In Stanley Kubrick's seminal science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, viewers are treated to a futuristic world in which technology is interacted with as naturally as we interact with each other. Even at times of extreme stress and fear, the characters of the film speak to technology as they would to a human:
"Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
From the moment we learn to talk as children, our primary way of interacting with the world is through voice. When my young son has a problem he asks a question. Even when that problem is with a piece of kitchen equipment:
"Toaster, why are you not working?"
From our adult perspective talking to a toaster seems rather odd. But this is because we've been conditioned to interact with technology through a medium - otherwise known as User Interfaces, or UI. Children on the other hand, have the intelligence to know how to interact with both people and things, but they haven't been conditioned to use UI. Children have a "natural" way of interacting.
We are taught by the design of technology to interact with it through the interfaces provided. Want a toaster to work, press a button; want information from your phone, tap on the screen; want your TV to change the channel, use the remote control. However, all UIs are limited by the ideas of the person who designed it. There is never a way to ensure that all UI is a hundred per cent correct for a hundred per cent of situations, a hundred per cent of the time. By its very nature, it is limited only to the circumstances envisioned when the product was designed.
As is so often the case now, science fiction is becoming science fact. Already voice assistants are spreading. Products such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are being brought to market, integrating multiple services, controlled by voice. For now the technology is at very early stages, and hasn't been released yet, but the future of interacting with technology as seamlessly as we interact with each other is very close.
This next leap forward in how we interact with technology is not without its difficulties. However, science fiction once again shows the way forward.
The 2013 film Her depicted a love story between a man and his IVOS (Intelligent Voice Operating System.) While this may seem just a traditional love story with a twist, much of the technology in that film already exists. Integrated, it can create a voice controlled system linked up to AI (Artificial Intelligence) that can learn, adapt and serve our needs. All with zero UI.
Instead of designing products to complete a particular task through a defined User Interface, technologists will be aiming to create products that can be used in any scenario, not just prescriptive ones. Naturally, this is impossible, because we are limited by what we can imagine.
Enter AI in the mix. This will make it infinitely possible to serve every need. Think of the "AIs" displayed in Her and in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which learn and adapt to our wants and needs, though hopefully without the tendency to develop murderous thoughts! In short, we are about to enter a world where we interact with technology as naturally as we interact with each other. Where it will not be strange to talk to your house to make things happen:
"House turn off all lights."
Children are the future. They really are.
As this technology becomes standard, the approach to product development will change, as will our thinking. So much of our interaction with technology is through processes forced upon us by, apps built to work for the user interface provided, think "Reminders" on iPhone or "Goals" on the Google calendar app. With voice becoming the standard form of interaction with technology, I expect these apps to disappear, their functions integrated into one technological system. Rather than typing out a reminder, I will just ask, "call Dave at 2pm." As AI gets more advanced it will be able to handle complex requests such as "call Dave at 2pm and tell him that I need the report by 5pm."
With UI fast becoming a thing of the past we are left with ourselves as the interaction point with technology. While I don't expect many of us will fall in love with our Voice Assistants, and I hope not to hear 'Daisy Bell' being sung too often, this development will bring us closer to the technology we use. Making it an even more integrated part of our lives. The barriers between technology and us will be further broken down.