6 ways the relationship humans have with technology is changing

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Digital Man

Look, we all know the way we interact with technology is changing. Take smartphones for instance. Buttons gave way to touchscreens, which were then supplemented by voice guidance and NFC. Except it’s not quite that simple. As the BlackBerry Q10 shows, some people still think there’s a place for physical keyboards on top of the range smartphones. And few would attempt to control their phones by voice alone.

And it’s that lack of linearity which tech research company Gartner is attempting to highlight in its 2013 Hype Cycle Report. The company has used the branded graph since 1995 to represent the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies. The Hype Cycle Special Report is updated annually to track technologies along this cycle and provide guidance on when and where organisations should adopt them for maximum impact and value.

Hype cycle 2013

This year, Gartner says the overriding theme exposed by the cycle is the evolving relationship between humans and machines. It reckons there’s increased hype around smart machines, cognitive computing and the Internet of Things. Its Analysts believe that the relationship is being redefined through emerging technologies, narrowing the divide between humans and machines.

It cautions however, that we shouldn’t think of this evolving relationship purely in terms of machines taking over functions currently served by humans. “In fact, by observing how emerging technologies are being used by early adopters, there are actually three main trends at work,” says Jackie Fenn, vice president and Gartner fellow. “These are augmenting humans with technology — for example, an employee with a wearable computing device; machines replacing humans — for example, a cognitive virtual assistant acting as an automated customer representative; and humans and machines working alongside each other — for example, a mobile robot working with a warehouse employee to move many boxes.”

Those things can only happen however if another three trends, which make it easier for machines and humans to work together come to pass, namely: Machines better understanding humans and the environment, Humans better understanding machines, and machines and humans becoming smarter.

By laying out and explaining these trends further, it is possible to see how they can co-exist and, indeed, how many of them depend on the others to function properly.

1. Augmenting humans with technology
Technologies make it possible to augment human performance in physical, emotional and cognitive areas. The main benefit for any business in augmenting humans with technology is to create a more capable workforce. For example, consider if all employees had access to wearable technology that could answer any product or service question or pull up any enterprise data at will. The ability to improve productivity, sell better or serve customer better will increase significantly. Anyone interested in these technologies should look to areas such as bioacoustic sensing, quantified self, 3D bioprinting, brain-computer interface, human augmentation, speech-to-speech translation, neurobusiness, wearable user interfaces such as smartwatches and Google Glass, augmented reality and gesture control.

2. Machines replacing humans
There are clear opportunities for machines to replace humans: dangerous work, simpler yet expensive-to-perform tasks and repetitive tasks. The main benefit to having machines replace humans is improved productivity, less danger to humans and sometimes better quality work or responses. For example, a highly capable virtual customer service agent could field the many straightforward questions from customers and replace much of the customer service agents’ “volume” work — with the most up-to-date information. Some of the emerging technologies related to this trend include holographic displays, autonomous vehicles, mobile robots and virtual assistants.

3. Humans and machines working alongside each other
Humans versus machines is not a binary decision, there are times when machines working alongside humans is a better choice. A new generation of robots is being built to work alongside humans. IBM’s Watson does background research for doctors, just like a research assistant, to ensure they account for all the latest clinical, research and other information when making diagnoses or suggesting treatments. The main benefits of having machines working alongside humans are the ability to access the best of both worlds (that is, productivity and speed from machines, emotional intelligence and the ability to handle the unknown from humans). Technologies that represent and support this trend include autonomous vehicles, mobile robots, natural language question and answering, and virtual assistants such as Siri and Google Now.

4. Machines better understanding humans and the environment
Machines and systems can only benefit from a better understanding of human context, humans and human emotion. This understanding leads to simple context-aware interactions, such as displaying an operational report for the location closest to the user; to better understanding customers, such as gauging consumer sentiment for a new product line by analyzing Facebook postings; to complex conversations with customers, such as virtual assistants using natural language question and answering to interact on customer inquiries. The technologies on this year’s Hype Cycle that represent these capabilities include bioacoustic sensing, smart dust, quantified self, brain computer interface, affective computing, biochips, 3D scanners, natural-language question and answering (NLQA), content analytics, mobile health monitoring, gesture control, activity streams, biometric authentication methods, location intelligence and speech recognition.

5. Humans better understanding machines
As machines get smarter and start automating more human tasks, humans will need to trust the machines and feel safe. The technologies that make up the Internet of things will provide increased visibility into how machines are operating and the environmental situation they are operating in. For example, IBM’s Watson provides “confidence” scores for the answers it provides to humans while Baxter shows a confused facial expression on its screen when it does not know what to do. MIT has also been working on Kismet, a robot that senses social cues from visual and auditory sensors, and responds with facial expressions that demonstrate understanding. These types of technology are very important in allowing humans and machines to work together. The 2013 Hype Cycle features Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communication services, mesh networks: sensor and activity streams.

6. Machines and humans becoming smarter
The surge in big data, analytics and cognitive computing approaches will provide decision support and automation to humans, and awareness and intelligence to machines. These technologies can be used to make both humans and things smarter. NLQA technology can improve a virtual customer service representative. NLQA can also be used by doctors to research huge amounts of medical journals and clinical tests to help diagnose an ailment or choose a suitable treatment plan. These supporting technologies are foundational for both humans and machines as we move forward to a digital future and enterprises should consider quantum computing, prescriptive analytics, neurobusiness, NLQA, big data, complex event processing, in-memory database management system (DBMS), cloud computing, in-memory analytics and predictive analytics.

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