it. Colossal Cave was a swords and sorcery epic delivered entirely through the medium of a text interface. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ or ‘Role & Play’ novels (perhaps also only familiar to people of my particular vintage) on the small screen.
Now I can’t remember the exact plot or characters of the Colossal Cave, but I imagine, somewhere in the depths of this cave, you may have found an ogre. This, for me, is the early computer. Giant, hulking, slow-witted and inhuman.
A little closer to the surface, and a little more evolved, you may find an ork. These are your pre-GUI personal computers. Communication is easier, but they’re still dim and gruff.
Then come your goblins, smaller nimbler and more able to interact. Laptops with graphical interfaces, and even access to the Internet.
Today the elf-like smartphone is all-the-rage. Slender, attractive, and much closer to human in its abilities to interact with touch, motion and voice.
But the elf remains at the edge of the cave. It can look out into the light and shout to us, but it can’t influence our physical world. Without some form of prosthetic there are hard limitations on its reach and strength.
The history of computing over the last half-century for me is one of evolution. Of computers evolving towards a state where their interactions with us are not limited to the screen, and instead they can communicate with us on all the levels that we communicate with each other, and change our environment around us.
As designers and coders we have for years been shining a torch into the Colossal Cave, briefly illuminating the intelligence inside so that we can interact. Now is the time for the computers to emerge from the cave and begin to communicate with us on our terms. But they need our help to do so.
Stepping back from my well-stretched analogy for a minute, there is good reason for us to help.
Do we really want to interact with data via a screen? Even the loveliest high-resolution, touch display, is an artificial environment relative to the majesty of the world around us. It’s also incredibly low-bandwidth. Think about the breadth of senses you have, through which your brain manages to process information, microsecond by microsecond. Why limit ourselves to interacting over a few million pixels when such rich experiences are available to us?
Computers now have so much data at their disposal, and the intelligence to process it, that we can let them be autonomous. The screen and keyboard was created when we had to manually provide them with all of their inputs, all of their instructions. That is no longer the case. Computers can make decisions based on time, date, weather, environment, location, your social graph and any number of other data points. Why bind ourselves to manual control when they are capable of taking on tasks we no longer need to do?
There is a challenge here though. More than one in fact.
The first one is the age-old sci-fi question: should we? Should we give them this much power? Should we leave behind manual labour? What does it mean for jobs?
The answers to these questions are book-length in themselves, but I’m inclined to think we should accept and even encourage this next step in technological progress. For the simple reason that there are more challenges for human minds to tackle. Why not hand the problems we have already nailed over to machines, if they can solve them more efficiently?
The second challenge is around ‘how’. Because for all my bravado and optimism above, this stuff ain’t easy. Or more specifically, the user experience design challenge isn’t easy.
Here’s an example. I’ve been building my own home automation system. This is both fun (if you’re a geek like me) and a serious experiment: I’m using the smart home as a small scale model for the smart city. The basics are simple: a few hours, a few quid and some cobbled-together code gets you a system that measures all sorts of environmental variables and allows you to trigger electrical devices in response. But as soon as you start trying to design the user experience, it starts to get really complicated.
Take a simple lamp. I want lamps to come on if it’s dark and when there’s someone in the room. And more importantly, turn off when the room is empty, saving me money and cutting my carbon footprint. You’d think the rules for that would be pretty simple, and they are until human behaviour gets involved.
Because sometimes we like it being dark. When we’re trying to sleep, or get a little cosy on the sofa to watch a film. When the house keeps turning the lights on in those situations, it gets pretty annoying. So what do you do? Create modes? Change behaviour throughout the day? Have a manual override? All of these things are possible but what you realise is that the number of permutations is enormous: automating response to human preference is really hard.
This is why we need more people from the creative and digital industries to start experimenting with physical computing. Sure there are a few forward-thinking agencies playing with wearables and microcontrollers. But think about how many websites are produced each year. Imagine how fast we could change our environment and our economy if we produced even a fraction as many digital, physical devices.
There is a particular opportunity here in cities with a manufacturing heritage (and often a surprisingly strong living industry), and a more recent digital scene. Manchester and Liverpool are the two places where I’ve been spreading this message this week.
It’s a simple message and not a particularly original one, but I hope I have carried it to some new audiences. Computing is emerging from the darkness of the cave. Now is the time to greet it and introduce it to our world.