Android Founder on VR, Voice & the Future of Human-Machine Collaboration

Xconomy Boston — 

Within 20 years, computer keyboards will be relegated to the technology dustbin, says Android co-founder Rich Miner.

Miner helped shape the smartphone era with Android, a mobile operating system startup that Google acquired in 2005. Android software now powers over 2 billion devices. On Tuesday, Miner spoke at a mobile software developer conference in Boston organized by Facebook, part of the city’s HUBweek festival. He shared his vision for the future of human-machine “interfaces,” which he thinks will enable people to be more natural and “expressive” in their interactions with computers.

For “the past 75-plus years or so, we have knelt down to the computer and worked with it and talked to it on its level,” Miner (pictured above) says.

Miner and others believe that the way humans communicate with machines is undergoing a fundamental change. The keyboard—which dates back to the 1800s—will be phased out over the next couple of decades, except for some “legacy applications,” Miner argues. Touchscreens have already kicked off this shift.

Some technologists and business leaders, like Elon Musk, are advocates of brain-computer interfaces—think chip implants, wires hooked into our skulls, or less-invasive systems that use virtual reality headsets and sensors. Miner says that sort of technology might become commonplace someday, but he thinks it’s a long way off.

“I also happen to have a slightly more humanistic view of the man-machine interface, and I think it’s not the dystopian view of jacking directly into the computer and completely becoming de-personalized,” Miner says. “Forgive me—I am a believer in [virtual reality] technology. I love it for gaming and other things. But there is also a dystopian version of us living our world inside of goggles, and I think the future [user interface] can be much more interactive and much more collaborative with the computer.”

The key methods he envisions for communicating with machines will include voice recognition; “digital ink” (think stylus pens that enable you to write and draw on screens); and the ability for computers to understand facial expressions and gestures.

These technologies already exist, but are far from perfect. Miner believes they’ll continue to get better. Some example capabilities he mentions include holding up a hand to pause a video; software that digitizes and transcribes handwritten notes, even if the handwriting is so sloppy the writer can’t make out the words; and software that recognizes, from a person’s facial expression, that her or she is frustrated with an app—and responds accordingly.

The big idea, Miner says, is creating an intelligent virtual assistant “collaborating with me under the canvas, behind the microphone, behind the camera, just trying to figure out, like we all do, ‘What are you trying to get done? I can jump in and help you.’”

Miner, who is currently working in the Boston area on a secretive education-related technology project at Google, says he wishes schools would start teaching children shorthand instead of how to type on keyboards. People skilled in shorthand can take notes much faster than the fastest typist, he says. Furthermore, he argues, teaching children typing skills “does nothing to help them cognitively.”

“We teach kids in the third grade to start touch typing,” Miner says. “I think that immediately dumbs them down. I want them drawing on a big canvas.”

Asked by an audience member to expand on his thoughts about virtual reality, Miner says he thinks the technology holds promise, particularly for interacting with machines in a more immersive way.

“I do think it’s a while before we can get the tactile experience of virtual reality that we can get with a stylus in our hands and drawing fine lines,” he says. But, he adds, “I think these are all complementary technologies.”