Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Technology Rant

I am a technophile. I love the stuff. I read about it online. I play with it at home. I read about it in science fiction books, and watch it in science fiction movies and shows of all stripes. I dream about it. I've made about 400 distinct new concepts for machines (none of which have ever gone beyond the kitchen table conversations, but still) that no one has ever seen before. I dream about this stuff. I buy this stuff. It's FUN!

What ideas have I dreamed up? Let's see...

I want to make a refrigerator that has a camera in it that allows the fridge to recognize which items of food are in the fridge, and how much of each are left, allowing it to pre-write your shopping list for you and have a little touch screen on the front of the door that showed what was in the fridge for cooking purposes, maybe even suggest recipes from various websites based on your past preferences. 

It could work like this: 
Open the fridge door to put in the newly purchased gallon of unopened milk. The cameras, strategically positioned, would recognize the milk (through a variety of shape/color/scanning/etc.), and enter it into the inventory of the fridge. Then when you set it on any shelf, the fridge weighs the new items, and logs the weight. Later, you open up the fridge, grab the gallon, remove it for about 20 seconds to fill a glass for your evening milk and cookies as the cameras log the removal, and return it 20 seconds later and again the cameras recognize that it's the milk being put back, and log the weight. It would notice that you drank 3oz of milk and give a specific amount of milk remaining in the gallon on the inventory on the door touch screen. About a week or so later, using the user generated list of food "staples" that your refrigerator should have in it at all times, the touch screen will alert you that the milk is running low, with about 2oz of milk left in the container and prompt you to purchase a new gallon. It could then sync with your phone, which would automatically post a shopping list pre-prepared for you by your own refrigerator that pops up when your phone GPS registers that you're at the supermarket.

For people who can't do their own shopping, this internet connected machine could generate and order shopping lists from the web based home delivery supermarket services automatically, ensuring consistent food for elderly or those with mental/physical issues that preclude them from taking care of themselves effectively or those too lazy to go out and buy it themselves. The fridge could even tell you which places near you have the items you want and which places sell them for the cheapest price.

Now imagine that you're blind. How amazing would it be for you to be able to just ask the refrigerator how much of any specific item you want is left in the fridge? Or where it is inside the fridge? And it could tell you, in a voice of whatever specific accent is most to your liking. I'm a fan of Irish, myself. 

Or ask the fridge to read you the recipe you happen to be making yourself and your family that evening. Even if you're not blind that'd be useful. I know it's annoying when I've got my hands covered in uncooked chicken and I forget how much oil the recipe needs, but the recipe book is on the wrong page, or I have to scroll up my iPad screen, but don't want to get it dirty, and don't want to interrupt my cooking long enough to wash my hands and flip the page (I know, I'm impatient). So instead I just ask. How much oil does the chicken need? And it'll respond with something like "Mike, your chicken risotto needs two tablespoons of cooking oil." 

But wait, if we're envisioning voice control in a kitchen, how about setting the oven temperature by request, or automatic reminders that a burner is on, but there is nothing on top of the burner, and do you want the burner to turn off if you're not using it?

And that's just one of the ideas that I've had regarding a kitchen. 

Now extrapolate those concepts to cars, televisions, teaching (because I'm a teacher, so yeah) and how different would the world look if we did this stuff throughout all of our daily routines, not just cooking? Would daily life even be recognizable as similar to what we have now? What we had 50 years ago? 100 years?

I know, I know. You're having visions of HAL 9000, or thinking that "Mike, you've been smoking the Science Fiction pipe for a little too long today." But here's the weird part. This isn't science fiction. This is all 100% possible right now.

So I'm a bit annoyed. 

The Bionic Man said it best, "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster." Well, we have the technology too. we can make just about everything we use on a daily basis better, stronger faster. 

Why aren't we doing more with it?

Segue (or lack thereof) 

So you are aware that the newest iPhone came out a few days ago. 

You're not aware of this? Really? What rock have you been living under? No offense, but it's been talked about a LOT.

