Mark Rolston, Cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of argodesign, is a renowned designer with a 25-year career of creating for the world’s largest and most innovative companies. An early pioneer of software user experience, Mark helped forge the disciplines around user interface design and mobile platforms.
Mark Rolston will be speaking at the Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd. In anticipation of that, I caught up with him to ask a few questions.
Byron Reese: Let’s start with what you think we will be interfacing with machines in a decade?
Mark Rolston: For most of the 20th century we imagined our future with very physical visions: Massive superstructures, space travel, and amazing machines taking care of everything around us. Today we see the future arriving very quietly but no less profound than those visions. In ten years we will speak as often, or likely more, to machines as we do each other. With some of those machines we will even develop relationships that leverage human concepts such as trust and friendship. Everyone, everything, and everywhere will be codified, interactive, and addressable through ubiquitous interfaces scattered throughout our environments. And most profoundly we will be part cyborg. I don’t mean we will have mechanical implants (although we might) but instead if we were to assess who we are we will find a great part of us has become reliant on our digital dopplegangers. Our friends and business associates will frequently interact with our digital selves. By the way we call this digital+physical new self “Meta-Me”. Many of these interactions will occur outside of our interference because our digital “meta-me” has come to know us so intimately that it knows how you think. Today we rely on external systems such as maps and yelp to help make decisions. In ten years our minds will become so entwined with digital systems that we will scarcely recognize our own independence.
So you really think that in just ten years we will count machines among our friends? Do people want emotional relationships with machinery?
Sure. We already show love for precious objects in our life- cars, furniture, memorabilia, etc. And obviously we find room to love our pets even if they may not love us back. I’ve also watched my kids treat our Amazon Echo like a character, calling it “her” rather than “it”. So as everyday objects take on character it’s not hard to imagine us lending affection towards them. This won’t just happen overnight. It’s happening now.
Tell us about the work you are currently doing?
As a product design group we’re working on a range of digital and physical products. What’s exciting about these projects is that they are all examples for how much the world is changing because of advances in computing. Our partnership with WrapMedia is focused on developing an on-demand interface for the emerging world of devices and systems that don’t have their own interface. For example, if your car wants to tell you it needs an oil change, it needs a way to do that. In this scenario it sends you an instant application, called a ‘wrap’, that tells you where you can go for this oil change, helps you make the appointment, and offers you a discount on the visit. We are seeing incredible demand for GUIs that solve for these types of asymmetrical computing scenarios. We’re also working on the next generation of our PEQ smart home user interface. The platform is expanding to do so much more than the first gen of smart home software. We just finished a program with Farmlink that brings big-data and sophisticated data-modeling to the farming industry through a very accessible mobile user interface. And we have a team doing research in Tanzania and Jordan around using digital tools to drive entrepreneurialism in developing markets. Overall these projects follow a familiar pattern– computing has disrupted everything in life, and design is needed to help build and make sense of it all.
As a business argo is founded on a new model where we work as equity partners with our clients. Since our founding, we have established ten equity partnerships and have refined our process for working within this unique framework. The dynamics are very different because we act much more like an integral part of our partner’s operation. In many cases, such as with WrapMedia and PEQ, we have been their entire product design team from day 1. it means the product is much more than just something we worked on. This model has helped us change the way we operate the business.
I would guess that technological advance is a double-edged sword with regard to interfaces. On the one hand, tech lets you do things that you never could before, like recognize gestures or speech. On the other hand, we want our devices to do almost everything, even anticipating our needs. That’s a far cry from back in the day when the entire interface to a vacuum cleaner was an on-off switch. How does all that net out?
It nets out in deep changes in how we relate to our world and each other. We’re used to talking about the places and objects around us. Soon we will talk to them. Among the more interesting changes will be a potentially deep dependence on software for making decisions. Think about how digital maps have changed the way we find our way. Now apply that kind of shift to a much broader range of decisions we make every day.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing?
Every project we do is new– new problems, new concepts, new technologies, and new user expectations. On top of that we’re often engaged with the client in our unique business model. Because of that we’re constantly going in blind, developing the thinking as we go. But then again that’s why we do this and why we love it.
What challenges will the larger world face as we come to need to interface with machines more and more?
The list is long but two things concern me the most: The first is what this rapid change is doing to our own humanity. Never in history have the basic affordances of human interaction changed so rapidly and dramatically. The second is that technology is fundamentally an accelerator. It can magnify whatever we choose. I think we all shared initial optimism that technology can be used to create more opportunity for everyone. And it has to a large extent. But I’m seeing that we’re entering a new era where technology is just as effective of a tool to accelerate imbalances in the world. Winners don’t just win like they used to. Competitive advantage is radically magnified in digital. It makes competition more binary and that’s often not a good thing.
Hmmm. Elaborate on that. I would have argued just the opposite. Technology enables vast numbers of new entrants to compete against established companies. How would you have competed against Standard Oil a century ago? But today, anyone can compete against Microsoft. In fact, the simple fact that many of the greatest tech companies out there are less than two decades old, such as Google, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, eBay, and Amazon, sure looks like they can compete successfully.
Ok, this part of the conversation wades deep into politics and what each of us believes the role technology will play in society and economics, but it is important that we not assume tech is only a force for good. I love that tech has brought about seismic shifts and ushered in a new era of companies. Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, etc. are great examples of disruption from tech. Uber is an example where we’re consolidating 100s of separate companies into one global transportation behemoth. The upside is that they’re killing off what we hated about taxi service. The downside is a consolidation of economic power and the commoditization of employment. Not every disruption will net out positive once the dust has settled.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this subject. I look forward to further discussion in September.
Mark Rolston will be speaking on the subject of human-machine interface at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd.