April 2, 2008

Humans and Computers to Merge by 2020

A new Microsoft-drawn report from the discussions of 45 academics from the fields of science, computing, psychology and sociology predicts sweeping changes in the field of so-called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

The report says that by 2020, humans will increasingly interrogate machines, and in turn computers will be able to anticipate our demands, requiring new rules for the human-machine relationship. In fact, the report predicts that the terms "Ëœuser' and "Ëœinterface' will become altogether obsolete as computers and humans merge more closely together.

The report, entitled "Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020," examines how the development of technologies over the coming decade can better exhibit human values.

"It is about how we anticipate the uses of technology rather than being reactive. Currently the human is not considered part of the process," said Bill Buxton, from Microsoft Research, during a BBC News interview.

At the report's unveiling, some of its authors displayed the types of technologies that could bring the human more into the fold. For example, Professor Bill Gaver and his team at Goldsmiths College developed something called a 'Drift table,' a piece of furniture that allows people to view aerial photography. Containing no buttons, the table's small display moves as pressure is exerted on it.

"It isn't really designed for anything," explained Prof Gaver.

"People can use it for entertainment or learning. One of the people that was given the table used it to check out houses in Southampton following a piece on the news about house prices going up in the area.

Someone else used it to look at the towns they lived in as a child or to visit towns where friends lived," he told BBC News.

"From central London it would take a day to navigate the table to the coast," said Prof Gaver.

Other prototype technologies displayed by the report's authors include the Whereabouts Clock. The clock's interface was designed at Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge, and allows people to see their family members' locations at any given time.

Abigail Sellen, from Microsoft Research, explained that the categories of 'home', 'work' and 'school' are deliberately vague in order to maintain privacy. Microsoft is also working on other communications devices for the home, including Epigraph, an interface that allows people to post messages and pictures to each other via mobile handset devices.

According to the report, the keyboard, monitor and mouse will be replaced by more intuitive forms of displays and interaction, such as fingertip-operated surfaces, tablet computers and speech recognition systems, will replace the keyboard, monitor and mouse.

And in the coming decade, boundaries between humans and computers will become blurred as devices are embedded in our clothing, or objects, or even in our bodies, in the case of medical monitoring.

Digital paper will also allow us to create new types of content, for example, social network magazines with real-time updates.   

Digital storage of increasingly large parts of our lives, from CCTV footage to mobile phones, could be a reality by 2020.  In combination with an ever-present network that will send mass market information directly to us while disseminating our own intimate information, privacy issues will be a key priority within the HCI community as our "digital footprint" grows larger.

While generally upbeat, the report does suggest that this increasingly intimate human-computer relationship will be a double-edged sword, comparing what could happen as computers take on new responsibilities to the widespread introduction of the calculator, widely blamed for declining mental arithmetic standards.

"Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we - both individually and collectively - may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us," the authors warned in the report.

The authors further recommend an adaptation to the concept of teaching computer sciences, as well as the need for language to reflect the newly expanded human-computer environment.

"Not just teaching children about how computers and applications work, but about their wider impact," reads the report.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests calls for greater engagement with government and policy makers, and consideration for how technological developments will proceed in the developing world.

Gary Marsden from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, one of the report authors, demonstrated a prototype digital noticeboard dubbed Big Board. The display allows users to download information to their mobile phones about a range of topics including politics, health and even university lectures.

The display unit is currently in trials in community centers, clinics and educational establishments in South Africa, where mobile phone use is among the fastest growing anywhere in the world.


On the Net:

Microsoft Research

"Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020"

Goldsmiths College

Whereabouts Clock

University of Cape Town

Big Board Project