Artifact over human

When you look around the internet it’s not an uncommon sight to see a couple of articles here and there highlighting the future problem of AI replacing humans in one field after another. To date we have seen some attempts in healthcare, most prominently in Japan where the Pepper Robot are taking care of elders and the likes, and while that may seem scary to some, it also fulfills a real purpose in a way.

People are living a lot longer today and we also have a society that promotes and enables a long life. However that doesn’t stop us from accommodating a lot more age related diseases, which may or may not lead the way to a life at a facility that can treat such things. And when the choice stands between being treated by someone who has tons of things to do, or just having a robot with unlimited energy (as long as it’s powered) and time, just for you – that choice may not seem too bad.

What worries me more is how we are currently, on a day by day basis, trying to replace human interaction with computer interaction; or artifacts, if you will. It’s nothing new, alarmists has been going strong about this for years, but with the recent focus on designing useable, meaningful and also satisfying digital experiences, not only here and there – but at every company worth noting, with a few at the forefront, actually realizing these things.

I listened to the 187th episode of UX Podcast…

A podcast run by Per Axbom and James Royal-Lawson, where they interviewed Boon Sheridan on the developments and future of AR. Which is believed by whom to be the next big thing, without being the next big thing. In a sense that means that it will be accessible to many of us, in many fields, without being presented as AR. Rather just another embedded tool in our artifacts of choice.

It’s easy to see the possibilities of AR in learning, in this particular episode they bring up the classroom and the possibilities to review lectures, but to me the most apparent use would be in learning professions and professional technology.

I recall when I enrolled TV production school first getting in touch with patch consoles, video mixers, CCU:s and the likes. I wanted to learn how it worked and the only people in my close proximity who knew how it worked was the head of technology on that school and a student or two, but I didn’t really like to bother them with my petty questions as I was enrolled to become a videographer/editor (not a studio technician). With time I learned how it works, after much reading and conceptualizing solutions in my head as well as on paper. And in retrospect the concepts isn’t that hard to grasp. You capture a signal via a sensor (that replicates the eye) and then you have various boxes manipulating the signals with controllers hooked up to them.

But when seeing something like this:

… it really becomes quite hard to grasp for beginners and more experienced users alike. The easiest way to learn would possibly be to scale things down, but there’s reasons for why you can’t always do that, such as when technology is expensive and hard to install, for example.

In learning and real work situations AR could without doubt help to bridge the gap between information conveyed by the interface and ’knowledge in the head’ (coined by Don Norman).

But in regular consumer terms the AR overlay of the world will without doubt steer us away from human interaction. Most notably in city spaces where we tend to use the developments in technology to leverage the speed of our lives, instead of helping us slow down and appreciate more.

Not too long ago…

People used to ask me for directions a lot. But during the last 3 years or so it has happened once or twice, and I rarely see anyone asking people they don’t know about anything. The internet has become more accessible than ever and our mobile tools of today are extremely competent, eliminating the need for human interaction.

This tendency, that we want to flee from human interaction may be related to bad experiences of interacting with people we don’t know. We know that a screen won’t hurt our feelings and as such we prefer the screen, no matter how frustrating. Another way of seeing it is that the screens are promoted in a way that human interaction is not; implicating that it’s the better way of buying something.

The problem is, that it really isn’t. If you take McDonalds as an example, where at least in Sweden they have put screens everywhere where they can fit one. Having many should, of course, speed things up. But. As most people flock to the screens, it’s usually a lot faster to order at the counter these days. Apart from that the actual queue is usually shorter, the interaction itself is usually faster (say what you want to buy and pay), as well as getting whatever you order. And as most working in the service industry (including McDonalds) is quite nice to deal with, it’s not uncommon for it to be the more ’pleasurable’ way of ordering as well.

So what’s the point?

Well, it probably cuts costs by eliminating some workers, the screens can also be used to advertise products more upfront and especially McDonalds is pretty good at trying to make you buy more than you actually want, by exploiting our desires for more and taking advantage of lack of awareness (due to stress or the simple fact that you don’t care too much about the additional crowns).

It’s easy to believe that this development is inevitable as people ’want’ this. Because people is the most apparent driving force behind it. But what is even more likely is that it is related to the way we design products. People may want it, but that’s because designers make them want it, and not because they need it – or even feel good by using it.

In this particular case I’ve never really talked to anyone who has felt satisfaction after ordering via a screen. It might however be an isolated problem to Sweden, and of course, highly anecdotal.

The interactions could of course be improved with time and complaints, and I do not doubt that promoting things that people don’t really want – is profitable, as we’re somewhat primed to say no when people are verbally trying to sell us more due to some kind of ’human interaction overflow’.

Talking about human interaction overflow, this might also be the culprit here. We, as humans, go for the screens as that’s the way, in which case we’re unsure about what we want, can feel smartest about our choices. We don’t need to ask questions, we don’t need to show our weaknesses by not knowing.

This is something that, particularly in Sweden is deeply embedded in culture. We’re highly individualistic and protective of the image we project to others. Which may or may not be a phenomenon covering the entire west and not only Sweden.

As of today the way is pretty much paved to replace human interaction in pretty much every aspect of our lives except of the utmost pleasures. There’s only a question of time before some company start to gain traction by delivering these ordering screens to pretty much any restaurant, without them having to lay the groundwork for themselves. Because people will want this. Wherever they go. And while we may gain in speed, we will find ourselves isolating us from the surrounding world in favour of conserving our projected self image.

Feature Photo by Mario Calvo

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