The death of the UI - Oh, the brain…
I can vividly remember the day I quit my job and told everyone I was setting up my own UX company. Whilst most were happy for me (or happy to see me leave, possibly), one person’s comments stuck with me ever since. This person asked why I was getting into UX when he was getting out, and he thought everyone else would soon be leaving too. When I asked him why that was, he answered that we knew everything there was to know about design rules now - everyone would simply follow those rules, and UX people wouldn’t be needed to help uncover those insights anymore.
That was in 1997.
The User Interface (or UI) did not, thankfully, stop evolving in the nineties. But evolution can sometimes lead to a dead-end; and news this week may possibly sound the death-knell of the UI we all know and experience every day. This week Elon Musk’s company Neuralink has announced a brain-computer interface, allowing a brain to directly control a computer. Zero UI required - at least from the software perspective.
This is not exactly ground-breaking news, it seems every year brings us closer to mind-controlled devices; but it did make me think we need to have a conversation about where this is taking us.
First, a little more detail
Neuralink has built a brain-computer-interface (BCI) that can be inserted into a brain (reportedly at this stage mice and monkey brains) using around 3,000 electrodes connected to around 100 thin threads far finer than a human hair, leading to a control point inserted behind the ear. This is then connected via bluetooth to a controlling interface, for example in a mobile phone. There is potential for this to be in human trials within 1 to 2 years.
This is not by any stretch the only such interface being developed, and this extends other research using sensors and other devices that sit externally, for example in helmets or nets worn around the head. Where this does differ is in the granularity of control, with each of those 3,000 sensors reading finite batches of around 1,000 individual neurons.
The theory behind this is that with a fine level of reading happening directly within the brain, and being transmitted externally to a control medium, a person would be able to finely control external elements. Those elements might be designed to assist the person - for example controlling prosthetic limbs or a motorised wheelchair. Or they might be used to control a computer interface, or elements in our environment.
This could remove huge barriers
You only have to spend an hour or two with a person dealing with a debilitating condition or impairment in order to grasp how much harder their experience of life can be, and just how a technology such as this could improve their quality of life. Potentially a device like this could give movement back to those who are bedridden, allow those with spinal injuries to walk or run, give speech and communication back to those who can no longer speak or talk to their families.
Just this month there was news that people in vegetative states may actually be conscious, despite all external signs to the contrary. A BCI could help us understand if that person actually is conscious, and then allow us to communicate with them.
The list of ways a technology such as BCI can help is almost endless. Physical, cognitive and emotional impairments right across the board could be assisted and aided by the benefits of a BCI.
And of course it doesn’t stop there. Everyone who interacts with any form of technology knows the pain and frustration those interactions often bring. How many times have you tried to beat a piece of technology into submission, when it stubbornly refused to do what it was supposed to? How many times do you have to delete and re-type a text because of fat finger syndrome? How often have you forgotten your password or realised you don’t know how to tell a piece of software to do what you want?
BCI’s could easily read our intent or our meaning, bypass fat fingers and slow typing skills, translate our intent and deliver the result almost as fast as we think it. Being intimately connected to our brains they could bypass any need for password confirmation to confirm our identities. The world of Science Fiction is filled with worlds where humans seem to know all and be all-powerful, thanks to the BCI. All barriers could easily fall before this technology.
But new barriers may arise
But who gets one?
Right now, none of us. But in a few years, it may well be that a fortunate few get to lead the way. Assuming the core mechanism for a BCI follows the Neuralink approach, to be fitted with a BCI will mean an extremely delicate operation using potentially expensive components, probably at a very expensive location. Your health insurer is unlikely to assist.
In other words, there is a real risk that a technological divide will open up.
We already live in a world where the digital divide is rapidly increasing. Whilst the United Nations has included Broadband as a basic human right, the reality is that a fraction of the world’s population are chasing ever faster download speeds whilst in poorly developed countries less than 15% of households own a computer. Less than half the people in the world use the Internet. Since 2014, just 5% of low income people in sub-Saharan Africa have even used Google. Something to ponder when you’re upgrading your two year old smartphone because it’s simply ‘not fast enough’ anymore.
