Interfaces Are Killing Us: It’s Time Technology Gets Out of the Way

You have superpowers; cybernetic superpowers that allow you to do all kinds of things.

Think about it: at some point today you Googled a fact you didn’t know, or your calendar reminded you to be somewhere. The other day, I watched a YouTube video on how to tie a bowtie—while tying my husband’s. I felt kinda like Trinity. In all these situations, technology is superpowering my ability to do something better, faster, or more consistently than I otherwise could.

But somehow, none of these things spring to mind when I say, “You have superpowers.” Maybe it’s more accurate to say, “You have superpowers, but don’t feel superhuman.”

Superhumans control their powers with their minds and bodies. Take Superman for an example. I don’t remember him pushing in a bunch of buttons before flying into the air. No. He just leapt into the air to start flying. Jean Grey focuses her mind and objects start moving. They move their body or think, just like I do, but with superpowered results.

Unlike superhumans, our superpowers are contained in a combination lock box called a computer. Sometimes we know the combination, sometimes we just don’t and end up pushing buttons until something happens. That’s why our cyber-superpowers feel less than superhuman. They live outside of us and are nowhere near as effortless to control as moving our body or thinking. So to make superhumans, we need to change the way we access our superpowers; we need to change our human-machine interface (HMI).

How We Got Here

Our current HMI, designed in 1973 at Xerox PARC and refined by Apple in the early 80s, is a lot like Descartes’ model of the mind-body relationship. The human (mind) demands and the computer (body) acts. At the time, this model worked great. Most interactions with computers were advanced computation and language processing, tasks most likely to be done seated at a desk or table with a keyboard.

“Increasingly outdated interfaces can’t keep up with the growing demands of technology.”

But since that time, we have started taking our computers to all kinds of unexpected places: to the beach, in the car, on an airplane. Places we never imagine wanting to take a computer. And as we do so, an accelerating amount of material objects and processes have dematerialized into the box. Stores, music, books, relationships, flashlights, and thousands more objects that at one time had their own distinct interaction model are now all contained inside a box with an HMI designed for sitting at a table doing math and writing.

This just can’t keep up with the growing demands of technology. And it limits our ability to think.

Our Interfaces Are Killing Our Ability to Think

Today’s HMI relies heavily on our working memory. That’s your short-term, task-based memory, and it keeps track of all the different steps in a task, and humans only have so much. The more we overload it, the less functional it becomes. And anytime you interrupt it, you lose 0.3 seconds to 30 minutes in recovery.

Let me give you an example.

You’re sitting on your couch, and you’re a little chilly. You decide to go to your bedroom to get a sweater. But the minute you walk through the door to your room, you forget why you’re there.

This isn’t old age. It’s your brain being efficient.

Your working memory was keeping track of everything in the context of the couch, but when you walked through the doorway to your bedroom, your brain said, “Oh! New context. Let me clear the working memory to be ready for this new set of tasks.” This is called an interrupt. The more we interrupt ourselves, the less our brain can do because it can’t follow a train of thought.

Today’s HMI is a labyrinth of virtual doorways. Every time we interact with it to move to the next task, we walk through a proverbial door, interrupting our working memory.

Do you know how many times you do this every day? A recent study discovered that we interact with our phone’s interface approximately 2,600 times a day. In an hour working on this article, I used the interface to switch between tasks 300 times. That doesn’t include how many times social media tried to notify me of a new post or comment. These constant interruptions keep our mind so focused on shallow busy-ness, it struggles to process deep or creative thought.

We are killing our ability to think.

Consider another cybernetic superpower: GPS. GPS is one of my favorite cyber-superpowers. It tells me how to get there. It gets me around traffic jams. It directs me on fantastic adventures.

But it’s far from perfect. Just like all our other superpowers, GPS uses our current HMI. This means I have to dedicate working memory to it and constantly pay attention to it. Although there is audio, most directions and demands appear on a relatively tiny screen with an obscene amount of data. This can only be read with heads-down focus and occasional glimpses at the real world to determine the relationship between screen and reality.

When you’re driving that’s an issue.

It’s critical that you pay attention to reality when driving. Especially when navigating a complicated or unfamiliar route, which is when GPS is most needed and working memory is most tasked. The battle for working memory in these moments is dangerous. And deadly. One false move, one unexpected alert from the device and lives can be lost.

Our interfaces are literally killing us. Not super, computers. Not super.

HMI Has to Change

The way we access our superpowers has to change. And now’s the time. With a billion augmented reality devices hitting the marketplace in the next year, computing will be unleashed from the box.

This new computing platform is called “perceptual” or “cognitive computing.” Perceptual computing, recognizes what is happening around it (and you) and acts accordingly. This will cause the dematerialization curve to dramatically accelerate while we use technology in even more unexpected locations. This means technology will be everywhere, and so will interface.

If we continue to use our supercomputer HMI for this new computing platform, our old and increasingly outdated interfaces will get between us and the real world everywhere we look. The interruption noise will be deafening. So, unless we want to become Matrix-like batteries, we need to shift our HMI from supercomputer to superhuman.

Stock Media provided by Lexxiam / Pond5

Jody Medich
Jody Medich
Jody is the Director of Design for SU Labs, where she provides design and innovation direction for corporate, startup and field impact teams. She employs a radical approach to Human Centered Design to create exponential solutions to the world’s toughest problems. She also speaks about Augmented and Virtual Reality for SU. In her 23-year design career, Jody has created just about everything from holograms to physical products and R&D. Today, she is Director of Design for Singularity University Labs, where she incubates solutions to Global Grand Challenges using exponential technologies. She specializes in the avant garde of technology, covering everything from Artificial Intelligence to Robotics. She’s spent the last 9 years on AR/VR, most notably as Principal Experience Designer on the HoloLens Project at Microsoft and Principal UX at LEAP Motion. She has traveled the world, speaking about the future of these technologies and their impact on the world for groups like WIRED, Google, and TEDx. Previously, she co-founded and directed Kicker Studio, a design consultancy specializing in Natural User Interface, Perceptual Computing, and R&D for companies including Intel, Samsung, Microsoft, and DARPA. Jody is also a practicing artist with an MFA in Painting and Design & Technology from the San Francisco Art Institute. She’s a collaborator with the art crew Five Ton Crane, and in her spare time, makes her own clothes while building robots and rockets.
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