While we race ahead to exploit one another in our digital industrial economy, we ought to consider bringing technology back down to human speed. Machine interfaces have evolved considerably since the hand-crank telephones and automobiles of the early 1900s. When I’m driving in my car, I can place a call by simply speaking aloud. This sort of “magical” interface where things happen based on normal human behavior is becoming prevalent.
Zero UI refers to the idea that this kind of technology has no apparent – simulated or physical – interface. There is no screen to swipe, no button to press.
It may be a dying-fad-of-a-word as I write this article, but for now Zero UI refers to the idea that this kind of technology has no apparent – simulated or physical – interface for interaction with the machine. There is no screen to swipe, no button to press. The interface is contained inside the system so it can be controlled by someone’s voice, a gesture, or even brain waves.
Neuralink is one such proposition for using the brain as a human-machine interface. The company proposes to build on technology like “syringe-injectable electronics” that “allow for continuous monitoring and manipulation” of electrical signals in the brain. Gaining insight into the behavior of the brain is not new. Nature Methods has been publishing techniques to watch the brain activity of mice in real time for at least the past decade. The practical application of (and subsequent enthusiasm for) this technology in human brains is new.
Neuralink proposes to build on technology like “syringe-injectable electronics” that “allow for continuous monitoring and manipulation” of electrical signals in the brain.
At Wait But Why, Elon Musk muses about his idea that we need more bandwidth and speed in order for people interact with artificial intelligence (AI) in the distant future (say, beyond the year 2050). Having lost the argument that we should not go down the path of building a super-intelligent AI, Musk seems to think that either we achieve direct brain communication with machines and one another, or we need to face a reality where, at best, we’ll make great pets. Whatever the case, it feels like the prelude for a future-gone-wrong like The World of Tomorrow or The Futurological Congress.
Adapting ourselves to the interface
I agree with the observation that current human-machine interfaces are slow. When I speak to Siri in my car, I’ve learned to modulate my voice to be loud and clear. I avoid homonyms because I know I’m just as likely to hear Bach when I ask Siri to play Beck. But, this doesn’t mean I’m inferior to Siri, or that Siri is inferior to my car stereo interface. Rather, it means that we’ve tried to apply a technology where it might not belong, unless we reframe the experience for what it is.
Like many things digital these days, voice data can be collected and analyzed. This voice data can then be used for a variety of things, including marketing. Google does something similar when it mines your search queries and the activity of Gmail users (myself included). As a company that made USD$89.5B in revenue last year, mostly from advertising, their data-harvesting applications Gmail, Drive, Docs and search seem like trinkets compared to our livelihoods and our identity.
When I speak to Siri in my car, I’ve learned to modulate my voice to be loud and clear. I avoid homonyms because I know I’m just as likely to hear Bach when I ask Siri to play Beck.
Back at the level of our human bodies, there are companies like 23andme that sell spit-at-home gene sequencing kits. Billed as a novel way to do personal research on illness and ancestry (which is a perfectly legitimate concern), they also sell genetic data to drug companies. While HIPPA and other regulatory measures help keep this information anonymous, there is still a big gap between these ventures and the greater good of society. Primarily, it’s centered around the profit motive. In itself, harmless. When we attach the need to make a profit to the current global economy, we’re quickly running out of time. We’ve run out of countries to colonize, virtual spaces to conquer, and really just… space. Now is the time to ask important questions about the technologies we are creating for ourselves.
Adapting the interface to us
Do we need to spend time adapting our physiology to keep up with machines, or can we approach technology as a tool to help regulate our bodies as they were designed with tools like Neurofeedback? Will we find ourselves in a future where we trade our private thoughts and emotions (represented by electric pulses in our brain) in return for speedier access to machines? Or are we willing to put a line in the sand and demand that technology be built to serve us, at a human speed where pace layers thinking? Or are these reactionary concerns?
Will we find ourselves in a future where we trade our private thoughts and emotions (represented by electric pulses in our brain) in return for speedier access to machines?
Whatever the case, we are at a point where we need to consider the changes we are making to our world. In the case of Neuralink, when I checked the job postings on their website, I saw only positions for scientists and engineers. Conspicuously absent are philosophers and ethicists, artists and poets. People who give meaning to the lives we live. Instead, they are hiring people that appear to be concerned more with creating the great machine that works as expected: in-tune with our global economy in a way that leaves us bare of information while we have all the access we desire.