Welcome to episode 225 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to continue with part two of our multi-episode discussion about the evolution of software and the future of computing, looking at how a handful of advances, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, neuroscience, and additive fabrication, will come together to transform software and hardware into something new, which we’re calling smartware. Smartware are computing systems that require little active user input, integrate the digital and physical worlds, and are continually learning on their own. In addition to our podcast discussion, we’re happy to announce a six part monthly series on smartware in partnership with our friends at respected and experienced publication UX Matters, which will be starting later this month with the September 25th issue. So today we’re continuing our discussion, this time about the smartware transformation, which is an overview of smartware and sort of the big picture of our thesis around the different technologies that are coming together.
So we’re contending that this evolution is enabled by four major advances in science and technology that are cresting all at the same time. Artificial intelligence, science including neuroscience and genomics, the Internet of Things, and additive fabrication, 3D printing, creating sort of physical from digital. You might also want to include virtual reality as part of that, which is of course the digital overlay on physical, or augmented reality.
I think about these things as hardware that compress time, space, and distance.
So let’s start off by talking about this new fascination and discovery that we’re having around artificial intelligent. It seems, Dirk, that artificial intelligence is really having a big moment right now, wouldn’t you say?
It is. And over the years, since artificial intelligence as a field first began at a retreat of academics in the early 1950s, artificial intelligence has had many moments in the sun. And there’s a cycle where there’s some kind of advance or something interesting happens out of the artificial intelligence community, the media galvanizes around it, has all kinds of giant wild predictions about artificial life and science fiction stuff. The world gets excited, people throw money at it, nothing really comes of it, and it kind of fades away again. So there being a hype machine around artificial intelligence is nothing new to this moment. It’s just the most recent of the hype machines. Now, this time I would say the hype is more deserved than some of the past instances.
Machine learning specifically as an approach to artificial intelligence, which is not new, it’s just for a long time was not the prevailing theory. It was not the theory that experts in AI for the most part, other than the people who are proponents of it, thought would be the correct sort of winning theory on AI. But certainly at the moment, for the problems that it’s solving today, machine learning has made some tremendous advances and gains.
And the result of which are things such as artificial intelligence now being able to, for example, beat humans in the most complicated of strategy games. First chess, which precedes this time period, it goes back to the 1990s. But more recently Go, which was thought of as the game that AI could never defeat, given the number of permutations and the complexity in that game. But even more recently now, AI is defeating professional humans in poker, which once Go was achieved, no no, poker’s the real test, because of the aspects of bluffing and betting and the different complexities that go there. But AI has crushed that as well. And there are other examples of machine learning successes, certainly, but in ways that the public can sort of understand and identify with, AI machine learning conquering humans in the hardest strategy games is one of the easiest to wrap your head around.
Yeah, and it seems like every other headline I read in the tech press has AI or machine learning in it. Now that’s an exaggeration of course.
It really feels like a lot of money, a lot of attention, and a lot of smart minds are being put on artificial intelligence. So the second set of technologies that we’re interested in for our thesis on smartware, all the sciences that really help us understand humanity so much better, in a very personal way in some instances. So we’re calling out neuroscience and genomics as being significant in the march to smartware. Dirk, why are neuroscience and genomics so important?
They really get to the issue of understanding us, of solving the complexity of the human element, which has been, at best, voodoo in decades past. What you frequently hear, and every day this remains true, but for a new time horizon, is over the last decade, the field of neuroscience has learned and achieved more than in all previous human history. Same goes for genomics. The speed at which these sciences, these ways of understanding the human animal are advancing are exhilarating, and they are allowing us to take things that before were guesses, that before were qualitative in nature, around psychological research, sociological research, it’s just two narrow examples of many, and make them science and how we think of science, with science as fact, science as this hard quantitative thing. Neuroscience from the standpoint of behavior, and genomics from the standpoint of the very fabric of, genetically, who and what we are. And the advances are of a type that not only are giving us relevant, useful, immediately applicable insights, they are also very transferrable into industry. They are also things that companies can galvanize their product development around and offer solutions that start to have the potential of like the iPhone, of really addressing core use cases to the human condition that make them essential for us to invest in and make a part of our lives.
