The Smartware Transformation


The evolution of computing

October 23, 2017

Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are coming of age at the same time as a cluster of advances in the sciences, especially neuroscience and genomics, and other technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT); additive fabrication, or 3D printing; and virtual reality (VR). Together, these technologies promise to create a radical inflection point at the same scale as personal computers in the 1970s, the Internet in the 1990s, and mobile computing in the 2000s. We call these collective technologies smartware.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently having a moment. In fact, the field has had many moments since its inception in 1956, with flurries of media excitement tempered only by the sober reality of what is actually possible. We have made massive strides in machine learning—the approach to AI that focuses on writing software that can independently learn and develop long after its human programmers have finished their coding—which is transforming personal computing as we know it.

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Despite our more rapid advances in machine learning, we are still far from developing a species of sentient machines or a confluence of technologies that would let each of us enjoy digital immortality. One of the most advanced artificially intelligent, humanoid robots to date is Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, shown in Figure 1, which spoke at the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva, Switzerland in June 2017.

Figure 1—Hanson Robotics’ humanoid robot, Sophia
Hanson Robotics’ humanoid robot, Sophia

Image source: ITU Pictures (CC BY 2.0) 

Neuroscience and Genomics

While, in recent years, the media have focused largely on computer-related technologies, we are entering what author and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku calls “the golden age of neuroscience.” In his Wall Street Journal article on this topic, he acknowledges, “We have learned more about the thinking brain in the past 10 to 15 years than in all of previous human history.”

Genomics is another example of astonishing scientific advancement. The cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped exponentially—from $100,000,000 in 2001 to under $1,000 today. Companies are racing to introduce technology that will further speed up genomic sequencing and make it even more inexpensive, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—The Cost of Genomic Sequencing
The Cost of Genomic Sequencing

Image Source: NIH National Human Genome Research Institute

Thus, we are learning about how the human animal functions, in ways that are rippling into what have historically been softer sciences and infusing a biological aspect into fields such as psychology and philosophy. Humans’ ability to understand ourselves—what we call understanding us—will translate directly into the capabilities of our smartware. While intuition, usability testing, and market research have driven the products of the past, the products of our digital future will come from companies whose focus is designing products that cater to—or, more cynically, take advantage of—our brains.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is a darling of big business and the technology media. But, today, the potential of IoT is more aspirational than fully realized. In both consumer and industrial contexts, we’re only at the beginning stages of integrating connected devices and systems. On the consumer side, the IoT trend began with devices of limited practical benefit—such as activity trackers like the Fitbit. Now, corporate installations of IoT devices, communicating via a network, can enable a wide variety of data-collection and processing services. We are still in the early days of IoT, but Gartner and ABI Research reports project between 20 and 30 billion connected devices by 2020. Pew Research suggests that, only in the 2020s, will the Internet of Things have “widespread and beneficial effects”—despite all the attention and investment it is already getting.

3D Printing and Virtual Reality

3D printing technology—which lets us manufacture physical products in plastic, metal, or even component elements that we can combine to replicate a relatively tasty synthetic food—is a game changer for business. This technology removes the supply chain. A company just needs to have a 3D printer, similar to that shown in Figure 3, and the necessary ingredients or components in a convenient logistical location. There’s no longer a need for a process that stretches from raw material to fabrication to transportation with other middlemen and sales agents in between. 3D printing also changes the pace of product development: It’s possible to produce a physical prototype of a product within hours of creating a design—and at a relatively affordable price.

Figure 3—MakerBot Replicator 2, a 3D Printer
MakerBot Replicator 2, a 3D Printer

Image Source: Creative Tools (CC BY 2.0)

Similar to 3D printing, virtual reality enables designers to model new ideas and prototype them in 3D digital space, prior to manufacturing. Further, VR can give people the opportunity to interact with complex products before buying them.

How Smartware Is Changing the World

Together, all of these technologies are making possible a major evolution in computing. Now, let’s look at five ways in which smartware, very soon, is going to change the world.

1. Machines will do more of the mechanical work.

While the work humans do will require far less doing or procedure, it will require far more problem solving and strategy, as well as personal service and attention. These trends are inherent in the historical evolution of computing. Professions such as graphic design—which once required painstaking labor, using arts-and-crafts tools to present a single creative output—now can quickly put together multiple solutions by using components and software that is increasingly customizable. The job has shifted from spending time rendering an idea to generating ideas that software can quickly render. This evolution will only accelerate, as smartware further eliminates grunt work and laborious attention to detail, leaving the worker to explore numerous, better concepts, in an environment where deep, science-enabled insights bolster our work output. Because these changes will inevitably require fewer people to produce the same overall level of work output, others’ effort will refocus on new areas and new professions will emerge.

