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The evolution of human to whatever Interfaces I

Human Machine interfaces have seen an expansion of technology support but have yet to move in the space of holistic interfacing. Image credit: Continental – Future of Motion, Holistic Human-Machine Interface

I was recently asked by a journalist working on a piece on the future of human-computer interfaces -HCI- to answer four questions:

  1. What other HCI technology is being developed, and by what companies?
  2. What form will it take and will the future of the human-computer interface be intrusive, or subtle?
  3. Can we really trust companies like Facebook and Google not to put the output of such an interface to ‘other’ uses?
  4. How will the interface between human and computer be protected and privacy be assured?

That got me thinking. I have been involved in HCI for many years now and more recently I participated in the writing of the second Symbiotic Autonomous Systems White Paper where we discussed the future of several technologies, one way or another playing a role in the evolution of human to system interfaces and I am involved in the Digital Reality Initiative of the FDC that in a way is about human-system interface.

Human machine interfaces have started to direct a machine to perform a given task, like using a key to operate an engine, flip a switch to start the air conditioning. As machines became more complex they required more variety of commands but at the same time they could also accept more powerful commands, mostly in textual form. The point I am making is that human machine interaction was designed, out of necessity, with the machine in

To have a meaningful interaction the machine has to have a context and a knowledge base. This has been recognised long time ago, this schematics is from 2006. It remains a challenge as of today but we are getting closer. Image credit: Heather Pon-Barry and Fuliang Wen

mind. It did not mirror the way humans interact with one another. This situation has not really changed in the last fifty years, but it is starting to change now thanks to software and artificial intelligence. Voice recognition has made impressive progress in the last few years so much, in fact, that some companies have turned to voice interaction. I have now to talk to my television and to my car. The problem is that I got so used to type (with my remote or a selection knob in the BMW) that I feel awkward talking to a machine. Also, and this is probably the source of uneasiness, I have to learn to talk to the television (and to the car). Basically these new voice interactions are a transposition in voice of written command. And we are not talking in the same way we write (at least in the languages I am familiar with). Besides, the interaction is more of a mimic of one of those robot talking in science fiction movies in the last century.

What is missing today, in spoken interaction, is the flexibility on the machine side, to understand a convoluted sentence and contextualise it to derive a meaning. This requires a higher level of intelligence as well as learning a bit of who we are and what we could be after.

Mind you, we already have the required technology, and there are several demonstrators of fluent human machine voice interaction, but this technology is not -yet- affordable for mass market use, eg in your television or car.

I have no doubt, however, that in the coming years voice interaction will displace keyboards, relegating them to technology museum.

Notice how youngsters are starting to use voice messages instead of written messages, because they are more convenient. I know, voice messaging has nothing to do, basically, with human-computer interaction, but the spreading of voice messages is fostering the adoption of voice interaction with machines. Voice messages are different from a face to face voice interaction. You are losing the “interaction” part and make do with a unidirectional stream of communications.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.