Now, unfortunately, thus far, industry has not been very successful in leveraging these things, even though it is leverageable, even though some companies have tried. The best successes have been in healthcare, things like, we worked for a customer for example that will take your unique genome and match it up with clinical trials that are custom designed for your specific genomic characteristics. That’s some of the more interesting stuff, but looking from our last episode, the history of dead machines, that is still more on the business education side of things than the consumer everyday use. It’s wonderful, it’s awesome, it speaks to the potential of this stuff, but it still is very niche. So the future of how these sciences are going to start to be a rocket booster for where smartware is going, we haven’t even really scratched the surface.
So the third technology, or set of technologies that we want to highlight around smartware is the Internet of Things, which is certainly no stranger to the hype cycle as well as the aforementioned artificial intelligence. In the case of the Internet of Things, there are so many opportunities to connect systems, to connect environments, to monitoring or software optimization, that it’s really hard to understate how impactful the IoT could be in terms of making our world really a sensor-driven one that is both digital and physical. So we’ve talked on the show about smart cities or smart agriculture, or smart industry. All of this is sort of at its beginning stages, and on the consumer side of course, we’ve bitched and moaned about our not so smart products in our not so smart homes. But suffice it to say, the Internet of Things, the potential there comes largely from just sort of this massive sensor deployment, which makes the digital aspects have tendrils into our physical world. And myself as a reader of much too much science fiction, that immediately makes me a little bit worried. But we’ll revisit that worry in another episode, I think. Dirk, what are your thoughts on the burgeoning ubiquitous sensor computing that is the Internet of Things?
Yeah, burgeoning is a good word, because it’s not totally there yet. I mean, in consumer application, it’s generally things like the Fitbit, it’s things that … I don’t know what the right word is, toy is not fair. But when I used a device similar to the Fitbit some time ago, it was useful for a period of time while I learned about behavior. So it was a pedometer, it counted steps, and it was a useful device while I was figuring out what is 10,000 steps in a day, what is 20,000 or 5,000. And after a while of getting that data from the device, I had it internalized. I knew about how many steps I had each day. And the precision of how many steps I walked really didn’t matter, even though the device ballyhooed that it could have that sort of to the step precision.
And so a lot of consumer Internet of Things are still in that sort of class of lightly educational, but not crucial to be integrated into our lives. There’s obviously things around healthcare, again, that go beyond that, that are essential to, potentially, people’s life and death, as they use the devices to monitor themselves in a myriad of ways. And certainly in business application. Now businesses are all sensored up and are using those sensors to help maximize their profits. So the Internet of Things is very alive and very present, but the best of it isn’t happening yet.
You know our colleague, Juhan, had the concept of the health room some years ago. And there’s nothing even remotely like it yet. And the health room, for our listeners who haven’t read about it, the health room is the notion of turning your bathroom into a sensor-infused environment, so that as you naturally go through your use of the bathroom, it is gathering data and using that data to diagnose for diseases or to monitor your health in some way that is already being monitored by the doctor, or it’s just identifying, flagging things that you or a healthcare professional should be aware of, just through your walking through the room and gathering your weight, through your urine, through the hair that goes into the shower, as just a few examples of how the entire bathroom is converted into a health room, into the diagnostic center of your wellbeing. That’s where smartware and the Internet of Things will have their most profound impact, but we’re just nowhere near realizing those things at this moment in time.
So the next set of technologies, and final group that we’ll talk about today in the context of smartware, is what you call, Dirk, technologies that compress time and space. Really, when I think about technologies like 3D printing and the rapid advancements that are happening there, it really does, it makes me excited. Perhaps not for the reality of it, which is still developing, but for the promise of it, which says that hey, when I have a broken part on my snowblower, I can just print that part in the middle of the Nor’easter and not have a problem because I can just replace it instantaneously after I purchase the part CAD description from the snowblower maker, or I can print a present for my son because I know he really wanted that hard to find toy that you can’t get at any retail outlet near the holidays. Or potentially, you can print something that goes into your body, right? Whether it’s as simple as a mouth guard or something more complex like a sophisticated bandage or splint. So I think it’s right, this sort of blanket term that you used, that this does compress time and space, but it almost feels to me like that, I don’t know if you remember Star Trek, The Next Generation, where they just ask the computer to generate objects or food or whatever.
