Reading a newspaper, communicating with our friends and family, checking our accounts, paying our bills, and shopping for groceries – all these activities and many more are now performed through digital interfaces. As a result, the desire for a more natural, or human, way of interacting with our electronic devices is growing. How, then, are technology companies adding the human touch to something as unhuman as a phone, and what is the next step in the humanisation of technology?
Watching a video of Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone in 2007 can today be an almost jarring experience: it seems incredible now but until twelve years ago, there was no such thing as a mass-market mobile phone that combined multi-touch technology, easy-to-use internet, and GPS tracking. Since then, smartphones have found their way into billions of people’s pockets and have fundamentally changed the way we interact with technology.
“Smartphones are the trigger point for bringing in new technologies,” says Fabiano Vallesi, Next Generation analyst at Julius Baer. Indeed, only four years after the launch of the first iPhone, Apple introduced Siri, its voice-controlled personal assistant. In 2015, this was followed by haptic feedback, in the form of the little jolt users feel when they touch certain functions on their screens.
Mimicking human intelligence
Traditional interfaces have been undergoing a revolution ever since. “Relying on a keyboard, mouse, screen, and to some degree audio really reduces the power of humans for interaction,” says Gillian Hayes, Kleist Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow. Artificial intelligence, or AI, is one of the technologies making it possible to move away from these interfaces.
“There are three factors that have gotten us to where we are today in terms of AI: the abundance of data, the general availability of low-cost computing power for data mining, and opensource AI backed by the likes of Facebook and Google,” says Vallesi. These factors help to improve the algorithms behind AI technology, which results in it becoming incrementally smarter and more applicable to new interfaces.
This technology is already widely in use in areas such as customer service. For example, if a customer has a problem with a product, chatbots can interact with the customer to understand the problem and recommend a solution. “Chatbots are helpful because they shorten reaction times, lower costs, and improve service quality,” says Vallesi.
Professor Hayes is applying this technology to work she is doing with an insurance-focused start-up. “Nearly 60 per cent of insurance fees currently go to brokerage fees, sales commissions, and so on,” she says. She is working with chatbots to engage with people and provide them with a customised, education-oriented, decision-making process using more sophisticated algorithms that can provide a pricing advantage. The idea is to significantly decrease costs for the consumer and improve their customer experience, with the objective of increasing sales. “When more people buy insurance, the risk pool is bigger and prices go down,” says Professor Hayes, referring to this concept as a virtuous circle that could radically disrupt the insurance market while improving many lives.
Combining artificial with human intelligence
AI is also one of the driving forces behind voice recognition and control. The greater impact of AI and machine learning (ML) requires businesses to apply new techniques for smarter, less data-hungry, ethically responsible and more resilient AI solutions.
Why are we so attracted to these forms of technology? “I think part of what appeals to people in these contexts is familiarity, and part of it is the humanity of it,” says Professor Hayes. “We can anthropomorphise Siri and Alexa in part because we talk to them like we would to a human.”
But as many users can attest, the reality today is that voice-controlled interfaces, but also chatbots, don’t always offer a seamless experience. They can have difficulty understanding exactly what users want, resulting in a need to repeat or rephrase commands. Until such interaction becomes more reliable, some companies are turning to hybrid solutions that use both AI and human support. Clara Labs, for example, has developed Clara, a virtual assistant that helps to reduce people’s administrative loads by handling scheduling and setting up meetings. If Clara runs into difficulties, there is a human who will step in and address the issue.
Still much less widespread than conversational interaction with interfaces is interaction through the human sense of touch (not to be confused with touch-screen technology). Much of the haptic technology required for this is still in the developmental phase, but numerous important breakthroughs have already been made. Many of these are in the medical sector, for example in robot-assisted surgery.
In her lab, Professor Hayes is working on tangible interfaces for blind people that focus on interactions based on an augmented sense of touch. Instead of using a screen reader to describe a visual interface which makes technological interaction difficult for the blind, one of her projects in this area focuses on the development of a motorised virtual scroll bar. Among other things, this scroll bar gives different levels of resistance depending on the size of a document. “So, if it is a short document, [you feel] light resistance, and you can pull quickly down,” she explains. “Longer documents have more resistance so it feels like the scroll bar is bigger than it is.”
As the technology evolves, haptics will likely be applied for more commercial purposes as well. “Technology doesn’t just pop up, it is developed, gets used, and evolves into what it is, and in the end it’s the consumer who decides,” says Vallesi. One theory is that, with sufficient demand, haptics could in future allow mobile phones to deliver synthetic touch in a way that would allow online shoppers to feel the texture of an article of clothing or the weight of an object before making a purchase.
Communicating in a common language
One of the clearest common denominators of all these disruptive technologies and interfaces is that they are allowing people to communicate with their devices in a way that is more natural to them. And if they work properly, interfaces that have more human characteristics are also likely to inspire trust.
So are these developments simply the logical outcome of technological advances, or are they the result of people wanting their technology to be more human? According to Vallesi, these go hand in hand and cannot be separated, although he sees more human elements in technology as the general trend for the future. “We invented computers and for a long time communicated with them in their language; now we’re communicating with them in our language,” he says.