Who will build the Human Operating System?
Your computer doesn’t hate you. It can’t. It just doesn’t care. It’s a bit like a cat: vaguely aware of your presence, but unattached to you, and generally unconcerned for your feelings.
That’s all about to change. We’re at the beginning of a fundamental reinvention of computing.
In the first computer revolution, we automated industrial processes. Mainframes and minicomputers took over clerical and administrative work.
In the second computer revolution, our devices became personal and assisted our individual productivity. We began to carry them everywhere with us.
In the third computer revolution, they are intimate devices, sitting on us and even inside of us. Their primary purpose is no longer enhanced productivity, but optimising our wellbeing.
The problem is, we’ve yet to put together the “device drivers” and application platform for HumanityOS. Until we do, the third computing revolution will be slow and expensive. Each solution will work in a silo, duplicating effort, with little or no crossover in value.
Each computing revolution needs an OS platform
With the second computing revolution, platforms like Windows abstracted away the variability of the underlying hardware. You could plug the same webcam into any PC, and expect it to work. The economic power in the tech industry sat with Microsoft because they controlled that platform.
The Windows platform provided positive returns to scale. You could cut and paste graphics and text between applications. New applications made both existing applications and the platform more valuable.
That platform model is turning inside out. In the intimate computing paradigm, we’re looking to abstract away the variability of people. The goal of any application will be to predict its impact on humans, and optimise an outcome in some way.
This will work at many levels: our basic physiology, our mental health, our family and relationships, our communities and societies, and ultimately our relationship with the biosphere. At each level we will be aiming to engineer beneficial feeling states and positive ethical outcomes.
The great opportunity is to build something that can take data collected for one purpose, and use it to optimise a range of outcomes for other purposes, possibly in the service of higher-order goals. The value is in the data and predictive models; not in devices or applications per se.
A shift from looking inwards to looking outwards
A simple example is how I use f.lux to make my laptop screen less blue at night, so as to avoid fooling my lizard brain that it’s seeing daylight. Apple just shamelessly copied this (badly) with its Night Shift mode for iOS 9.3. The goal is to encourage better sleep habits.
Previously I was just another computer peripheral! My copy of OSX had no concept of “human”, “retina”, “pineal gland”, “melatonin” and the benefits of good sleep habits. This new piece of software takes the first step in recognising a real human is at the controls. It is only the beginning, using the most trivial of somatic data, my present relationship to day and night, with the most trivial relationship between that data and my wellbeing.
What else could my Mac learn, say from the cadence of my typing as a proxy for my alertness level? Maybe my computer should be telling me to take a break now. Or drinking some herbal tea before bedtime. Or getting back in touch with someone who I flirted with last weekend.
We will start with healthcare and wellness, but that’s not the end of the journey. Computers can predict the outcome of our relationship choices, and guide us to have better social, professional and intimate lives. Humans are predictably irrational, and we will wear corrective “cognitive lenses”, just as we wear contact lenses for our eyes.
This is a basic transition; a paradigm change. We’re going from Information Technology to Human Technology; from logos to pathos and ethos. The job of a software platform is turning from interfacing to the inside the machine, to looking outside and sensing the world around.
We need a model of the human and humanity
The grand challenge ahead of us is to create models of humans and of humanity, in all our glorious complexity. What is the impact on us of any gesture the machine makes? We will all need a browser for the data-augmented metaverse we inhabit, our own “guardian avatar”.
In some ways this is reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” science fiction series. His laws of robotics encoded the avoidance of human harm, and the obedience of the machine to the human. We now need to capture and model what is a “good” and “bad” outcome for a human and humanity, and any trade-offs that exist.
In the Information Technology paradigm with Windows, we had a generic model of a personal computer. iOS and Android perform the same function for our pocket supercomputers. In the new Human Technology paradigm, we need to create a reference model of us. We aren’t aiming to build a smartphone, but a sympathyphone; we want artificial empathy, not artificial intelligence.
The nature of the problems we seek to solve are changing. This isn’t a theory I have dreamt up: Apple took its first tentative steps this week into this new paradigm with the creation of ResearchKit and CareKit. There are hundreds of start-ups in this space. The opportunities dwarf those of “mobile”, which is merely one enabling component platform.
What kind of OS for humanity do you want?
Within the next decade we will have rich and robust reference models of human physiology and psychology. These will be tied to platforms for capturing our intimate data and guiding our choices. I suspect that whoever controls this HumanityOS will dominate the future technology industry.
It could well be a new entrant, obsoleting existing platforms tied to a dying IT-centric paradigm. The key platforms are still up for grabs, and first steps are fateful. We still have a period in which to shape our collective vision for this new world. It’s rather like how Engelbart envisioned the desktop OS with the “mother of all demos” back in 1968.
How high can we aim? What is the greatest possible state of wellbeing we can conceivably engineer? What are the risks? How can we avoid the privacy and surveillance mistakes of the Internet and Web?
The human operating system is both urgently needed and being built. Everyone in the tech industry will be impacted, much like with the PC and smartphone. The third computing revolution will be the biggest yet by far.
And who knows, maybe by the end of it, your computer will end up as a faithful, empathetic and caring companion. More like a dog, perhaps, and less like a cat.
About Martin Geddes
I am a computer scientist, telecoms expert, and intellectual explorer. I collaborate with leading practitioners in the communications industry to create game-changing new technologies and businesses.