The Final Frontier for Interface: Man + Machine

In 1997, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue overwhelmed Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in game 6 of their famous man vs. machine battle. What happened next was equally remarkable. Rather than slump into existential despair, Kasparov – impressed by his opponent’s limitless move knowledge instigated the ‘Advanced Chess’ tournaments, also dubbed ‘Centaur’ because of their hybrid nature: computers brought the brute horsepower of foreseeing 1,000s of moves but, crucially, humans made the final intuitive choices. This sage man/machine combination proved irresistible.

In tech conferences 20 years later, this story resonates strongly. Our relationship with technology is maturing beyond adversarial ‘man vs. machine’ concepts – with closer integration across many fields. From the ‘Sharing Economy’ and ‘Internet of Things’ to Augmented Reality, AI and even biometrics, we are moving from finding a role for technology in a human world towards finding a human role in a world of technology.

Intel’s chief anthropologist, Dr Genevieve Bell, says technology’s role is “to keep us in flow”. This is supported by the interface of tech growing ever closer to our person: from mobiles to wearables, biometrics and even physical augmentation. In many ways, ‘humanity’ is the final frontier for interface; it is as much about putting tech on – and into – our bodies as it is about giving technology a more human touch.

We see this in Uber, the best day-to-day example of tech keeping us in flow. While there are tensions around ‘taking cabbies’ jobs’, Uber’s success speaks volumes. As per behavioural economics, people gravitate towards ease. While Malcolm Gladwell asked at SXSW 2015: “Is technological disintermediation killing the personal touch?”, Uber is already challenging this by ingeniously linking into your Spotify account to accompany your ride.

This, however, only hints at the personalised contextual potential of the Internet of Things. IOT is likely to make the personalised marketing vision of films such as Minority Report a reality with startling speed. The key, of course, will be making this personal and valuable – human.

IOT has an issue with its name; it feels like an obsession with connected ‘stuff’. The ‘Internet of You’ (coined by Jawbone’s CEO at CES 2015) is a more valuable vision; over time, wearables will become intrinsic, as controllers/sensors – again, the interface gets closer to home. On this note, I think players such as Google are making smart plays in terms of connecting valuable eco-systems – our homes, cars… our personal value hubs.

We then see the interface move closer still, moving towards a kind of ‘Metaverse’ – a reality with no discernible difference between on- and offline. In this context, we will see increased biometrics where our bodies become our controllers, currency and passport to everywhere. We can already see this with gesture-based controllers like Myo, whose founder thinks we’re maybe 5-10 years from powering them by body heat/kinetic energy – freeing us from being power-hungry ‘wall huggers’.

We can see this melding of man, machine and metaverse in every sphere: Augmented Reality (AR) with Microsoft’s HoloLens, and AI with its Siri-esque assistant, Cortana. This year, United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt spoke of the ultimate interface of man and machine as creating ‘Mind Clones’ of ourselves online. Her experiments with this include creating BINA48, a virtual clone of her girlfriend.

Far from being the nadir of mankind if we cross the final frontier of interface – genuinely melding man and machine, physically and mentally – this could be transformative. What started with a chess game could become the next giant leap for mankind – as Kasparov reflected in 1997: “We’re all playing ‘Advanced Chess’ these days, we just haven’t learned to appreciate it.”