Technologists of the future will have to understand much more about human psychology and physiology
Four converging technologies are going to transform our interaction with the world radically: genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology. With a few exceptions, such as pacemakers and artificial hips, technology has always been at one distance removed from our bodies and brains. Not for much longer. The interface between the made world and us is going to become almost invisible.
Breaking through the glass
The monolithic device with a screen may be on the verge of disappearing. It is being enhanced with numerous smaller devices, which may soon replace it as the way to access information. We will arrive at a more ambient experience where sensors capture information about us and feed that information into systems quietly working away in the background. Wearables will give way to "embeddables", nano-scale machinery inside our bodies, which can monitor us and modify us.
Watched over by machines
The first domains that we are seeing using this technology are the obvious ones, such as healthcare and fitness. But the possibilities extend further. Communications, entertainment, socialising, learning, work, even self-actuation – any human activity we can think of is going to be modified and amplified with an invisible mesh of data and processing that we will drift through (mostly obliviously). We can start to think about these systems as mental and sensory prosthetics, increasing our knowledge and perception of the world.
The extended human
Humans enhance their bodies both unknowingly and consciously as an instinctive action, either to confer social acceptance or to improve their physical attributes. Few people are totally content with the bodies they ended up in; the difference is that now we have the opportunity to change it in much more fundamental ways, from the gene up. The enhanced human will have improved attributes such as sensing, thinking (aided by computation) and in more physical ways, such as endurance, resistance and longevity. If you think this is far-fetched, recent developments in artificial organ technology and robotics are bringing this sci-fi scenario closer than we may imagine.
The technologists and designers of the future will have to understand much more about human psychology and physiology to deliver appropriate services. These new services will be sitting so close to us that they will have to find the right balance between unobtrusiveness and affordance. Algorithms and learning systems will be crucial to take effort away from the users of these services. Services that can predict our needs without us having to intervene will be the ones that resonate and find an audience. Those that get in the way of our daily activity will be discarded.
We can already see with the rather too rapid backlash against Google Glass that people are very particular about what they put on to their bodies and how "social deviance" is a big barrier to adoption. The hilarious spoof on Saturday Night Live shows exactly the problem with wearable tech: it can make us look ridiculous. The designs of future wearables will need to integrate subtly with our clothing and our bodies or become fashion statements in their own right. Nobody wants to look like the Borg.
A predictive world
The pattern finding software that is finding its way into vending machines in Japan and McDonald's drive-ins is crude and works only in a situation of limited choice. However, the promise of artificial intelligence (which is always 20 years off, don't forget) could really deliver this seamless and almost magical connection between systems and humans. It may not be long before Siri not only understands what we are saying but also knows our hearts desire.
Andy Goodman is a managing director at Fjord