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Making Superhumans Through Radical Inclusion and Cognitive Ergonomics

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.

Embodied Cognition

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.

Image Credit: jamesteohart /

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