The Future Is Outside of the Square Screen and Beyond the Mouse and Keyboard

For the last 30 years, the technology industry has fought a long battle to convince consumers that the future is experienced through consuming content on a flat, square screen and interacting with a mouse and keyboard (or, more recently, touch). Every device in your life — PCs, tablets, TVs, and smartphones — is subjected to this constraint. And while the square screen and tranditional input mechanisms have certainly taken us a long way, the next thirty years are going to be dominated by devices without displays, or with non-traditional displays that are controlled via advanced sensors or natural user interaction.

I think this is interesting in many ways, but two specific aspects of this trend are worth note.

First, this is interesting because of the exponential growth we’ll see in intelligent computing scenarios. Everyone is trying to deliver these experiences right now (Google Now being a stand-out example), but no one has the data to really deliver on the promise of artificial intelligence. As a result, technology that is design to be helpful, just ends up getting in the way or disappointing. But when everything in your house is connected, no, everything in your LIFE is connected, the scenarios that can be enabled are endless. When services know what is in your refrigerator, where you are, and how your body is functioning, your technology can be an intelligent assistant to your life, rather than an unwelcomed house guest.

All of these scenarios are based on the new data that services can learn about their users from the connected devices in their lives. Which sheds light on why companies like Google are investing in automobiles, wearables, and smart home devices. It’s because of the data these devices generate. On one hand this helps build incredible new user scenarios, but the like any good business, Google wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a fortune to be made from your data.

And this is good for users because the better data a company has about you, the less obtrusive their monetization attempts (read: advertisements) will feel. Now some of you are probably saying “Danger, Will Robinson” (which is an important enough topic to devote an entire other post to), but I would argue that less obtrusive monetization attempts equates to more palatable experiences. Enabling companies to monetize their technology allows them to offer low-cost devices and services with intelligence that far exceeds the current state of the art without polluting their experiences. The future, is exciting.

The second aspect of this trend that I find worth writing about is how unprepared the average computer engineer is for this change. Currently there are a whole generation of engineers who make a living writing simple apps or websites that are basically translation layers between the forms that users interact with on a daily basis and the databases that hold their data. Some of these systems are more complex than others, but at the end of the day, the majority of engineering work being done right now fits this pattern.

The skills needed to compete in the next 30 years are an order of magnitude more advanced than the skillset required to compete in the current job market. Intelligently processing analog sensor input or positioning user experience elements on non-traditional displays will challenge the skills of the current workforce. Even the best developers haven’t been exposed to the advanced mathematics and computer science required to take advantage of this trend.

Computer vision, machine learning, statistics, power engineering and advanced courses in signal processing and computer graphics need to become part of the undergraduate curriculum in order to prepare the engineers of tomorrow for the upcoming trends in computing. But for most engineers, it’s too late to formally acquire this training. Transitioning the skills of the current engineering workforce will be on the same scale as the transition that accompanied the growth of the PC and the internet. It wasn’t easy then, and it won’t be easy now. The future, is scary.

The future is exciting. The future is scary. The future is now.