Achin Bhowmik, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of Engineering at Starkey and adjunct professor at Stanford.
There are moments throughout history where we can point to the development of new technology and say: “These inventions proliferated deeply in society and changed the course of the way we live our lives.”
Think of the scale of mass adoption and wide impact of smartphones, laptops and—even before that—desktop computers and television sets. They came into the market, took hold of consumers, became essential and completely revolutionized our everyday lives. They changed how we learn and teach, connect and communicate, perform work and have fun—fundamentally reshaping society and our place in it.
What made these products possible at the time they were introduced to the world are many breakthroughs in the constituent technologies, including unprecedented advances in computing and connectivity. However, every one of these products stands out because they also took a giant step forward in human-device interaction. It’s how we interfaced with them that has changed the course of technology development and enabled broad adoption and applications of these new devices in our daily lives.
The early television sets brought magical new audio-visual entertainment experiences to consumers’ homes, but they went mainstream after the introduction of remote control technology that enabled more convenient human inputs.
The desktop computer needed a keyboard and mouse along with a graphical user interface for mass adoption. Without these technologies that made easy human interactions possible, a computer would be useless to the masses. The built-in keyboard and trackpad technology were essential ingredients for the wide proliferation of laptops, along with embedded liquid crystal displays and wireless connectivity to access the internet while being untethered.
The modern smartphone took human interaction to the next level by turning the entire display screen into a multitouch user interface. The keyboards built within phones rapidly became obsolete. Now, you simply touch the screen to manipulate digital content. This giant step forward in human-device interaction meant you could now directly tap or grab with your fingers just like you do in real life. Imagine trying to operate a mobile phone today without the touchscreen interface. How useful are phones now when the touch screen dies? They aren’t.
All of these devices have become ubiquitous parts of our daily lives thanks to the inventions in how humans and technology interact. The question is: What’s ahead of us?
The consensus in the technology industry is that the next big advancement in consumer devices will involve augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). For these devices to go beyond niche applications, they have to enable natural and intuitive human interactions with eye gaze, hand gestures and voice inputs. We’ll interface with technology the same way we interact with other humans. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), based on machine learning techniques, are increasingly enabling robust computer vision and language understanding technologies that will make this possible.
We could see lightweight VR headsets become popular for immersive multimedia consumption and AR glasses increase our productivity, but they will require easy user interfaces. Imagine putting on a headset and being immersed in a world where physical and virtual objects seamlessly blend, allowing you to interact with them using your hand and voice. You select a movie from a menu floating in space by simply looking at it and then playing it with a pinch gesture by your fingers or with a voice command.
We’re already seeing voice-activated technology like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri. We don’t have to touch any buttons; we just have to talk to the devices. However, this goes beyond smartphones and smart tabletop speakers.
As a player in the hearing industry, we are seeing unprecedented innovations where AI technology is transforming hearing aids into multifunctional devices that act as in-ear personal assistants. Now, a hearing aid can answer questions, track physical and cognitive activity, remind you to take your medicine or pick up milk from the store, transcribe speech and even translate languages privately in the ear. Modern hearing aid technology does all of this by us talking to the device and it communicating back to us.
Recent breakthrough developments in generative AI based on large language models that are trained with massive amounts of data are already showing us a glimpse of the future of the human-internet interface and interactions. Moving beyond just asking a query and getting an answer in return, we will have deeper conversations with an intelligent agent.
Imagine chatting about your upcoming vacation and getting recommendations based on your personal preferences and circumstances. Imagine asking a health-related question and getting valuable insights immediately before an appointment with a professional is available. While the prevalent interface to the large language models today such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT or Google’s Bard, is based on text, an always-on and nearly invisible bidirectional hearing and communication device in your ear can make these experiences seamless.
The rapid advances in AI will have a profound impact on how humans and devices interact. It will make our tasks easier while helping us live better and healthier lives. You don’t always know when you’re living in a historical moment, but this is one of those times we’ll look back on and remember how this evolution of technology changed how humans interact with and benefit from the technology around them.