2. User interfaces will become invisible.

The clumsy, voice-activated user interfaces of Alexa, Siri, and their competitors represent the beginnings of this shift to invisible interfaces. The combination of adaptive software and advances in user interfaces that we can control through gestures, voice commands, and eye movements—and, eventually, direct mind-to-machine computing—will make casual computing something that just happens, in contrast to the cumbersome navigation of a wall of applications and a cascade of menus, all in the familiar head-down, hunched-over posture that is characteristic of the denizens of today’s mobile-computing world.

Invisible interfaces will help move our interactions with large corporations from a push to a pull model. Instead of using our eyes and hands to click through numbing trees of options on Web pages, we’ll use our voice to go directly where we want to go. Smartware will give users what they need in a more direct, unencumbered way that feels fast, easy, and empowering. While more hardcore types of production work will, for some time, continue to require more traditional computing interfaces, we’ll conduct most of our casual computing using human-friendly user interfaces that continuously learn from our interactions with them. The sorts of user interfaces we’ve come to know and expect will simply disappear.

3. Environments will be customized to the individual user.

Machine learning will construct an identity graph for each of us, combining with sciences of human understanding to predict our interest in any particular thing—or even pushing a particular thing to us before we even realize we’re interested in it. Our user inputs will combine with a wide variety of active and passive inputs from our environment and other people and machines, creating an effective, evolving identity graph that even includes our genome. Like most software and AI today, the systems that leverage our identity graph will not be very smart initially. But, over time, that will change and, in the process, our online and offline environments will reflect and cater specifically to our individual needs.

4. Physical presence will be optional.

Ever since the consumerization of the Internet, the digital world has been hacking the physical. We spend a lot less time in our cars, waiting in lines, or on the phone. But this is only the beginning. Smartware will remove the need to go anywhere. In the future, thanks to virtual reality, we’ll be able to buy cars, large appliances, and even homes with confidence—even if we’ve never sat in, touched, or set foot in them.

Thanks to invisible interfaces, poor findability or usability won’t prevent our doing things online. We’ll easily be able to handle all of our business directly, with our bank, our employer, or even with the government, without even needing to get dressed, let alone go anywhere, or having to fight our way through grueling automated menus or disorienting services. Thanks to additive fabrication, we’ll be able to print everything from replacement parts to dental mouthguards to game pieces, as easily as we print text on paper today. And we’ll play games using Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) headsets, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4—Razer OSVR for gaming
Razer OSVR for gaming

Image Source: Maurizio Pesce (CC BY 2.0)

Considering again advances in the hard sciences, as society benefits from these insights and our citizenry become increasingly healthy, there will be significant shifts in how we structure families, organizations, and relationships. A consequence of these changes will be healthful options for the virtualization of everything from collaboration to personal interactions.

5. Mobile apps, while fewer in number, will create an increasingly networked ecosystem.

For smartware to realize its full potential, we must consolidate the current patchwork of disconnected apps and services into an integrated data network. The combination of mobile computing and the open source movement has resulted in an explosion in apps that many different companies have created. Today, according to Evans Data Corporation, there are more than 12 million mobile-app developers worldwide. The barrier to entry for developing and marketing new apps is low.

However, this will change with the advent smartware. For smartware, apps that once required just simple programming skills, art sourcing, and good organizational skills will require effective machine learning, insights into sciences of understanding, and access to and integration into a broader delivery network. Over time, established frameworks and patterns, changes to our educational curriculum, and licensing deals will lower these hurdles. But the early days of smartware will see a consolidation of options, both in terms of available services and the variety of companies offering solutions.


Despite the ubiquity of the smartphones that seem to be ever present in most of our lives, today’s world doesn’t look that much different than it did five, ten, or even 20 years ago. But we see signs of a very different future before us, with science-fiction technologies such as self-driving cars, reusable space rockets, and quantum computing. It will be smartware that really changes the way our world works. While we may not achieve artificial life or a clear path to immortality, smartware will provide the infrastructure for our future interactions with technology. Its potential impacts in the decades ahead will be incredible. How even our near-term future will look is a question for our imagination as much as our intellect. What do you think is going to happen? What role do you think you can play in creating this incredible future?

To explore this topic further, check out our podcast, The Digital Life. Listen to episode 225, which focuses on smartware’s transformative technologies and appears in Figure 5. 

Figure 5—Podcast: Smartware: Transformative Technologies

Managing Director, SciStories LLC

Co-owner of Genius Games LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerAs a social futurist, Dirk envisions solutions to system-level problems at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society. He is currently the managing director of SciStories LLC, a design agency working with biotech startups and research scientists. In addition to leading SciStories, Dirk is a co-owner of Genius Games LLC, a publisher of science and history games. He also cohosts and produces Creative Next, a podcast and research project exploring the future of creative work. Dirk has been a design entrepreneur for over 15 years, has raised institutional venture funding, and has enjoyed two successful exits. He earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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