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Imagine trying to read War and Peace one letter at a time. The thought alone feels excruciating. But in many ways, this painful idea holds parallels to how human-machine interfaces (HMI) force us to interact with and process data today.
Designed back in the 1970s at Xerox PARC and later refined during the 1980s by Apple, today’s HMI was originally conceived during fundamentally different times, and specifically, before people and machines were generating so much data. Fast forward to 2019, when humans are estimated to produce 44 zettabytes of data—equal to two stacks of books from here to Pluto—and we are still using the same HMI from the 1970s.
These dated interfaces are not equipped to handle today’s exponential rise in data, which has been ushered in by the rapid dematerialization of many physical products into computers and software.
Breakthroughs in perceptual and cognitive computing, especially machine learning algorithms, are enabling technology to process vast volumes of data, and in doing so, they are dramatically amplifying our brain’s abilities. Yet even with these powerful technologies that at times make us feel superhuman, the interfaces are still crippled with poor ergonomics.
Many interfaces are still designed around the concept that human interaction with technology is secondary, not instantaneous. This means that any time someone uses technology, they are inevitably multitasking, because they must simultaneously perform a task and operate the technology.
If our aim, however, is to create technology that truly extends and amplifies our mental abilities so that we can offload important tasks, the technology that helps us must not also overwhelm us in the process. We must reimagine interfaces to work in coherence with how our minds function in the world so that our brains and these tools can work together seamlessly.
Most technology is designed to serve either the mind or the body. It is a problematic divide, because our brains use our entire body to process the world around us. Said differently, our minds and bodies do not operate distinctly. Our minds are embodied.
Studies using MRI scans have shown that when a person feels an emotion in their gut, blood actually moves to that area of the body. The body and the mind are linked in this way, sharing information back and forth continuously.
Current technology presents data to the brain differently from how the brain processes data. Our brains, for example, use sensory data to continually encode and decipher patterns within the neocortex. Our brains do not create a linguistic label for each item, which is how the majority of machine learning systems operate, nor do our brains have an image associated with each of these labels.
Our bodies move information through us instantaneously, in a sense “computing” at the speed of thought. What if our technology could do the same?
Using Cognitive Ergonomics to Design Better Interfaces
Well-designed physical tools, as philosopher Martin Heidegger once meditated on while using the metaphor of a hammer, seem to disappear into the “hand.” They are designed to amplify a human ability and not get in the way during the process.
The aim of physical ergonomics is to understand the mechanical movement of the human body and then adapt a physical system to amplify the human output in accordance. By understanding the movement of the body, physical ergonomics enables ergonomically sound physical affordances—or conditions—so that the mechanical movement of the body and the mechanical movement of the machine can work together harmoniously.
Cognitive ergonomics applied to HMI design uses this same idea of amplifying output, but rather than focusing on physical output, the focus is on mental output. By understanding the raw materials the brain uses to comprehend information and form an output, cognitive ergonomics allows technologists and designers to create technological affordances so that the brain can work seamlessly with interfaces and remove the interruption costs of our current devices. In doing so, the technology itself “disappears,” and a person’s interaction with technology becomes fluid and primary.
By leveraging cognitive ergonomics in HMI design, we can create a generation of interfaces that can process and present data the same way humans process real-world information, meaning through fully-sensory interfaces.
Several brain-machine interfaces are already on the path to achieving this. AlterEgo, a wearable device developed by MIT researchers, uses electrodes to detect and understand nonverbal prompts, which enables the device to read the user’s mind and act as an extension of the user’s cognition.
Another notable example is the BrainGate neural device, created by researchers at Stanford University. Just two months ago, a study was released showing that this brain implant system allowed paralyzed patients to navigate an Android tablet with their thoughts alone.
These are two extraordinary examples of what is possible for the future of HMI, but there is still a long way to go to bring cognitive ergonomics front and center in interface design.
Disruptive Innovation Happens When You Step Outside Your Existing Users
Most of today’s interfaces are designed by a narrow population, made up predominantly of white, non-disabled men who are prolific in the use of technology (you may recall The New York Times viral article from 2016, Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem). If you ask this population if there is a problem with today’s HMIs, most will say no, and this is because the technology has been designed to serve them.
This lack of diversity means a limited perspective is being brought to interface design, which is problematic if we want HMI to evolve and work seamlessly with the brain. To use cognitive ergonomics in interface design, we must first gain a more holistic understanding of how people with different abilities understand the world and how they interact with technology.
Underserved groups, such as people with physical disabilities, operate on what Clayton Christensen coined in The Innovator’s Dilemma as the fringe segment of a market. Developing solutions that cater to fringe groups can in fact disrupt the larger market by opening a downward, much larger market.
Learning From Underserved Populations
When technology fails to serve a group of people, that group must adapt the technology to meet their needs.
The workarounds created are often ingenious, specifically because they have not been arrived at by preferences, but out of necessity that has forced disadvantaged users to approach the technology from a very different vantage point.
When a designer or technologist begins learning from this new viewpoint and understanding challenges through a different lens, they can bring new perspectives to design—perspectives that otherwise can go unseen.
Designers and technologists can also learn from people with physical disabilities who interact with the world by leveraging other senses that help them compensate for one they may lack. For example, some blind people use echolocation to detect objects in their environments.
The BrainPort device developed by Wicab is an incredible example of technology leveraging one human sense to serve or compliment another. The BrainPort device captures environmental information with a wearable video camera and converts this data into soft electrical stimulation sequences that are sent to a device on the user’s tongue—the most sensitive touch receptor in the body. The user learns how to interpret the patterns felt on their tongue, and in doing so, become able to “see” with their tongue.
Key to the future of HMI design is learning how different user groups navigate the world through senses beyond sight. To make cognitive ergonomics work, we must understand how to leverage the senses so we’re not always solely relying on our visual or verbal interactions.
Radical Inclusion for the Future of HMI
Bringing radical inclusion into HMI design is about gaining a broader lens on technology design at large, so that technology can serve everyone better.
Interestingly, cognitive ergonomics and radical inclusion go hand in hand. We can’t design our interfaces with cognitive ergonomics without bringing radical inclusion into the picture, and we also will not arrive at radical inclusion in technology so long as cognitive ergonomics are not considered.
This new mindset is the only way to usher in an era of technology design that amplifies the collective human ability to create a more inclusive future for all.
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The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.
Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.
Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.
As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”
The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.
The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?
Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.
“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.
It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.
Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.
Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”
Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.
The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”
During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.
“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”
Image Credit: Soul Machines Continue reading →