Bull Session

Smartware: A Tribute to Dead Machines

September 14, 2017          

Episode Summary

On the podcast this week, we begin a multi-episode discussion about the evolution of software and the future of computing, looking at how a handful of advances — such as AI, the IoT, 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.

We’ll start our discussion with “a tribute to dead machines”. Technology and humanity are inseparable: It’s present in every facet of our civilization. We’ll take a look at the history of technology from the era of big machines to personal computing to mobile. And, we’ll discuss some early examples of Smartware including self-driving cars like Tesla’s automobiles and the AI-driven voice user interface of Amazon’s Echo.

Amazon Echo

Welcome to episode 224 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 cohost Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings listeners!

On the podcast this week we’re going to start a 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 smart ware. Smart ware are computing systems that require a 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 smart ware in partnership with our friends at respected user experience publication UXmatters. That series is going to be starting later this month with the issue that comes out on September 25th. So let’s start our smart ware discussion with what we’re calling a tribute to dead machines. So we’re calling this a tribute to dead machines because we’re fully expecting that machines that are smart are going to feel like they’re alive.

Feel like is the emphasis people for quite some time, yes.

So we know that technology and humanity are inseparable. Not only is technology present in every facet of civilization, it even predates it, isn’t that right Dirk?

Yeah, that’s right. Maybe just to take a brief detour into the history of technology sort of to frame where we are with smart ware. The earliest evidence of Homo sapiens of our species is 300,000 years old at this point. It was 200,000 for a long time. Just recently now they discovered remains dating to 300,000 and with those remains was technology. The earliest evidences of technology as used by humans actually goes back a million years. So it is likely that technology preceded Homo sapiens, preceded our very species.

Technology has … even if it had preceded our species, technology has certainly been one of the qualities that most marks humanity and who and what we are. There’s been multiple epochs over history where different things were happening in technology, but what we’re going to be talking about is basically the things that been happening since 1950 give or take. So the technologies that were coming to a head during World War II which included early computing technologies, which included nuclear and certainly the weaponization and the power usage of nuclear technologies among many others led to this explosion in science and technology in the 1950s up to the present. Core among them the technology of computing.

Right. So I think there are just very broadly three big eras of computing that we want to touch on today. Starting with what we might term the era of big machines. So really up until the ‘70s a computer was a room. It wasn’t something on your desktop and it wasn’t something in your pocket certainly. It was a giant room that only had sort of limited access to the folks that were lucky enough to be able to use it. I think those early days of computing really shapes the way people thought about them for a good long time.

So computing was expensive. It was limited access. It was something that required science or some type of advanced degree to use. So you can see those themes really shaped the way computing comes into our culture. So it’s this something. I won’t call it a leap but it’s cordoned off. It is not the consumer or the everyday usage that we see now. Dirk, your thoughts on the era of big machines.

It’s really an era of grotesque … the machines in their size and their scale and their difficulty to use were really grotesque things. They lived just in universities and businesses. They didn’t exist like a candy bar. They didn’t exist like a bottle of water or something that you have and you use in the way that you need and the way you see fit. It existed more like a lake where you would come to the lake and try and get something from the lake. It was this huge thing, this huge mass as opposed to something that was personal. Certainly, only again living in businesses and in research institutions for the most part.

So all very important things happening, but certainly not on the level of everyday people using computing technology. That was to come in the ‘70s which I’m proud to say is really my era or our era, the Gen X’ers who took computing from the … or experienced computing coming from the large machine era to the desktop which really was the realization of the dreams of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple. Really enabling a computer to be on every desktop, even if the early models didn’t do all that much and once again were expensive and probably required an advanced degree to use them.

Now, I look back on my collection of floppy disks and all of the tricks that I learned for the terminal on my PC and it’s fun nostalgia, but I’ll tell you from a user experience standpoint, that era of computing was pretty fraught and difficult, although I must say it really hooked me as well. So you got those two poles, the lousy user experience coupled with this complete and utter fascination with this computing technology that was now in my home. Dirk, did you have a similar experience like that?

Yeah. I’d like to go be little bit different. The boomers created the PCs. We enjoyed the PCs. This PC era was an evolutionary one. So certainly in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was limited value. Certainly as a child, I spent a lot of time playing games on the computer but they are games that by today’s standards will be pretty ridiculous. Something like Ultima III or Wizardry or something like that in comparison to the games of today they seem … it’s hard to believe somebody could spend hours and days playing those games, but indeed I did. So it was very limited games and very narrow niche applications. Certainly Desktop Publishing, the creation of things like newsletters and banners and that kind of thing had an impact. Certainly used in accounting from very early days. There was a meaningful impact there as well as other places, but over time, that impact really grew.

So as the ‘90s came and particularly with the rise of the Internet, the utility of the personal computer just exploded. Now despite that explosion, the personal computer still was like … it was still this thing that for most people sat in a corner or in a room that wasn’t frequently used and people would go to special case use their personal computer and then get up and stop using it again. So it was ugly. It was mainstream in a sense that many people had it, but not mainstream in the sense that there were a lot of people who would have listed computer use as one of their core hobbies or things that were most central to their life.

So the things you could do on computers, the capability of computers, the access to information but also the bidirectional sending of electronic communications through the Internet, these are all things along with … always improving user interfaces particularly once we got into the mid-90s with the formalization of the field of user experience and beyond. Personal computers were continuing to get better, but they also continue to either sit on your desk at work or in a corner of your house as opposed to be core to your experience of living.

