Can you hear me? Who cares about bits of paper?

My new input device

Following up Google’s voice-operated iPhone search application, maybe it’s time we started to think about non-visual interfaces for our technology. We’ve seen them depicted in Star Trek and sci-fi stories for decades. They show heroes of the future engaged in conversations with technology.

I think that children born ten years from now will find our obsession with visual interfaces quaint. UIs are still centered around ‘the document’ – the system used by corporations in the 18th and 19th centuries to organise colonial empires, and by educational institutions to formalise schooling.

It may be that technology will eventually help us come up with a new technique to pass on and store knowledge. Do you conceive of what you know in terms of words and pictures written on documents? That’s not the form I use to maintain my model of the way my world works. Documents (such as this blog) are a transmission method. We may be able to come up with something more effective in the coming decades.

The late 19th and early 20th century and introduced electricity-powered motors to middle-class people’s lives. Clothes are washed and dried using spinning motors. Refrigeration works using heat pumps. The reason why alternating current was chosen as the method for delivering electricity to people’s homes was that motorised devices need AC to work. As the decades went by, electric motors became hidden, less noticeable in everyday use. Technological methods recede into the background as the services they deliver evolve into utilities. Few families have their own electricity generator, water pump and sewage treatment works any more.

In the same way, computers eventually will fade few view, and our connection to the rest of the world will through a voice whispered in our ears and our instructions will be whispered so no-one else can hear. Nearby surfaces will be used as displays for images and video, but probably won’t be the primary method for technology interaction.

There are a few trends that may lead us in this direction.

The idea behind ‘cloud computing’ is partly about getting people and organisations to let go of having a specific place for a document or unit of computing power. We pay for a service that handles making sure that the documents we have are safely backed up and instantly available where we are in the world. The cloud also provides computing power; when an online service starts getting bogged down with consumer requests, it can call on Google’s cloud of computing power to help out for a few hours. We don’t need to know which power station produced the electricity that is keeping out lights on at night, as long as the power is there when we want it, eventually we’ll trust that the cloud holds all the information we’d like to have access to anywhere. It might be easier for us to tell our technology to do what is needed to get us through the day: “Tell this new bank what it needs to know for me to open the new account.”

The natural language interfaces that have been evolving for the last ten years will eventually become that ‘personal digital assistants’ that will spend their time looking after us. For example I Want Sandy currently uses email to communicate, I assume they’re working on a voice-operated version for mobile technology.

Think about how important needing to find or create ‘the right document’ is for us all today. Eventually something will come along to replace this need. Such is the the nature of technology: in the long run it makes every generation feel out of date.

It is time to turn to the educationalists and see if they can come up with something better…


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