If BCI technology is one-way - reading our brains but not putting anything in there - then this may not provide a huge advantage to those fitted with them. They may think it whilst the read of us ask Alexa or Google, but otherwise our experiences may be somewhat the same. BCI owners may have the Ferrari’s of the interface world, but the rest of us would still get by nicely driving our Ford’s every day.
However it doesn’t take much imagination to see that this is unlikely to be the case. Communication can surely be two-way; as well as reading the thoughts that ask a question, A BCI could potentially place the answer into your mind as if you’d heard it. Ears and eyes are merely sensors that provide electrical impulses that travel to your neurons and are interpreted as input; a BCI would essentially be much the same.
Utopian stories abound with themes of the ultra-rich haves and the rest of the have-nots. It’s very easy to see how a BCI could provide advantages that the rest of us mere mortals may never see. Your child (or their children) may be struggling to pass tests and get into University next to children who have the advantage of having Google pipe answers directly into their heads.
Huge advantages may be available for those who can afford such technology; and equally huge disadvantages may befall those who can’t.
If you’re worried about the Government snooping on your surfing history or phone calls - just imagine how worried you’d be if they had access to your inner thoughts.
Today there are real concerns about the privacy, ethical dilemmas and abuses that can occur with devices such as Google Home and Siri listening in to conversations. The reality is that we want the power and advantages that come from having our devices listen to use and divine our intentions. We want our technology to be smart, to intuit context and meaning and even to predict what we might be doing or needing before we even ask.
But to do that they need to eaves-drop, to learn about us and the very content and meaning of our lives. And since they aren’t sentient stand-alone beings, that means they pass all of that information to large corporations who equally want to provide those things - but are focussed very intently on making a profit and on market share.
We trust (to varying degrees) that our personal information, actions and conversations will remain just that; private. Most of us aren’t criminals or terrorists - but there are few amongst us who would be comfortable with a complete stranger listening in to everything said within our homes.
When the information about us starts to include the very thoughts within our heads, what happens next?
You might not cheat on your taxes - but you might consider it, as you weigh up that expense that could pass for business. What happens if a future version of the Australian Taxation Office purchases a data store with all our combined BCI data included?
And more importantly, what happens if marketers gain access to our internal monologue and responses to their every advertising move?
Of course this doesn’t have to be as bleak as that. Our future could easily be protected, the data generated from these interfaces could be anonymised, sanctioned for use or deleted entirely. Control of what happens to this information may sit with the user, allowing the one person who really owns it to decide what happens to it.
Privacy may not have to die.
But if that decision rests with those who have the most to gain from planting it in the ground and gaining access to our secrets, then the outcome may be more-or-less cast in stone. A headstone, that is.
Whatever else happens - UX will persist
Right now everyone working in the UX and CX space plays an important role in translation. We translate customer and user behaviour, analytics and data points (from comments to interactions) into meaning, and then translate business and interface requirements into a (hopefully seamless) experience.
That core translation process will still be required, even when the UI has gone the way of the punch card. Data points will still exist, they will just be neuron-readouts in addition to comments and other outputs from our users and customers. Responses from the technology will still exist, they will simply transform of UI elements and design outputs into more physical or tactile elements.
A dialog exists today between every human who interacts with a form of technology. That dialog consists of button presses, slides, swipes, text, vibrations, video and imagery presented in response.
With a BCI that dialog will shift in terms of the inputs and outputs, but it still needs to be a smooth and engaging experience.
Our toolset for crafting it is going to need to be very different, however. But more importantly, the ethics we apply to this dialog will very much shape ourselves, our customers, and the very society we live in.
So here’s hoping the future versions of us all choose to do the right thing; because I personally don’t want to live in that alternative future, where they don’t.