Faculty & Leadership Blog / Research and Practice

From Buttons to Brains: Our Evolving Interactions with Technology

Post by Bincy Paul, MBA candidate, with Prof. Ruben Mancha

Technology is evolving towards us. Our devices, which used to operate with simple on/off switches, can now feel our touch, listen to us, talk to us, and even recognize us.  As a manager or entrepreneur, you should acknowledge this evolution and design your products to meet the expectations of the user. We provide five recommendations for you to lead in the design of digital experiences.

Let’s consider the electric arc lamp, an 1807 invention by British Chemist Sir Humphry Davy. The only way we could interact with this device was via a button. Forward 200 years, in 2017, we can use facial recognition to unlock our phones. As a result of the convergence of different fields such as engineering, cognitive science, physiology, and neurology, companies are innovating in the ways they design human-computer interactions.

For most of human history, we have relied on three senses to interact with technologies: sight (vision), hearing (audition), and touch (somatosensation). Human sensory and motor systems are the natural means for the exchange of information, and we have used them to provide input to computers. However, with the evolution of technology, we will not be bound by this limitation for long. In the future, we will have unmediated ways of interaction with technology—a direct link between brain and computer. In an attempt to study the evolution of our interaction with technology—the new ways in which people provide instructions to machines and receive responses from them—we have mapped some common technologies and different stages of this exchange.

Figure 1. Evolution of human-computer interaction.

Our ways of interacting with technology have evolved from buttons to touchscreens, gestures, biometric, and voice recognition. Early technologies used mechanical buttons to accept input and produced mechanical or electrical outputs (e.g., the position of rotors, lights), while innovations such as Emotiv (https://www.emotiv.com/) promise using brain activity to control computers. Far from a linear progression, Figure 1 should be interpreted as showing trends in the evolution of human-computer interactions.

The way we make a phone call is an excellent example of this progression. The evolution started with the wired telephone. First, we used buttons to enter a telephone number. Then, with the introduction of smartphones, we began to use touch screens. Later, our interaction evolved to using voice commands. Similarly, for receiving a call, the phone first used sound and light to notify us. Newer technologies, with the introduction of Apple watch and latest Fitbit devices, rely on touch sensation (called a haptic technology) on our skin to notify us.

Advanced Human-Technology Interactions

Companies are relying on these advances to bring new forms of interaction to the mainstream market. Two companies have demonstrated a practical application of the advanced methods of interaction with technology and are worth mentioning: Fitbit and Amazon.

Fitbit keeps track of human activity, such as exercise, dietary, and sleep habits. Their latest wearable, the IconicTM watch, combines a large touchscreen, improved heart rate monitor, and add-ons, such as streaming and storing music and connecting to a credit card. The device is an excellent example of combining touchscreen and biometric interaction. It is an intelligent device that automatically records human physiological changes (heart rate, sleep activity, and body temperature) that are then processed to provide an output on a screen.

Another device using advanced interactions is Amazon Echo. Echo uses Alexa, which is a cloud-based voice control. This device demonstrates the emergence of voice interaction. With Alexa, you can ask a question or give a command. Rather than you dialing a phone number, you can ask Alexa to make a call.

The newest trend is to use human brain signals to interact with devices. There have been considerable advances in the field of brain-to-computer interfaces. The focus is on the use of brain signals as the input to a technology device. For example, an organization named BrainGate uses this technology to enable paralyzed patients to control a wheelchair or a computer cursor just by thinking. The technology allowing this interaction relies on electroencephalography (EEG) signals, which doctors have used since 1950.

The ultimate goal is to develop brain-to-brain communication technology: a direct link between human brains. Researchers at the University of Washington and a group of European researchers associated with Starlab Neuroscience have achieved initial success in establishing brain-to-brain communications among subjects located on different continents. Also, entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk in his company Neuralink and Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook are experimenting with Brain to Computer and Computer to Brain interface, the two parts of the brain-to-brain link. With the advanced research and availability of suitable hardware, brain-to-brain interaction, once considered science fiction, appears feasible.

Our recommendations

If you are an entrepreneur or your company has a digital product you must pay attention to the evolving nature of the human-computer interaction. Consider the following recommendations to develop a differentiated digital product:

  1. Seek to improve your customers’ experiences – By designing advanced ways of interaction, your products and services can become more user-friendly and offer enhanced customer experiences. It will also help you to develop a unique customer value proposition.
  2. Enhance both input and output interactions – A genuinely differentiated product should rely on both advanced input and output mechanisms.
  3. Develop future-proof products – If your product is designed to incorporate new forms of interactions, you will reduce the risk of it becoming obsolete in the fast-changing technology environment.
  4. Pay attention to the technology ecosystem – Managers and entrepreneurs who keep in mind the evolving nature of human-computer exchanges within technology ecosystems can innovate faster and have an excellent opportunity to develop complementary products and services.
  5. Use enhanced interactions for increased productivity – Managers can rely on novel forms of human-computer interaction to enhance productivity. They can improve the way traditional business processes are handled, such as data entry, data manipulation, and communication.

Evolving interactions with technology have a myriad of applications in many industries, such as healthcare, telecommunications, entertainment, and education. Future digital leaders must acknowledge the evolution of human-computer interactions and prepare themselves for the advent of brain-to-computer communication.


About the author:

Bincy Paul is an MBA candidate at Babson College. She is interested in the fields of brain-machine interfaces and brain-to-brain communication and currently conducting an independent research to identify innovative and feasible business applications of these technologies.