One of the core premises of our research is to understand technology from a deeper human level. We too often get caught up in the technology itself, and may lose sight of the basic human needs or desires technology is serving. With all the tech of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and any number of other buzzwords, I sense that the human angle is again being lost while we chase technological advancements for the sake of the technology rather than the sake of the human.
To frame my perspective, I think it is helpful to use the idea of human augmentation as a basis for our understanding of how technology serves humans and will always do so. The core definition of “augment” is to make something greater by adding to it. Using this framework from a historical perspective, we can observe how nearly every human technological invention was designed to augment a fundamental weakness of human beings.
Tools were invented to augment our hands so we can build faster, bigger, more complex things. Cars were invented to augment the limitations of the distance humans can travel. Planes were invented to augment humans lack of ability to fly. The telephone was invented to augment the limitations of human communications. Nearly every example of technological innovation we can think of had something to do with extending or making greater some aspect of a human limitation or weakness.
This was true of historical innovation, and it will be true of future innovation, as well. Everything we invent in the future will find a home augmenting some shortcoming of our human bodies. Technology, at its best, will extend human capabilities and allow us to do things we could not do before.
While we can analyze many different angles in which technology will augment our human abilities, there is one I think may be one of the more compelling things to augment: Our memory.
My family and I recently took a vacation to Maui. It is always nice to get out of the bubble of Silicon Valley for a more natural atmosphere to observe human behavior and technology. Going to a place where most people are on vacation provides an even deeper atmospheric layer to observe.
On vacation, I saw how critical and transformative the smartphone camera has been when it comes to memory augmentation. I’ve long thought that one of technology’s greatest values to humans is in the assistance of capturing memories. For sure, this is the single driving motivation behind most people purchasing digital cameras and video cameras through the years. With most people in developed markets now owning a memory-capture device, and comparable apps on their smartphones to enhance these memories, observing memory augmentation is now a frequent activity.
It was fascinating to see the lengths people on vacation would go through with their phones, drones (I was surprised how many drones I saw), GoPros, waterproof smartphone cases and more to capture and preserve their memories.
I saw people climbing trees, braving cliffs and hiking extreme conditions with their phones to get a unique selfie. Flying their drone overhead as they jumped off waterfalls. Putting their phones in waterproof cases to get pics of kids snorkeling. And obviously, there were lots of uses for GoPros to capture unique photos and videos of undersea creatures and experiences.
As was often the case, most of the memories captured are designed to share on social media, but the point remains that these pervasive capture devices enable us to create and capture memories we would most likely forget, or have a hard time recalling if left to our memory.
I’ve argued before that the camera sensor is, and will remain for some time, one of the most important parts of our mobile computing capabilities. The desire to preserve, or capture a unique memory will remain a deeply emotional and powerful motivator for humans.
Allowing technology to take this idea a step further, we have things like Apple Photos and Google Photos, which look over our memories and make short videos to not just augment but to automate our memory creation process. As machine learning gets even better, these technologies will make creating memories from moments even easier.
As technology continues to augment more and more of our human capabilities, my hope is that the technological tool or process involved will fade so deeply into the background that it nearly disappears. This way we can get the most out of our time whether at work, school, play or vacation, and spend less time fidgeting with technology. Ultimately we will be able to do more with technology, but also spend less time with the technology itself, and more time doing the things we love.