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Humane | Our Screenless A.I. Future
Artificial intelligence and the emerging era of ambient computing
For the past 40 years (since the dawn of the internet), computers have connected us in new and interesting ways. What started as a way for universities to share research has turned into an ever-present tool that has woven its way into the fabric of our lives.
And with each iteration - from mainframes, to desktops, to laptops, to mobile phones - computing has moved closer to us. From research facilities to our home. From our home to our lap. From our lap to our hands. And why wouldn't it? That lightweight, thin device that easily slips into your pocket is the key that unlocks a whole new world. Today, leaving your house without your phone feels almost unreasonable.
But as many have pointed out before, our new superpowers come at a cost. To interact with our devices, we must stare into its glowing screen. But it's where we work. It's where we play. It's where communicate. It's where we create. How are we supposed to give up something that we rely on so much? At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, in our empowerment, we've become imprisoned.
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A Future of Ambient Computing
As more attention has been drawn to the negative impacts of technology, especially on the younger generations who grow up with it in their hands, there has been a growing movement of people advocating for less screen time.
Nature retreats with no technology and phone-free dinner parties have become a mark of health and balance. There's even a shift back toward "dumb phones" like the Wisephone and The Light Phone that attempt to offer only the most basic utilities.
But these solutions are incomplete. While they give us a path to re-engage with the world, distraction-free, they demand that we relinquish our superpowers. In service of more connection, we cut off the very device we use to connect most often. In service of "decluttering" our minds, we cut off the tool that helps us synthesize and organize much of our life.
A complete solution must find a different path to re-engaging with the world around us. One that allows us to augment our capabilities with the technological superpowers that we've become accustomed to without it getting in the way of being present. A path where technology fades into the background until it's needed, rather than demanding our attention at its whim.
In his final column for The Verge in 2017, Walt Mossberg coined the term "ambient computing" to describe this new path.
"Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices. This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all."
—Walt Mossberg, The Disappearing Computer
Just as smartphones revolutionized the way we interact with information and each other, ambient computing will, once again, transform our relationship with technology, making it more natural, unobtrusive, and contextually aware.
Ambient Computing is Humane
Until recently, that vision of the future has only revealed itself in glimpses through devices like the Amazon Alexa or Apple Watch. Computers that are there, but out of the way until needed. But Alexa is only available in spaces where an Echo device sits. And an Apple Watch is limited in its capabilities. The full realization of this future depends on a paradigm-shift in technology. Something... like AI.
AI could detect your intent without a glowing screen using your voice or gestures.
AI could spawn agents who will perform a task autonomously with little to no input.
AI could fade into the background until called upon.
AI could serve up a distraction-free interface: speech.
Is AI the breakthrough we need to balance our technological superpowers with being present and engaged with the world around us?
A company called Humane, founded by two ex-Apple employees who worked on era-defining products like the iPhone and iPad, has raised over $200 million to build the future of computing. Their idea is to use sensors to take in your surroundings, your voice, your wants, needs and intents and then become a personal assistant similar to Iron Man's Jarvis, answering questions, providing information about the world, and generally being helpful.
"Imagine going on a run, and the music you're listening to is dynamically scored based on where you're running, what time you're running and how fast you're running.
Or imagine it's the morning of your big presentation and you're advised that a meditation would help your anxiousness and rapid breathing. One by the window, listening to the rain would be best. Soon technology will intelligently handle all of this for you, instantly, allowing you to remain in the moment.
Imagine being able to walk down a road and completely understand what's inside every shop before you walk in or without interfaces getting in the way so you can fully explore things.
Or imagine being at your friend's wedding and not having to waste any precious time capturing that perfect photo, staring at your screen and not into your friend's eyes. Instead, AI will free you to experience these moments as they happen and capture the memories on your behalf. It will allow you to live in the moment now and not just relive that moment later.
Imagine being able to literally shop the world. You're walking down the street and you see something that piques your curiosity. A person wearing a particular brand of sneakers or a new beautiful dress. Now imagine being able to get instant answers to your questions. Who designed it, where do I buy it, is it available in my size? All of your thoughts answered in milliseconds. And it's screenless.
A world without a display where your surroundings becomes your operating system means less demanding and distracting screens. No more complicated, time-consuming interactions. A screenless future allows us to focus on what really matters - being human."
—Imran Chaudhri, Co-founder and President of Humane (source)
When they demoed their product last week at a TED event in Vancouver, they showed off a handful of delightful features such as voice translation in the speakers voice (English to French), a "catch me up" summarization feature, a simple phone call and even a food analysis feature that could tell whether or not you should eat something based on your particular food sensitivities.
Dismissing the idea of augmented reality glasses or contacts as being too distracting, their goal is to help us become present, engaging more with the world around us and less with a screen in front of us. This could be the realization of that idea that Walt Mossberg described in his 2017 article, "The Disappearing Computer."
What does this mean for us?
"We believe that the best user interface is no user interface. And ambient computing will finally enable us to stop looking down at our phones and start looking up at the world. This, to us, is the future and it's closer than you might think."
—Imran Chaudhri, Co-founder and President of Humane (source)
As someone who enjoys thinking about and designing interfaces to be accessible, useful, and beautiful, I'm sad to think about screens being replaced but also excited to explore and perhaps even help invent the interfaces of the future (a topic for a future article). Will it be voice? Gestures? Holograms? Augmented reality? Or some combination of them?
As we watch a new era in computing emerge, we have a choice. To be the ones who are slow to adapt or to be the ones who embrace the potential of this emerging era of ambient computing. To embrace a new way we experience and interact with technology where our digital superpowers are seamlessly integrated into our lives, allowing us to truly live in the moment.
What do you think? Is ambient computing a positive future where we can be present more than ever in a world of technology or one that’s asking for government overreach and the prying eyes of big tech? Let me know in the comments.
That’s all for this one - I’ll catch ya next week.