Unconscious Computing

January 11th, 2013

Over the last year, I have been thinking a lot about “wearable computing”—devices like the Nike Fuelband or Fitbit that monitor our activity and provide functionality without us directly interacting with them. These kinds of devices intrigued me because they are a new kind of computer with a purpose distinct from the PC or even the smartphone: they do things on their own, for us.

The phrase “wearable computing” bothered me, though, because it’s very limiting, and it doesn’t seem to capture what’s important about it. The defining characteristic is that they are computing devices which monitor and do things on their own for people, and there’s no reason that they have to be worn. They could be embedded in other objects, such as weight scales, exercise machines, bicycles and cars, and in many ways, this idea applies equally well to software as well.

While reading about the brain, I realized that a much better term for these devices is “unconscious computing.” Our unconscious does an incredible amount of things for us so we do not have to consciously take care of it. It keeps us stable while standing and walking, keeps our bodies’ internal processes in balance, handles breathing, and an overwhelming number of other tasks that, if we had to handle consciously, would completely cripple us. These tasks are handled unconsciously for us so we can focus on higher level tasks necessary for survival. Not only does it make our lives easier, but we simply couldn’t survive without it.

We should never have the same level of dependence on machines, but I think that should be the general goal for the future of computing: they should handle tasks for us so we don’t have to, to allow us to live more fulfilling and effective lives. Devices like the Nike Fuelband or Fitbit One should not be one more thing to distract us, to require more interaction and time spent configuring it, setting it, and turning the data it provides into useful information for us. Rather, they should quietly track a person’s activity and turn it into specific and useful information and recommendations. Even better, they should integrate with other devices and services (weight scales, exercise machines, cycling and food tracking applications) and provide more accurate, more useful information to the user. Instead of telling them how many steps they took each day, they should tell them to what extent they’re leading an active lifestyle or fulfilling the exercise plan they’ve set for themselves, and how they could do better. That could mean recommending an exercise plan, a new daily exercise (even better would be exercises specific to where they live, like a route people enjoy running at the beach or through their neighborhood), or even meals.

I use health as an example because there is incredible potential in it. There is a huge amount of data we create that could be tremendously useful in improving our lives, but it’s either destroyed (when we weigh ourselves on a dumb scale, exercise on a dumb exercise bike or stair-stepper, or go running or cycling without tracking it), stuck in a silo (various exercise applications), or not created at all.

That’s an incredible waste. Using a number of different independent devices and services to track it is no good either, though, because the information stays locked up, and because most of these devices and services require us to waste time interacting with them instead of doing what we are trying to do. I abhor messing around with a running or cycling application before doing those activities. Rather than riding to the beach or along a quiet road in the hills, I am using my phone. And worse, if I want to look at and analyze that exercise data, I have to pull up each individual application. Not only is all of this annoying, it’s a friction-point that means we are all less likely to do any of it, and therefore to get the benefits.

We need computing devices which quietly do these things for us—exercise bands, exercise machines, bicycles, heart monitors and scales—and connect to centralized services that compile this information into useful forms for us. These devices need to do all of this with as little interaction as necessary, so our activities are as natural as possible. Rather than fidget with an iPhone application, we just ride, and the bike (with an embedded GPS module, or a Bluetooth connection to an iPhone in the saddle bag) handles the data tracking and uploading for us, while whatever service we use (something like Fitbit’s service is an excellent start, with an API for adding and accessing a user’s data) handles the accumulation for us. All we have to do is live, and then make use of the information and recommendations.

Those are very specific ideas, but what I want to emphasize is that “unconscious computing” is a way of thinking about the purpose of computers. Currently, we still mostly think of a “computer” as something with a screen that you directly interact with through some kind of interface. They help do things for us, but for the most part, they only accomplish things insofar as we actively use them. I don’t think that’s what computing should be about. Rather, it—both hardware and software—should be designed to make things easier and make our lives better with as little direct interaction and work as necessary. For software, this means designing it (both the application or service’s intent and the interface) so it as closely fits the user’s desires and intentions as possible, so the user has to do as little as possible to get the desired result.

With the proliferation of powerful and cheap microprocessors and sensors for mobile devices, along with wireless technologies and the web, we have the potential to completely re-create what a computer is. Let’s do so in such a way that makes our lives better, and not just filled with more glowing screens.