One thing that really struck me at the late ‘90s early 2000s was the evolution sort of spearheaded by Apple of computers from beige boxes into things that you might actually want in your house. So for the ‘70s and the ‘80s and a good chunk of the ‘90s, we lived with beige boxes which came to epitomize computing for me for obvious reasons, and of course, in the computer labs I suppose you’d have your ex terminals which were just more different kinds of beige boxes really but with even worse screens that glowed green or orange depending on what monitor you are lucky enough to have.

There was this evolution of computers from being this machine into a more personal object. We aren’t fully there in terms of integrating the computer into lifestyle yet, but at least you begin to see this aesthetic uptick, this appreciation for the fact that this thing is going to be in my house or in my school or in my business. It should at least looks like something as opposed to a beige Lego brick. That was perhaps a sort of underappreciated change I think and I didn’t really understand the significance of a well-designed industrial design computer, but that would start to become more evident as we went into this next era which of course we’re still living in right now which is the mobile era of computing. Dirk, do you want to do a little summary of the evolution of mobile?

Sure. The pervious area, the PC era as well as the mobile era are two different periods that really were enabled by one company which is Apple. Apple with the PCs took it to be more mainstream, took it to be more something that people have in their house and as a part of their family not in the sense of a being but in the sense of belonging and having a use, a service to the average person. Then now in the mobile era, in what’s been kicked off in the late aughts and is continuing now today it was Apple’s iPhone that created the explosion in mobile computing. The reality is devices like the iPhone existed for many years before. The Blackberry as a business tool had a fair amount of the functionality of an iPhone for a number of years.

There were other competitors or I guess before an iPhone there weren’t competitors but there were other smart phones that while perhaps not as nice as the iPhone, not as full featured as the iPhone were clearly down the path of it but it was the iPhone and the specific design of that device that created the explosion of mobile computing, which took computing and made it something that was an integrative part of the lifestyle of most people of middle class and above certainly, but even people who are less affluent throughout the first world and even beyond, and took computing from something that was a big box of sat in the den with something that was more task based to something that is woven into our lifestyles.

In many ways is replacing analog things that came before it and really has shifted computing into being something that is almost a direct extension of ourselves as we go through our life normally as opposed to this thing that we use just on a task basis before we go back to our normal lives.

I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. The iPhone was really the Trojan horse for getting everyday computing into the hands of people who might otherwise not have been interested in a compute platform that they carry around with them. Notice, it’s the iPhone not the I mobile computer. The phone is probably one of the least … not least exciting but least noticeable perhaps feature of your iPhone. It can do a million other things from browsing online to playing games to hailing a ride in an instant. I’m sure people do use their iPhones to talk on them regularly. I know I do but there is a generation that doesn’t even use that feature all that much. They’d rather text.

So the iPhone is really just … and smart phones in general are just a sneaky way of getting everybody to carry around computers in their pockets which if you told me that in the ‘80s people would be carrying around … everyone, everyone would be carrying a computer in their pocket, I never would’ve believed you but here we are. So we can see how the computer became personal, became beautiful, became part of our everyday lives over these three different eras of computing.

Now there’s this scent in the air, this change which we’re calling smart ware which is of the computer becoming a more integrated companion with people. So we can begin to see this trend emerge in some examples of computing that we sort of take for granted today but are really the precursors, the beginnings of what we’d like to call smart ware. So one of those things that’s just coming online now are the self-driving cars like the Tesla automobile as one of the first commercially available self-driving cars. This realization of sort of a much smarter physical digital platform isn’t entirely successful, is it Dirk?

No, it’s not. We’ve talked about this on the show before. The Tesla self-driving car requires you to have your hands on the wheel and put your foot on the brake which is what I do when I drive normally so why the hell do I need a self-driving car? Can I drive drunk and not get a ticket? I don’t think so. It’s not doing much for me. The Tesla is a good example of rudimentary smart ware where early instantiations of technology such as in the case of self-driving vehicles, machine learning in particular, are going to create products that do things that would seem like science fiction even in the pretty recent past. It’s also a good sign of how the technology is just not there at all.

Going back to mobile and why the iPhone was such a revolutionary device is that it combines so many things into one. That’s what brought the masses is it was your new phone and it was your new camera and it was your new music playing device. It was your new GPS navigational system. It just killed all of these other categories. It killed all of these other use cases and that’s what made it so remarkable. We’re in this era now and I think you have some other examples.

We’re in this era now of smart ware where the products that are coming out are not transformational in the same way. They’re clunky, they’re clumsy and they certainly aren’t taking advantage of the full panoply of opportunities that smart ware have to offer. Their oftentimes very narrowly in … particularly IoT or machine learning and not leveraging all of these things that are coming to a head together.

I think another good example of a smart ware platform that is only starting to be realized is Amazon’s Echo with of course the voice user interface that allows you to do everything from order goods from Amazon to play your music to turn on and off your lights etc. Certainly there have been lots of well documented cases of Amazon Echo not really living up to what people would expect when you request something of the VUI. So I myself have an Echo and I can tell you that most the time I find it pretty useful, but there are plenty of cases where it becomes frustrating.

As a person with sort of a high technology frustration tolerance, if I’m getting frustrated with it, I can only imagine what folks who might not be nearly as tolerant are feeling. So the Echo once again provides ostensibly sort of this next generation smart ware platform which uses a combination of voice recognition and other services to create something that should be magical and instead sometimes ends up sort of flat on its face.

Yeah, I’ve unplugged mine. It’s a novelty. Next!

So you can see in those two examples just sort of blips on the radar in terms of where hardware and software are evolving to. Of course, this being the very beginning of our discussion on this we’re going to continue our discussion in the next episode where we’re going to dig a little bit more into the different technologies that are feeding into smart ware. We hope you’ve enjoyed our tribute to dead machines. Listeners, 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 the digitallife.com. That’s just one L in the digital life 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, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. 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. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at 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 224 of the Digital Life for Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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