TED‘s website is one of those places I only visit when I have a free Sunday afternoon or a few hours before bed. I start with just one video and end up watching nine or ten. Considering I enjoy this as much as I enjoy this (what’s bizarre is the former video explains why I enjoy both videos), you can see where the time goes.

The above video is of Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense technology, which he invented and developed while working with the MIT Media Lab. At the very end of this presentation, the host tells Mistry “You’re among the top two or three inventors currently working today.” I couldn’t agree more. His work in augmented reality is both ingeniously simple and mindbogglingly complex. That he is using off the shelf parts and making the software open source adds a level of practicality and humility to his work that makes it almost too good to be true. It’s all very inspiring and exciting.

What caught me, however, came at the end of Mistry’s speech and demonstration. He said part of his goal was to keep humans from becoming a machine attached to a machine. He wanted to design “machines that help us stay human.” Just after Mistry’s video, I happened to watch Kevin Kelly‘s piece on how technology evolves. Kelly offered definitions of technology that were wonderfully sideways in pointing out how fluid the term really is, including “technology is what was invented after you were born.” I’d like to add Mistry’s “Machines that help us stay human” to that list of definitions. The more repetitive, mundane, and tedious, the less creative, invigorating, and vivifying a process, the more dehumanizing it is. Bartleby, though he might not say it, I think would tend to agree. It’s a shame that his creator, Melville, didn’t live to see the scriveners liberated by carbon paper, typewriters, photocopiers and digital media. The more a needed process makes a person seem like a machine, the more likely it is, I would argue, that a machine will be invented to liberate the human from that process.

Copying a document by hand is a horrendous process. The only time I write by hand is when taking notes for class, and that’s because my notes are jammed with doodles, my own thoughts, spurious information, and are formatted in such a way that I can review with enjoyment and easily remember the lecture. If note taking during a lecture were merely a mechanical dictation of the professor’s words, I would use a voice recorder and voice-to-text translation software for my later perusal. But it’s not, and the benefits of a pencil and paper are, in my opinion, still unparalleled for the specific task of note taking. I find writing by hand in any other situation tedious and frustrating. I’m thankful that machine-assisted writing, by keyboard and word processing software, exists. It lets me write at a speed closer to that at which I think and in a cleaner, more orderly fashion. I also don’t have to worry about running out of eraser or pencil lead. If I want someone to have a copy of what I write, I can email it or print it or publish it to my blog. When dehumanizing jobs are made obsolete by machines, there is a net-gain for humanity. Machines are a means of creating freedom.

The recognition of the freedom inherent in technology, in the humanizing value that comes from outsourcing a dehumanizng behavior to a machine, is at the center of both Mistry’s design and end goal with Sixth Sense. He and his team are trying to take the tedious aspect of technology – the proprietary and inefficient interface – out of the equation. By doing so, he is removing the most recent dehumanizing aspect of technology: a line full of people staring down at their smartphones, typing away furiously and awkwardly with their thumbs. One of the driving engines behind innovation and technology (among many, such as profit, beneficence, and curiosity), as exemplified by Mistry’s work, is the desire to be more human.

Humans use technology to become more human.

Tagged with: