← Chetan Surpur

Intelligent Interfaces

Today’s computer interfaces are really, really stupid.

Think about it. Your computer and your phone together know more about you than anyone else does. They’ve been privy to most of your conversations. You’ve conveyed to them your deepest thoughts. They’ve seen pretty much every side of you.

And yet, you have to tell them, one key or one mouse click at a time, in excruciating detail, exactly what you want them to do.

User interfaces (UIs) are getting flatter and prettier by the day. But the true next evolution of UIs will involve interfaces that are intelligent, that know what is in your mind without you having to tell them.

In fact, this transformation has already begun. Let me show you an example.

I recently got an Android phone, and started using a “swiping” keyboard for all my touchscreen typing. Instead of carefully tapping individual keys with the tip of my thumbs, I can just swipe my finger over them, spelling out the word I want to type. It’s okay if I miss keys, or spell something wrong. It gets faster and easier the more I use it, learning new words and understanding which ones I use in different contexts.

There are two aspects of this that make it a revolutionary interface.

First, it allows me to indicate my general intention by waving my fingers vaguely over the screen, rather than having to spell it out in detail. This reduces the friction between having thoughts in my mind and seeing them appear as words on the screen. The interface is meeting me halfway, giving me a more direct link between my brain and my computer.

Second, it’s learning about me, and using that knowledge to get better over time. It’s starting to feel like a friend who knows me so well that I don’t even have to say anything out loud. Sometimes I can type a word or two, and just use the suggested words to complete the rest of my sentence. Soon, I will be able to trust it enough to type my thoughts without looking at the screen at all.

My keyboard is thinking for me, and in doing so, it’s getting out of my way.

Of course, it’s still very limited. It doesn’t actually understand language, or what I’m trying to say in the way another human would. It doesn’t take into account context of who I’m talking to, what time it is, or what the other person has said. In the grand scheme of things, it’s actually pretty dumb too.

But it’s moving in the right direction.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a world in which your keyboard has a better grasp of language than the best writer, understands you better than your best friend, but is millions of times faster than a human, never bored, and always trying to be one step ahead of the game. What would typing look like then? Would we even be typing?

Now extend this line of thinking to your entire operating system, and every interaction you have with it. Our computers will be literal extensions of our minds. That is the holy grail of user interfaces.

The next evolution of UI includes AI. Every interface will become smarter and easier to use, until it eventually fades into the background, finally letting us focus our full attention on what really matters.

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. Mark Weiser