Mindful Tech: New Directions for Design
One of the most striking aspects of Amazon’s latest second-generation Echo and Google’s newly launched Home Mini is the softer, sensuous design. The Echo comes in a choice of dark and light wood and felt. The Home Mini is modelled after a doughnut and comes in soothing chalk, coral and charcoal.
Both reveal that future-facing designers are beginning to respond to consumer wariness of AI and the proliferation of personal tech. Critical attention to materiality and sensorial touchpoints mitigates some of this anxiety; an anxiety that reaches back into the history of 20th century computing.
Julian Huxley, the British evolutionary biologist who coined the term ‘transhumanism’ in 1951, summarised it as humanity’s attempt to “arrive at fuller fruition”. Today, technology is vastly stretching our cognitive reaches. Researchers at the Elon Musk-backed Neuralink are purportedly developing a brain-computer interface, a so-called “neural lace.” Google’s Project Soli is a radar-based gesture tracking system that transforms the hand into an input device. These are transhumanist visions coming to life.
In an early scene in the film Ex Machina, Caleb, the unwitting participant in an elaborately orchestrated Turing Test, tells Ava’s creator Nathan that the machine should be hidden in the test. “The real test,” Nathan responds, “is to show you she’s a robot and see if you still feel as if she has consciousness.” We are being similarly tested today as Google and Amazon race to craft Assistant and Alexa into believable personalities and true AI. Google’s plan is for Assistant to eventually displace its programmers and become a personality that writes itself. Rather ominously, they have called this process The Transition.
The idea of Transition is at the heart of the concern around transhumanism. We fear that technology will leap across the gap between the human and artificial, becoming almost-human, human, or most worryingly, super-human. In parallel, we are also concerned that unchecked technological engineering of the self will eventually efface our humanity altogether.
Technology as Human
We fear AI and its devices when they appear, sound or feel human. Seem too abstract, such as the Facebook chatbots who spoke in their own language, and paranoia erupts. Seem too human, and we enter the “uncanny valley” where escalating lifelikeness elicits revulsion. It is why Amazon’s Alexa is programmed against seeming too human, bleeping out vulgarities as only machines would. Firefly, the prototype vehicle of self-driving company Waymo, was a cute, innocuous pod that could have been in a Pixar film, yet Waymo announced this June that it was going to replace the Fireflies with minivans. Unsurprisingly, at a time when newly released AAA survey results show 78% of Americans are reluctant to use self-driving cars, this announcement was met with disappointment.
The smart assistant category uses distinctive design principles to camouflage into the home interior and naturalise users to their (omni)presence. The cylindrical and ovoid-like shapes of Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home, dominantly white or black, and typically in the matte metallic of meteorites and minerals, recall the grand spacecraft in the film Arrival or Constantin Brancusi’s enigmatic sculptures. Given the devices actually add noise, not silence, their zen-like cosmological design is incredibly shrewd. It renders these AI assistants simultaneously benign and inert. So inert, it is likely that most Amazon Echo users are unaware that it is also a listening device recording interactions to send back to Amazon.
Human as Technology
New personal technologies such as VR headsets, smartphones and self-tracking devices engage intimately with human experiences. We need to face up to design challenges when these innovations augment the human, making the human experience appear, sound or feel ‘less than human.’ To the extent that these new devices assume a degree of control over us, it is critical to demand sensitivity from the interface design to encourage people to invite these devices into their world, and not consider them unwanted invasions.
The cold, stark asymmetrical design of Google Glass gave its wearer a discomfiting nerd-cyborg appearance and compounded the media storm around the ethical function of the device. In the design of the interface Google communicated the idea that their AR technology was a radical departure from our assumed natural, evolved powers of human perception. This exposed the trauma of The Transition, instead of nurturing its emergence into the category. Conversely Snapchat Spectacles, far less capable but in principle equally intrusive, sidestepped the issue of surveillance and was quickly coveted with its quirky designer shades guise.
In VR, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive deploy angular, hard design language alluding to motor-pilot or space travel aesthetics. Such language draws heavily from the console and entertainment category. In contrast, Google Daydream’s fabric in muted gender-neutral colours cues pleasure, not intensity; leisure, not competition. This emerging design language in VR largely reflects the emerging normalisation of the technology.
The acceleration of AI innovation and the omnipresence of personal technologies has exposed the urgent call for designers to adopt human-first, culturally-nuanced and empathetic thinking into their practice.
Mindful design means cueing familiarity and empowerment in new and initially foreign devices as they are introduced into the human world. This imperative is acute when consumer anxiety continues to linger around relatively mature categories—consider the fact that smartphones are still blamed as the cause of a Gen Z mental health crisis.
Design should prove technology’s role as an ancient tool intrinsic to our human evolution and welfare, not as its threat. Nendo founder Oki Sato stated that when he designs things that use technology, he thinks of whether his grandmother can use it without getting scared by its appearance. Google Daydream’s soft materiality and muted fabrics impute an organic quality that suggests vulnerability at the heart of AI design. Pointedly, by featuring only children in the promotional video for WorldSense, Google’s VR tracking technology, Daydream’s affirmative role in our lives is confirmed.
The ‘othering’ of technology in an ‘us versus them’ battle is misjudged; whether technology was made to relieve us from our more menial tasks or help us attain the superhuman, technology and humanity are deeply entwined. Designers have the power to shape the nature of that relationship for the better.
– Rachel Ng