Aug 29 The Future of IoT: Machine Empathy

As designers, our ability to gain insights by analyzing data will become paramount to developing products and services that continue to improve the user’s quality of life. As the space for designs that make life easier becomes oversaturated, the focus will shift to designs that make experiences more enjoyable; designs that utilize both emotional data and usage data to give the user what they need, whenever they need it (and whether they know it or not).

To illustrate this, let’s look at an example of a coffee maker and how it has evolved along with global technological advances.

In the not-so-olden days, we had analog coffee makers. You would put in all the necessary ingredients and then turn it on. Once you heard the gurgling noise, the coffee was ready. Things were simpler then, and the machines consisted of just a handful of parts.

Then came the digital era. Internal circuitry with digital clocks allowed us to program our coffee makers to have a pot hot and ready upon waking up. Although it took an hour of button pressing and flipping through the owner’s manual to get the programming right, it was still a breakthrough in coffee technology.

With the rise of smartphones and Bluetooth technology, we evolved to “smart” devices. You could program your coffee maker with a smartphone app toting a much friendlier user interface, or start it from bed with a push of a button on your phone. Want to receive a notification when your coffee is ready? There’s an app for that! 

The real power of IOT   

Next comes the early days of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is where we find ourselves today. “But isn’t a coffee maker that connects wirelessly to a smartphone app considered IoT?” Short answer: not really. Getting devices to connect wirelessly is very powerful, as is having a touchscreen computer (aka smartphone) that can take the form of any 2D user interface imaginable in your pocket.

You can pack these devices full of sensors and collect massive amounts of data which get stored in the almighty cloud. You are not leveraging the potential of IoT, however, until you’ve used that data. “Use it how?” In general, the data recorded from a system can and should be used to increase the efficiency of the system itself or the efficiency of other systems.

Using our coffee maker example, let’s say we want it to learn when to make coffee without us having to program it. We can use a pressure sensor that detects when the pot is removed to fill up the first cup in the morning. It can record this time each day and store the data in the cloud. As more and more data accrues, a more accurate average can be calculated, and the coffee maker will hone in on the perfect time to start the coffee each morning. It could even “learn” to start the coffee at different times for each day of the week and, with enough data, varying times throughout the month. No more complicated setups. The machine just learns how we want it to behave.

What else could we connect to our Internet of Coffee Things? The coffee maker could keep track of your consumption and automatically add coffee grounds and filters to a smart shopping list, or order more automatically. Now the data from your coffee maker is improving your grocery shopping experience by eliminating extra trips to the store.

“Emotional data” for more enjoyable experiences

As we continue to develop more sophisticated sensors, we will eventually be able to measure human emotion through something as inconspicuous as a wristband. Your emotions throughout the day/week/month/year will be recorded in the cloud. That “emotional data” will then be used by the products and services that surround you. Instead of maximizing efficiency, their goal will be to maximize your happiness. This is what I like to call Machine Empathy. Although these products and services will simply be applying preset rules to concrete data, it will (if designed correctly) appear that they are empathetic toward their user because they anticipate needs we didn’t even know we had.

Focusing on making experiences more enjoyable makes business sense, too. A recent Forrester report (“The US Customer Experience Index, 2017”) showed that in almost every industry, how an experience makes a customer feel has a bigger impact on loyalty to a brand than effectiveness or ease of use.

For example, imagine your GPS chooses a route that is the most likely to have you arrive home in a good mood. Maybe it knows your mood improves when you drive down a picturesque, tree-lined street, and that going slightly out of your way to see it will do more to elevate your happiness than shaving a couple of minutes of your highway commute.

Although it is important to note that emerging technologies may never be able to fully replace human intuition, it is exciting to envision how sensors, networks, and data might validate, extend, and scale our abilities to empathize.

Designers of the future

Designers will still use a traditional design process to determine the features and form of a product or service based on the needs of the users, but we can use machine learning as a new tool to account for the fact that everyone uses products and services differently. For this to succeed, it’s critical that the design community embraces tech as an intrinsic part of their work, not as something that is separate from design. As interdisciplinary practitioners, we will create the product and set rules for the software to follow, but the products will optimize themselves for each individual user.

One of the most important skills of designers is our ability to design for the future. Building on our deep understanding of human empathy and intuition, we need to anticipate how technology can aid in evolving and extending these abilities. If done well, this will allow people to lead lives that are not just more efficient, but more enjoyable.