Anyway, it came carrying this little feature called Siri. Siri is AI for your phone. It takes voice commands, plays you music, sends emails, makes phone calls, and finds you the best restaurants in the area. All of that is pretty old tech. I mean like 8-12 year old tech. Why are we freaking out about this? Because the retail world IS freaking out about it, make no mistake. The big change here is that Siri actually understands the context of a question, taking into account the previous queries it has received from you and using that information to inform your subsequent queries, making it FAR more natural to talk to than any other voice command service on the market. Oh, wait... That's not entirely true. Siri is over 4 years old and its previous incarnation (Past it's DARPA fueled inception) was the Siri App that pretty much does everything that the 4S version of Siri does now. The major difference is that it's been done BETTER by Apple than it has ever been done before.

Ok, so Apple did it better than everyone else. That's not really new either. In the past decade, Apple has made some pretty major steps in the "We didn't do it first, but we did it best" areas of tech.

What's the lesson here?

Design matters. 

Integration matters. 

Usability matters. 

So does having a market that is prepared for it by all the preceding little gadgets that your company has been making a mint by selling. The success of the iPod led slow step by slow step inexorably to the world of Siri in which we now live. We've been mass brain washed into this. Maybe it'd be a better description to say that we've been slowly trained to use these new devices, because we ( the collective "We" of our market economy) wouldn't have been ready for all the features all at once. We'd have been scared, or skeptical, and frequently both. But since we've watched Apple introduce product after product to absolute hysteria of applause and approval, we're ready to try the thing everyone else is trying that seems so fun and cool looking and simple. This isn't scary new stuff, it's new toys for adults. The entire market has been taught by Apple to use Apple products more and more effectively every year for the last ten years, by design.

And suddenly Apple is one of the top brand names in the world, if not the actual top brand on any given day. Wasn't this the company who was considered a failure just over a decade ago? Yeah, good job Apple. I applaud you.

I just wish this happened a bit faster.

I just wish Apple wasn't the only company doing it right. 

Why aren't car companies doing this? Television manufacturers? Appliance manufacturers? Schools?

Why can't cars have more voice integration? It'd save lives simply being able to say that you want to change stations instead of having to reach over and physically change the radio station. Just that little bit of integration would literally save lives. I wish that were an exaggeration, but it's not. A highly voice integrated car could make driving far more safe by allowing us to focus on what's truly important, the road. (Because you and I both know that people won't stop things like changing the radio station in heavy traffic, or calling their friends, or texting while driving, though we all wish they would) 
Car radio retailers are laughably behind the times as well. I read online somewhere recently (Probably +Mike Elgan , but I can't find the post currently, but he's got some great tech articles and you should totally follow him) that, when in a Best Buy or other store that had a car radio section, the writer was struck by how stupid it would be to actually buy a car radio that only works in your car for anywhere from 100-500$ when all it could do was be a radio and maybe a DvD player that you'll never use while it's attached to the front dash of your car; when instead he could buy a phone or iPad or some other portable device that had many functions and could ALSO be a radio, and for comparable prices as well. 

What about televisions? Why are the interfaces for the internet on TV's so abysmally horrible? What would I need a remote for, if I could talk to my television? No more batteries or looking under cushions for the lost remote that your daughter decided to use as a "phone" and leave in the dogs crate while she was playing pretend. Why not have your phone or iPad/touch device be your remote AND your touch screen computer, assuming there is still anything for which you'd need an actual remote control. Again, this option is already here. Not science fiction, science fact, but not mainstreamed, and not utilized.

I know that we're in one of the fastest changing times in the entire history of mankind, and I know that humanity is consistently resistant to change; but I think that we need to start realizing the power of the tools that humanity has at its fingertips and start REALLY using it.

How can we start using the power of the internet to help alleviate issues with our dwindling supply of, and ever more desperate need for, fossil fuels?

Why haven't we started putting technology in the hands of schools and children who really need it to help them see education as FUN and important. Why do school age children not respect school or their teachers? Possibly in part due to the obvious lack of funds that our society funnels into those schools. Possibly because the 'cool new stuff" is never in a school. Possibly because the schools don't have all the tools they need to teach their students about the technological world of which they will be a part.

How are teachers supposed to prepare students for the technological world if they don't have any means of utilizing technology in a classroom?

Why aren't there more female programmers? 

Why can't we start building the engineers, artists, designers, and programmers by giving them the actual tools they need to learn those skills?

Besides, I want a flying car. C'mon people. 


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