Saturday, 5 April 2008

Being human and the future

Visions of the future of technology are always desperately void of any human element. That's one reason why I like Diesel's knowing 2007 winter ads: they admit that humans are at the centre of all this technology.

This isn't a new idea. People building things got interested in the users at the centre of their systems mostly to safeguard against that human propensity to mess up. For this they needed people who understood or could find out how humans tick: psychologists.

Although there is a history of psychologists and engineers occasionally getting into bed with each other before WW2, the relationship became serious after its start because as early computer scientist Grace Hopper said, "after that, we had systems". The systems they were dealing with were primarily airplanes and the ecosystem that went with that (e.g. radar monitoring). User-centred design became a necessity: lives were at stake.

Since then the relationship between psychologists and engineers has properly ossified. The marriage is called Human Factors (HF), although Ergonomics, Cognitive Engineering and Human Computer Interaction are other terms banded about.

No longer is it about simply making complex systems more tolerant of that human habit of making mistakes. Instead, it aims to create the best fit between the human mind and all the things it has built. More than ever, this is vital as technology becomes ubiquitous.

This includes things like making things easier to learn and use, promoting efficiency, tolerating and guarding against errors and promoting enjoyment. As Noyes (2000, p.63) (my old professor) has said, the role of HF is “to design to enhance human abilities, to support human limitations and the meet the subjective, affective component…of humans”.

This last bit, about "subjective, affective" stuff is getting more and more important. In fact, in a big sit down last month of clever people in this area, the question was asked "what will Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) be like in the year 2020?"

As I said at the outset, visions of the future of technology are always desperately void of any human element. Not in the answer to HCI2020: Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the Year 2020 reduces the answers down into a digestible form (in widescreen, which joyously fills my 22 inches of screen real estate) where the central focus is on "the embodiment of human values at the heart of computing."

Here is a summary:

Part 1 - timeline of major changes over last 20 years and beyond in computing, living and society

Changing Computers

1960s - Mainframe: one machine, many users
1980s - Personal computer: one computer, one user
2000s - Mobility era: many computers, one user
2020s - Ubiquity era: thousands of computers, one user
(I think this may have missed out the possibility of returning full circle, to a mainframe which supports many users. The mainframe or cloud will be the Internet.)

Replacing WIMP with more natural gesture, pen, multi-touch, speech, eye and mind control

All materials could be digitised as screens become flexible and part of the fabric of life (e.g. Animated textiles)
Hybrid digital-biological displays

A very large part of all computing will be in the palm of our hands
Act as extension to our hands, shifting from communication devices to interaction devices (e.g. Apple's plans for the iPhone)

Robots become semantic learners and can make inferences about the world (e.g. attractiveness or if now is a good time to be interrupted)

Life caching
When space is no longer an issue more and more of life can be recorded (e.g. MyLifeBits and see this Sci.Am. article)

More home brews
Just as content is no longer created centrally, application creation is decentralised so amateurs can freely mash-up more relevant and personalised applications (e.g. Feel Map or BabyNameMap)

Always on
Simply, that communication channels will be permanently open, everywhere and all the time.

Changing Lives

Learning differently
Learning, using and testing of material will change as new technologies are deployed in the classroom (e.g. podcasts, digital classrooms, Ubi-Learning etc). Home, school and play will be blurred.

Living differently in the family
More digital connections between family. This is not just communication, but also sharing of media and even events (e.g. grandma being 'at' the party whilst being 100 miles away). One issue may be surveillance by parents over children using technology developed for peace of mind.

New ways of growing older
Medical sensors are decentralised to allow better monitoring of health. 'Silver' social networks will be useful in health respects as well as assuaging social isolation. Increases in the amount of games for older populations.

Changing Societies

Computing and government get closer
Government will change the way they work because of computers; public will change the way government operates because of computers.

Part 2 - transformation of interaction

Human Values in the Face of Change

The changes in Part 1 are summarised:
  1. The end of interface stability - they'll be everywhere and in everything
  2. The growth of techno-dependency - we wont be able to cope without it
  3. The growth of hyper-connectivity - being connected to family, friends and society
  4. The end of the ephemeral - desire to be digital magpies, collecting as much as we can
  5. The growth of creative engagement - "the proliferation and appropriation of new kinds of digital tools by people from all walks of life
These are then evaluated in human terms. "People will still wish to be part of families, to stay connected with friends, to educate their children, to care for each other when they are unwell, and to grow old safely and in comfort. Technology, digital or otherwise, is the enabler for all of these things rather than the focus. Shifts in computing are therefore not at the forefront of people’s concerns. What does concern them is how technologies can support the things that matter to them in their daily lives – the things they value."

The end of interface stability
- the issues raised by "the shifting boundary between computers and humans", like personal space, defining features of an individual if technology is part of us,
-the issues raised by "the shifting boundary between computers and the everyday world", like opting in and out of invisible interaction
- the issues raised by "living in a computational ecosystem", like the emergent effects of multiple systems working together, trusting them and problems of accountability.

The growth of techno-dependency
- what happens when systems fail and when there is a digital outage (e.g. YouTube in February)?
- what kind of basic skills will atrophy (c.f. calculator and mental arithmetic)

The growth of hyper-connectivity
- with everyone connected to everyone there are issues of etiquette. "For example, students feel it is perfectly acceptable to email their professors with excuses for late assignments using informal text slang. Professors, however, may feel differently."
- The need for independence and quiet reflection amid the constantly 'on' state.
- Work and home blurring, and the effect this has on life.
- The difference between digital crowd and mob, and whether the former reflects opinion accurately or just extreme and offensive views

The end of the ephemeral
- How digital footprints and privacy work
- Authentication, security and personal identification to protect the digital footprint
- Human memory is selective and constructive, digital memory is stable; how do these play out? Should we be able to delete digital memories (like completely removing a Facebook account, which is notoriously difficult)
- How will identity be shaped if such (unwanted) digital memories persist?
- People's awareness of when data are collected about them
- The possibility of geo-aware systems being used for surveillance by friends, family, society or state

The growth of creative engagement
- Is more automation a good thing?
- "How can the interaction and design of new computational tools be structured so they do not impede creative engagement?"
- "What new toolkits can be developed to enable scientists, and others to create tools for themselves to solve their own problems and explore new avenues?"
- How will new tools affect expertise?

Part 2, 3 & 4 - a desirable HCI agenda

I wont go into this in detail. See the paper for more.

Lots to be thinking about.

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