A Renewed Calling: Human-Centric Design is the Future

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With CES unveiling the latest technology for 2020, Arrow’s Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Victor Gao, shares his thoughts on a pivotal moment in tech.

It’s a familiar narrative in popular fiction—humans build machines, machines try to take over.

As creators of technology, we’ve always had an uneasy relationship with our creation. Celebration greets breakthrough. So, too, does skepticism. And yet, modern technology has long improved the quality of life and extended life expectancy – not just for the privileged, but for the many.

Take, for example, radar. An early twentieth-century technology recently repurposed for consumer use cases, it’s changing the way we interact with our phones by tracking body motion and sensing our presence. Why is this important? Because with a wave of your hand you will soon be able to silence an incoming call or replay the directions prompt for your next turn. It means you can control your phone without looking at its screen or speaking to it. That’s a step forward in safety when driving. It’s easy to imagine gesture recognition, for those whose vision or speech is impaired, bringing to life a newfound independence.

Innovation begets innovation. One of the frontiers in machine learning is small data: think of a toddler who quickly learns what a bicycle is after seeing a few photos, while machines require thousands, if not millions, of images to learn the same thing.  That’s in part because today’s artificial intelligence doesn’t understand context and can’t predict uncertainty. Neuromorphic computing is changing that by enabling a degree of intuition, prediction, and transparency. Event-based cameras that use neuromorphic computing will not only improve the safety of an autonomous driving system, but could lay the foundation for a new generation of visual artificial intelligence.

And that kind of machine intelligence could be useful in emotionally vulnerable and confusing settings for humans, such as disaster relief.  Rescue robots with enhanced visual competence provide both superhuman strength and respect for the human body’s frailty, and where the first 72 hours are critical. Work done in safety systems in one scenario gives better chance to the preservation of human life in another.

Speaking of safety-critical, we are, in truth, at far greater risk of machines not working well than machines taking over. When a smartphone malfunctions, it’s an inconvenience. What if it’s a 3D-printed prosthetic limb embedded with an intelligent chip that provides critical living support to its user? Or a hyper-speed transporter shuttling passengers across the Pacific at 760 miles per hour?

In his introduction to the November 2019 WIRED25 issue, WIRED editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson wrote how a tragic bridge engineering failure in Quebec a century ago led to the creation of The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. The Iron Ring, still awarded to Canadian engineers today, is a symbol and reminder of the obligations and ethics of their profession. As advanced consumer technologies move beyond personal communications and entertainment to become more ubiquitous in our lives, engineering and design will need to urgently and adequately answer the call for an ever-smaller margin of error.

The call, in fact, goes beyond safety.  In 2019, the world has crossed a significant threshold: more than half of us are now online. With more people and ideas empowered by technology, engineering and design will have greater influence, and share greater responsibility, to ensure innovation stays true to improving the quality of life for as many people as possible. For all the techno-determinism of popular fiction, the future is yet unwritten. While many of us live in comfort, many more still need basic electricity for lighting, shelter and sustenance. A thoughtful approach to making the benefits of technology more accessible ought to be as much a part of the design as the technology itself.

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