What happens when you bring together a dozen of the most interesting minds in art, technology and science to discuss how to infuse humanity into technology?
This is what a curious team from Microsoft sought to uncover over dinner and conversation in the Sky Room at the New Museum recently.
Gathered around a table were a mix of people as diverse as ever: Neil Harbisson – the bionic man who hears colors; Giorgia and Gabriele – data visualization designers behind Milan-based Accurat; a neuroscientist who chucked an academic career in favor of helping develop technologies for blind people to learn how to paint; an MIT professor who studies human emotion and technology; Joe Ducet – the furniture designer behind the most covetable marble table… and yours truly.
Over an elegant dinner of farro salad, chicken under a brick (“where’s the brick?!” one invitee challenged the waitress), and chocolate tart, the crowd covered such topics as ‘what does it mean to be human?,’ ‘what does the intersection of technology and people look like?,’ and ‘what role do companies and institutions have in humanizing technology?’
The table buzzed with conversation, with people switching seats, speaking over each other, and sparking new ideas by the minute. At the end of the evening, the group reconvened to share the most interesting themes uncovered and debated.
- Technology is humanity: technology is not electronics, nor hardware, nor software. Technology is ancient – it’s in nature, in human conversation, in play and in work. When we begin to think about technology as life, then we can better think about how to humanize it ever more.
- Technology to what end?: It’s important to think about the goal of developing new technology. It’s not enough to create technology for technology’s sake; to “beat” the next person or rival company. Creating new innovations should be driven by whether the end product will be useful, necessary, and delightful to the end user.
- Humans change change change: Culture evolves at an incredible pace, and people metabolize the role of technology at lightning speed. What was once considered very frightening (such as submitting credit card information online) is now a trusted fact of life. A funny story about Neil – the man who hears colors. In 2004, when he had the device implanted into his head, people thought it was a flashlight. In 2007, they thought it was a video recording device, and today, they believe it’s something related to Google Glass. People change how they view technology, and so the role of technology companies is to keep pace with that culture and ideally stay one step ahead of it.
- Human technology: Similarly, what is considered “human” and “natural” is also evolving, perhaps at more of a generational pace. Once, telephones were feared to make people hermits, and microwaves would give people cancer. True innovations are almost always feared at altering our “human-ness.” However, this is metabolized quickly, and wearing a Google Glass today doesn’t seem as artificial as it might have in the past.
- Innovation born of survival: American companies have the luxury of creating technology with abundant resources, but other countries face different challenges. Some have oppressive governments that censor their citizens, while others have a lack of infrastructure. Technology born of these difficulties are often incredibly useful and innovative, and America should remember that we are not the only ones with good ideas. Furthermore, what we create must address the needs of cultures outside of our own.
- Extreme is good and necessary: High fashion and high art as analogy. While not immediately relevant to the masses, the crazy and wild tend to push thinking forward. There needs to be extreme and fringe creations with no goals tied to profit. While not everything coming of this may be immediately relevant or usable, we need extremes in order to pull from them and create solutions for the real world.
- Creation must be interdisciplinary: No more siloes! The technological innovation process must evolve beyond engineers. Include artists, designers, intellectuals and others together can create better solutions
- The “smile test”: Ultimately, technology should make people smile. It’s a very small act, but in the end, it’s the most important benefit to humanity.