The replicator, that’s it. It feels like the replicator to me. I don’t know if you have that fanboy reaction to it, Dirk.
Well again, it has the promise of the replicator, but it isn’t there yet, right? The technology to do the snowblower part you were talking about is totally there. That is there. But the market hasn’t caught up. And it’s questionable whether the snowblower company even wants to support that. Because right now, they can sell you the part at a ridiculous price. Buying replacement parts for products that we’ve already bought, that are appliances, snowblowers, these kinds of things, the price is through the roof. I mean, almost always … In my experience, and looking at specific things I’ve dealt with recently, most recently a dishwasher with a broken part, which I had to deal with this week, it makes more sense to buy an entire new dishwasher than to buy a replacement part and to have it installed. Just from a dollars and cents perspective, which is absolutely insane.
And buried in that process, are margins for the dishwasher company or the snowblower company that they don’t want to lose. And so it’s untested and unclear whether a consumer would be happy to pay $100 for the snowblower part that comes out of their little printer, and it’s this tiny little thing, or not. Whereas now, with the excuses of, oh, we have to manufacture it over in China, and there’s all of these processes, we have to use these giant machines and we have to get it to you. They can sort of get away with the larceny. Because they’re able to. But if you’re the one who goes to those parts, and if you’re not discounting it and making it seem reasonable, like yeah, $20 feels about right for the license, essentially, to do this part, where I’m paying for all the hardware and all the work. So there’s a lot of unproven business model stuff. But the technology’s already there.
When I talk about sort of compressing time and space with these hardware technologies, it’s a weird group of them that we’re sort of bringing together here, Jon. But with the additive fabrication, it’s really compressing space and time because it’s kneecapping the supply chain. You’re going from this huge process of overseas manufacturing, all kinds of different sales, middlemen processes, to direct to the consumer. And that’s massively disruptive. It’s not being realized yet, but talk about compressing time and space. You go from this massive, global pursuit, to what is, even though it’s geographically dispersed, what is basically a one to one personal pursuit. Like, you could literally have the dude or dudette who designed the snowblower be the one who you’re interacting with when you get the replacement part, in this newfangled world that doesn’t require massive manufacturing and all of this other stuff. There’s questions about capitalism, you have to fit into it as well, long term viability of that system. But the compression of time and space is incredible, it’s incredible.
And another of the technologies, the sort of hardware that we’re grouping in here, virtual reality, that’s doing the same thing. Virtual reality right now, again, it’s a novelty. There are some things being done with virtual reality, they’re super cool, super fun. But you know, you do them a few times and you’ve got it. It’s neat from being different and beyond what otherwise is available in the world today, but it’s not sustaining, it’s not something that’ll really change our lives. That technology, at some point, does have the potential to change our lives as we no longer need to leave our home to shop for a car, leave our home to shop for the dishwasher that we have to buy because the replacement parts are so expensive, among many other use cases.
But there’s just this interesting mix, additive fabrication and virtual reality and other things that are just crushing space and time, just absolutely pulling them out of the process and making things very direct, very immediate, very personal, very one to one. And when those things are maximized, from the standpoint of human experience, from the standpoint of doing good for humanity, which sounds Pollyanna as hell but I’m just gonna go with it, ’cause I’ve got the mic. That’s gonna be awesome. That’s gonna really change the world in ways that are lovely and sustaining. But again, we’re just not there yet. We’re just not there yet. It is still the dawn of smartware, it’s far from the golden age.
Well, listeners, hope you’ve enjoyed this overview of the technologies that we think are gonna contribute to the evolution of smartware. Next week we’re gonna dig into the ways in which smartware will manifest in design and functionality of future computing. Remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife, that’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, player.fm and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can go check out and goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for episode 225 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.