Don’t talk to me, I’m just a computer

Kostas Pagiamtzis's cat, Frankie - a bit of a technology freak, I’m one of those people that just can’t help laughing whenever a movie uses computers in a way that is patently ridiculous – think of how many scenes you’ve seen like this one: where the detective asks the forensics boffin to “zoom in on that photo. No, more. More. Pan up a bit. Enhance three-thousand percent. Ah hah! That’s the image of the murderer right there, in the mirror’s reflection of the shine from the nail-polish on the victim’s left big toe!”

Another personal bugbear is how many writers and directors seem to think that the computers of the (near) future will be controlled by talking to them. It probably taps into a basic human desire; voice recognition is a technology that mimics how we communicate with each other, i.e. using spoken language, so that’s what we want our computers to do. In spite of that, I believe speech-control will be a niche at best and not the next major epoch of human-computer interaction, and that the only viable advancement in human-computer interface is mind-control.

Why? Imagine a classroom full of students chatting to their computers. It’s bad enough that in a typical lecture theatre today, the scritch-scratching of pens, and more recently the tap-tapping of keyboards, is a constant source of annoyance. If we had to take notes verbally, the lecturer or teacher would never be able to get a word in. Or imagine your office if your colleagues (especially that man or woman with the Really Annoying Voice) use voice dictation to compose e-mails. It’d be like working in a call centre in Bangalore – with just as little privacy. The majority of ways in which we use computers today are not socially compatible with voice control – it’s that simple.

But before we get to mind-control, what other types of human-computer interface can we consider?

  • Handwriting-recognition: handwriting is an archaic method of transcribing thoughts and ideas onto a physical medium. Evidentially, most people I know can type faster than they can write – nobody I know could crank out a lazy 60 words-per-minute using a pen and paper, let alone the crazy speeds that some of the technology-savvy are capable of (I clock in variously at somewhere between 80-90wpm). With the ubiquity of computers, there is no question that handwriting-recognition is more of a bridge from the past to the present, than a viable technology for the future.
  • Gesture-recognition tools currently available on the market can detect points in 2D space, e.g. drawing symbols with your mouse like in the Opera Web browser, or with your fingers like multi-touch on the iPhone. Once the technology evolves, it will allow us to make symbols with either our hands or other input devices in 3D space, which the computer can then interpret, like deaf-sign language. But I think this is an ergonomically bankrupt idea because it requires people to learn a new meta-language. I have enough “Learn how to speak French/Japanese/Chinese” books lying around the house to support my idea that companies will have a difficult time convincing people to learn a new language to talk to computers, when I haven’t made any inroads to learning ones that allow me to communicate with my fellow man.
  • Today’s concept of virtual reality conjures up images of people in full-body suits full of sensors. It’s hilarious to think that you affect movement in a virtual world by replicating real-world movements – picture a room full of people wearing goggles bumping into each other, as well as the walls, and you’ll see how ludicrous this idea is. Lawnmower Man and The Matrix both got it right. Tron – if I remember correctly – did not.

If you think that controlling technology with your mind is far-fetched, then consider this: the science is already quite far along, and there are already applications such as allowing disabled people to control prosthetic limbs.

The potential for using technology to overcome our physical limitations is huge – imagine if the computer can take that tune you dreamed up and turn that into a score without having to know the first thing about musical notation. We will be able to do business at the speed of thought (credit for that phrase goes to Bill Gates). Your next Wii or PlayStation might not even need controllers – you play purely through the power of your mind!

Now that’s something to think about.