Challenges in Designing for Emerging Technologies

Elizabeth Lopato, reporting in The Verge:

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company focused on developing brain-machine interfaces, has posted a video to YouTube that appears to show a monkey navigating an on-screen cursor using only its mind.

The video is amazing:

As the article notes, it’s unusual for scientists to release such materials unaccompanied by peer-reviewed evidence. I take this as a cue to be skeptical. Still, if true, it’s an impressive demonstration — especially considering the implications for paralyzed people.

This video sparked two thoughts.

The first is that this demonstration upends many current interaction design paradigms. Forget screen- and voice-based interfaces; this stuff promises telepathy and telekinesis. Current design methods and tools are based on the assumption that users interact with systems by ‘traditional’ means. Hence, the predominance of screen-level artifacts in the design process.

We’ll soon need new design ‘languages’ to work on these emerging experiences. And yet, the profession is disincentivized from sharing the results of explorations with new paradigms. (If they’re happening at all.) Instead, we’re focused on operationalizing current-state design. (More on this.)

The second thought sparked by the video harkens to episode 24 of the Finding our Way podcast, where Jesse, Peter, and I discussed regulations and standards in interaction design, akin to regulations in (building) architecture. I said I was skeptical of such regulations for interaction design because technologies are changing too fast. I cited Neuralink’s work as an example. (I should’ve clarified that I was comparing these regulations to those in architecture, which are detailed and based on well-understood paradigms.)

These new technologies have tremendous ethical implications. Potential applications go well beyond what we do in screenspace. And yet, screenspace is where we (and more to the point, regulators) currently live. It’s hard to empathize with such radically different ways of being as those implied by direct neural control of software.

Because of this, I’m concerned that attempts to regulate interaction design would be based primarily on the technology paradigms available at the time of regulation. Such regulations would quickly prove both inadequate and insufficient — an untenable situation. I don’t know what to do about this other than suggest that we adopt ethical standards — codes of conduct for designers — rather than regulations.

Those of us who design digitally-enabled experiences work in a fascinating field — during particularly ‘interesting’ times.

Watch: Elon Musk’s Neuralink says this monkey is playing Pong with its mind – The Verge