In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the next wave of innovation in technology and new forms of design that will come along with it. Emerging technology needs design —from the IoT to AI, virtual reality to robotics, nanotechnology to 3D printing, genomics to synthetic biology. We talk about where we’ve been, and where we’re going next.
Jon: Welcome to episode 160 of the The Digital Life, our insights about the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me, as founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings, Jon.
Jon: Greetings, Dirk. Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the next wave of innovation, new forms of design that are going to come as a result of it and ultimately, talk a little but about how technology really needs design. It goes both ways but oftentimes, we pursue technology for its sake alone and it takes a while for design to really catch up with technology.
Dirk: I think a great inventor of technology is incorporating design from the beginning.
Jon: Sure. That happens some of the time and other times, you’ve got technology that’s coming off the bench at in a lab somewhere that just doesn’t have that human aspect to it.
Dirk: That’s true.
Jon: These topics are increasingly becoming important and you can see the coverage in our show. Over the past six months, we’ve been talking about things like the Internet of Things and smart cities, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, 3D printing, genomics and synthetic biology. All of these technologies are, to certain degrees, ready for prime time or not but they’re certainly on the map in terms of informing the next stage, the next wave of innovation that we’ve been talking about. From that perspective, it’s important to us as we’re defining the road map for our podcast. Moving forward, these are the topics that we’re interested in and the intersection of design with all these topics if they’re technology or science based, what have you. That’s been reflected in our editorial structure. Although, it is a little bit different direction from where we started which five or six years ago, we started The Digital Life to be a show about adventures in design and digital technology and user experience when user experience was less of an accepted part of doing business in software and a little bit more unique and new at the decision making table.
While I wouldn’t say that design and user experience are necessarily business drivers for everybody, they’re certainly come a long way in those five to six years. We’re beginning to see other areas of technology that are in dire need of design perspective, so I think that’s really and formed where we’re we’ve been taking the show recently and where it’s going to go in the future.
Jon: Dirk, when you think about the evolution of the show, what are the things that come to mind? We’ve covered a lot of ground in the past five years and I think going forward, we’ll have a lot of interesting topics to chew on but what’s your impression of the arc of the show?
Dirk: You know, Jon? You’ve been the one constant on the show. I’ll say that the arc of the show has really mirrored your own arc, evolution and change. When we started, it was very much topics of design and technology and UX. Things that maybe for the time were fresh and modern but to me, they weren’t particularly visionary. They were, perhaps, interesting but we’re firmly rooted in in some of the things you were just talking about. I used to have that new segment. It was a little more future focused but for the most part, we were rooted there and then, when you really took over the show and Eric Dahl, our friend, joined you for a while, he’s deep in UX. He’s been deep in UX for a long time and he’s still today, deep in UX. The show that the two of you were crafting together was staying very much or I might say even more in that tradition. When you and I were working on in the beginning, we had some of that core design UX technology but then we had the future side for me as well. What happened …
During your time working the show with Eric, was you were also getting smart on and interested in emergent technologies.
Jon: That’s right.
Dirk: You published your book and you’ve become one of the best known people now in the field of designing for emergent technologies. Once you and I came back together on the show, it was always out there in the future and you too, now were out there in the future. Once we had that alignment, I think that the show more and more drifted to the point where I spend for quite some time now, which is really about either the things that are explicitly futuristic or things in the present that are really bleeding edge and raising interesting questions about the future. When I think about the show and how it evolves, I think about you and I think about how you’ve changed over the years. It’s been a delight to be part of that.
Jon: Well, thanks Dirk. That’s certainly been a part of it. I think that what interest me so much about these emerging technologies and you referred a little bit to the book that you were a co-author on actually, that from O’Reilly Media designing for emerging technologies, UX4 genomics, robotics and the Internet of Things, that’s two years ago now when we started that. It’s interesting to me that we saw that trend of emerging technologies coming. I think about six months after the book came out, the Internet of Things suddenly became a huge or was building into this huge buzz word, so now, you can hardly go on a tech news site without seeing an IoT reference. Similarly, I think KRISPER, really drew an awful lot of attention to the field of genomics. In the same way, synthetic biology is more in the news now as well. Of course, robotics, more and more we’re seeing how robots can be helpful on the factory floor or in our homes or what have you. Landscape has really changed in say, like the 18 to 24 months since the book has come out.
