The Need To Humanize Technology (In Its True Sense)
If you look around the robotics industry, we want robots to even look like humans.
Just browse any industry magazine, and count how many times you come across these words: blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, social media, internet of things, etc. That should make it clear that technology and humans are becoming entangled like never before, and our reliance on it seems to be only on the rise. We use it to work, stay in touch, get the news, shop for groceries, travel, automate, impress our bosses, manage our finances… the list goes on. And on.
A friend recently asked me to advise him on his career growth. “What is the technology that I should learn to be relevant in the next few years?” he asked. My answer to him was: if you want to be relevant, forget about technology, and learn about humans. Learn about human needs, emotions, and behavior. Technology is just a means to enable the needs of human beings. Technologies will come and go; the topic of human needs will be constant.
The ironic part is that technology changes faster than the human needs it is supposed to serve. Interestingly, it is not that we want less from it. On the contrary, the human appetite for better, faster, cheaper technology –software and hardware– is voracious, and insatiable. More is more.
But these mechanical, automatic, arithmetical, and increasingly invasive technologies are leaving us feeling cold, controlled, confused, and, ironically, what was supposed to keep us connected is making us more disconnected. For decades, we have been building technology to make humans more effective, eliminating the need for our involvement in tasks ranging from remembering birthdays, to washing the dishes, to assembling cars. Sadly, we have reached a point where efficiency and automation are no longer enough. It has all become dehumanized.
By “inventing” technology, we have come to think of ourselves as these superheroes who can make anything automatic and technically advanced by using AI, chatbots, machine learning, blockchain, cloud, and everything else that come with it. We have been immersed so deep in technology that we don’t even realize how much it is affecting our daily lives, and how much it is changing our brains for worse by overtaking many of its functions. Just try forgetting your mobile phone somewhere for few hours, and you will understand what I am saying.
The availability of all this technology makes us more impatient, and crave convenience beyond our conventional needs. Whenever we interact on digital channels, consume information online, browse for products online to purchase or try new technology, we demand it to be more natural, or faster, else we move on. As a result, our attention span has gone lower than a goldfish- our brains are adapting and changing in the presence of technology.
TECHNOLOGY IS GROWING FASTER THAN HUMAN NEEDS AND COGNITION
With this great power of technology that we have, we also need to understand the responsibility it puts on us.
There is a clear need for making technology and digital interactions more human to help us do things faster and smarter. Our recent inventions have always been too fast for human needs, in terms of both their cognitive ability, and their ability to adapt.
As human beings, we have adapted to technology we created to help us. For instance, we have learned how to type- the keyboard and mouse are the most visible ways of how human beings interact with technology. At the same time, the interaction between humans and machine has reached a certain maturity, where humans now have to learn to communicate prompted by nature. Natural user interfaces are an example of how technology supports the human way of interaction nowadays. Technology has evolved enormously, but it seems to have lost the human aspect.
A few months back, I came across this news article where a Taiwanese dancer and choreographer, Huang Yi, was shown dancing a duet with a robot. As I watched that video, featuring the machine’s subtle, flowing movements, and the emotional connection Yi was trying to portray, I wondered if this was a depiction of an intimate love story, or just some freaky techno-art. Why are we striving so hard to enhance this symbiotic relationship between humans and technology?
There are many examples of how badly we want technology to behave like humans, to comprehend like humans, to make decisions like humans, to sound like humans, and if you look around the robotics industry, we want robots to even look like humans. Why do you think we still strive to have more and more technological innovations, but at the same time, we strive for it to be more human?
The answer is simple. We, as human beings, still strive for human experiences, connections, and that empathetic emotional touch. We always will. And that has made many in the industry to increasingly use the term “humanize” to describe this change from designing more personable chatbots, to ensuring AI tech doesn’t enslave the human race, and to even using sustainable means for electricity that powers these machines.
With all the power that we as evangelists of technology have, it is our responsibility that we do not outcast the human in this race to make everything technically advanced. Our topmost responsibility should be only about designing technology to be better for humans, and better at interacting with humans. It should be technology that works for humans- it shouldn't be humans to work on themselves to use it.
Here are three primary reasons why today’s technology needs to become more human:
To live up to the promise of being “convenient”
We have forgotten the real meaning of this word. Businesses often put the comfort of a few as the driver for using technology. Most of the times, it is for the convenience of the operations, systems, integration, and a handful of the consumers labeled as “the average user.” They tend to overlook the broader base of consumers that are affected by information and cognitive overload. They all want personalized, quick, and easy results that are relevant to them.
To be truly “simple”
Technology was always meant to be (and should be) focusing on reducing the complexity of our daily lives. But instead what we see is technology causing more complications in our lives. Advancing technology needs to become more human-oriented to help us to simplify, assess, and filter.
To advocate real “inclusion”
The speed at which technology is changing bears the risk of excluding less tech-savvy human beings from its usage. For example, people who don’t know how to operate search engines effectively, people with an inability to use so-called virtual assistants, people who don’t consider their phones as smarter than them, people with difficulty using complicated apps, etc. will always feel excluded. These new ways of operating are becoming more and more exclusive.
Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple are supposed to be known for their focus on useful and human-friendly technologies. The focus should be making it more inclusive, rather than making technology that is useful only for a handful of us. The concept of ethical design, ethical business practices, and ethical businesses are becoming more and more relevant today. Technology superheroes amongst us must do a better job of anticipating challenges before making decisions, by asking critical human-centered questions before introducing any product or service to humans. For instance, these can be:
• Will this technology result in overall good for all humans, and not just a handful of them?
• What could be some unintended consequences of this technology, positive and negative?
• What are the social, cultural, environmental, and ethical impacts of the technology?
• Will this technology augment human intellect, support it, disrupt it, or substitute for it?
• Can this technology be used negatively against users?
THE NEED FOR A CHIEF HUMAN OFFICER
In the early 2000s, once organizations understood that technology had a more significant role to play, and that information/data is critical to success, they started expanding the profile of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) by adding the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) title.
In recent years, as both technology and information emerged as digital drivers, and transformations became the need of the hour, we started seeing the rise of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role. In fact, the CDO became one of the most sought-after positions in the market.
But as we see how technology is now becoming overwhelming and overpowering for humans, and as we try to make it more and more human, technologists alone won’t be able to answer all these questions by themselves.
So, what leadership structures do we need to have in place to guide the future evolution of the technology, while controlling it for unintended impact on the human? Is there a need for a new superhero in the team? Will we see a new savior, a new superhero profile in a company?
Maybe it will be a Chief Human Officer: a superhero, whose sole role will be to keep a check on how the organization is advancing in adopting technology- and if it is human enough.
Related: AI: The New Engine Of HR
Amol Kadam is the co-founder of RBBi, the region’s first, specialized user experience (UX), user interface (UI) and digital performance marketing agency, operating in Dubai since 2011.
Coming from a strong creative & usability background spanning more than 16 years, Amol has conceptualized, designed and managed the production of several digital projects for a global range of clients from banking, hospitality, travel, real-estate and more. Amol’s areas of expertise include user experience, usability, online branding and strategy, information architecture, interaction design, online and offline interactive media, digital media. Among other strategic tasks within the agency, his role involves creating usability and UX road-map strategies for interaction media.
Amol is the holder of a master’s qualification in HCI. He is also a certified usability professional and a registered member of Usability Professionals Association Worldwide.