What fascinates me about the way the forward, is this idea of new forms of design which you talked a bit in your chapter in the book, about the intersection of design and science. I think that design is going to be intersecting with all sorts of substrata of science and technology. Even the Internet of Things, our friend Matt Nish-Lapidus talks about designing for the network, right? How does the network feel as part of a product and he does an excellent chapter on that in the book as well. It’s this idea that you can take … You’re doing doing digital or you’re doing user experience or some element that might be centered more around software, right? You’re taking those skills and you’re applying them to a new set of technologies whether it’d be wearables or robotics, you’re bringing the human aspect to these new, sometimes less humane areas of technology practice and you’re finding your way. It’s more pioneering, it’s really similar to what designers had to do at the very beginning of the internet which …
I remember staring at an x terminal in the BU computer lab, wondering what the heck the internet was for, why people were excited about it looking at the Mosaic browser and a bunch of orange type on a beat up old screen and just thinking, “Hey, where is this going to go?” Then, you see those first websites and webpages or the initial instantiation of Amazon which was mostly text site and you’re like, “Oh. I can get a couple books on here. I can buy books online.” It didn’t seem like that big a deal but it’s these initial experiments or these first looks at the technology which are unrefined, which don’t have the nice frameworks, they don’t have the nice processes, right? Where designers who are willing to take lots of risks to fine those first practices. That’s going to be increasingly important across all these areas. Of course, at our studio, at Invo, we do a lot of work about the future of how genomics is going to be incorporated into digital health. That’s something we care about.
In other studios, some of our friends over at Essential, for instance, are deep into robotics, so they’re thinking about the heuristics of how you design for robotics. What gives me a lot of excitement and hope is that I can see how digital designers are taking these techniques and ways of working and applying them to areas which I’m certain need that human thread though them and all at the same time. It’s at times, both chaotic and exciting and maybe a little more scary than having a path that’s already laid out for you.
Dirk: Yeah. Everything you’re saying is true but I wonder how much of our audience falls into those buckets, right? I would guess that most of our audience, at least those that are on the design or engineering side or working on things that would be more traditional software and less down the piles of these things that we’re talking about. I think the things you say are true but I wonder … I’d love to hear from our audience. To what degree are the things that we’re talking about … Just a curiosity. To what degree are they an inspiration? To what degree are they cookie?
Jon: Yeah. Lots of of cookie.
Dirk: I don’t know because I suspect that the majority of people who would be tuning in, they’re not spending their day working on robots.
Dirk: They’re spending their day working on software.
Jon: You’ll see for instance, our friend Scott, over at Adaptive Path, he has done an awful lot of work in software but I know he’s working on his wearables book right now.
Dirk: He’s really progressive.
Jon: That’s true.
Dirk: Scott is a guy who’s bleeding edge kind of fella.
Jon: I guess my point there is that there’s so many media being made available to designers now, so if you look over the past 18 months or so, the Apple watch really opened the floodgates to wearables. Now …
Dirk: Did it? Is that true?
Jon: Yeah. At least, anecdotally, I see there are many more wearables available today than there were when the Apple watch came out. Perhaps, it’s just because I see these items in the news but a lot of other companies are getting their feet wet on wearables. My only thought there is that you had your traditional software deployment online that would be used for a laptop or a desktop. Enter the tablet, enter the smartphone now, enter the wearable and you’re expected to have this ecosystem of software that works this product that works across platforms. In short order, we’ve got Google glass, right, as another experiment? I think digital designers are going to actually get pulled in the direction of emerging technologies even if it’s not as hard science as some of the stuff required for genomics and synthetic biology. On the robotic side of things, I can see robotics getting cheaper, getting more ubiquitous and they provide a physical ability to interact with the world. I can see that.
I can see the Internet of things becoming more of a part of enterprise deployments whether that’s sensors to determine whether your HVAX system is operating at peak efficiency or to see how many people are in a building or who’s coming in to the front desk. I think emerging technologies are seeping into digital design a lot more quickly than I ever expected them to. Some of the highly futuristic things that we talk about, the embedded technologies for instance or the digestibles, those are cookier and maybe a little bit more in left field. I think across the continuum, there is this relevance that is going to only increase over time as digital designers are expected to design for a broader array of things.
Dirk: I can’t believe you just called embeddables cookie and irrelevant. Oh, my goodness. It’s the … We are the future platform for all this technology, man.
Jon: I only meant it was a little zany, right? Not that we’re irrelevant in across the broad timescale but the podcast might seem a little zany if you’re just picking it up and expecting UX and TAC, right?
Dirk: Yeah. That makes sense.
Jon: I wanted to point out some of the other news and commentary and journals that are starting to take shape around emerging technology and there are quite a few of them. For instance, O’Reilly has her solid conference which is becoming an IoT connected objects conference largely. Our friends at PTC and ThingWorx have their live works conference. Gigaohm, I didn’t even know about this conference, Gigaohm Change. A buddy of mine is going to that. That’s a conference in Austin in September about all of the emerging tech that we just talked about. MIT just recently started up their journal of design in science which I find very interesting. I believe they accept comments o the journal articles from the audience at large too. These intersections of design and science of design and emerging tech are slowly becoming more mainstream and probably … it’s slowly becoming mainstream but this is still a lot faster than I ever thought it would be. I thought we would be a number of years out from any of this, so it’s quite a surprise to me.
Dirk: It really speaks to how commercializable a lot of this tech is becoming very quickly. Where it went from on the fringes of science and research and prototype to heading to mainstream in very rapid ways. It’s really a foreshadowing of how quickly the listeners of the show and the general public … I hate general public, it’s too broad. It’s almost like the general big city public almost, right?
Dirk: … is going to be encountering these things in our everyday lives. It is coming and for me, that’s a big part of why I think our talking about those things on the show is so important.
Jon: Yeah. There’s a book I’m reading right now called The Second Machine Age by some folks from MIT and what I’m enjoying about that book is it’s really turned me on a bit to understand what’s meant by the exponential nature of some of these technologies which I’m not as well versed in. The idea is that the first set of doublings that you’d get double in power for Morse Law in … Those seem almost linear in nature because you’re going to say from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 but once you get into very large and powerful numbers as the doubling increases, then you’d start getting these mass amounts of power computing power that becomes available to other technologies. What they point out in the book is that we’re at that point right now with the mobile technologies and the Internet of Things technologies where they are all able to leverage this exponential power of Morse Law. Perhaps, part of the reason why these technologies seem to be coming forward so quickly is because this computing power is … We’re really into that exponential, at the very beginnings of that exponential computing power.
If you look at the way sequencing for genomics has dropped, a thousand times the cost … The first human genome project I think was 2 billion dollars and now, you can get your genome sequenced for a thousand dollars right?
Jon: That, in some large part, is due to software and computing power. This trend of technologies that are becoming commercialized and very powerful very quickly, I think we’re going to be seeing more of that as Morse Law continues to make the leverage that these technologies have for exponential power possible. I’m enjoying that book very much but it’s not something that I’ve thought about a whole ton beforehand and it makes me both excited and maybe a little frightened to see what the next steps are in any of these.
Dirk: The other part of all this is, it’s not very sexy but at the core of this, the technology platform are personal computing devices and the internet. Our desktop, our laptop, our phone, our iPads, that is what is accelerating all of this. It’s spoken commonly in the scientific community that over the last 10 years, we’ve learned more about the human brain and human body than in all of previous human history and that is a 100% the product of just a good old network of personal computing devices. It’s just that simple at the end of the day because we have such access to information. We’ve compressed time in terms of knowledge transfer and acquisition so much that it allows science to just explode. Piggybacking on what you were saying, that acceleration is just continuing and now that we’re getting machine intelligence, in that as well, which can process in some ways better than we can and once we figure out the right way to augment and optimize for what should the human brain and creative be doing and what should the machine be doing as an accessory and apprentice in parallel then it’s going to speed up even more.
I cannot even begin to imagine how fast things might start to move.
Jon: That’s right. Listeners, we hope you will continue with us on this journey, looking at the next wave of innovation and new forms of design. Remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find us on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-o-n-F-o-l-l-e-t-t, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-o-I-n-v-o.com. Dirk?
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter, @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 160 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.