An interesting bit of tech news that made its way across social media not too long ago was the revelation/admission that the Windows 3.0 version of Solitaire, and subsequently released games like Minesweeper, Hearts and FreeCell were created, not just for entertainment, but as clever teaching tools designed by Microsoft to introduce computer users to the fine art of “drag and drop”. Remember this was 1990, and GUIs (graphical user interfaces) just started to become commercially available in the previous decade. For some users this was their first interaction with a PC, and everyone else had been brought up interacting with computers by typing out command-lines. It seems to have worked. In no time, command-lines were out and point and click was in.
We might be quick to adopt new technology, but then we want that technology to get out of the way. That’s not to say we want to get rid of it. We just want it to be easier, more accessible, more streamlined. We want it to disappear. Why type a command line when you can drag and drop, or simply swipe? Why write out a query when you can simply ask it? It reminds me of a scene in "Back to the Future II” where Marty McFly shows a couple kids in the retro-themed Cafe 80’s how to play an old arcade shooter. Incredulously they look at him and respond, “You mean you have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy.”
The Disappearing Internet
When Google chairman Eric Schmidt was asked about his predictions for the future of the web at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland at the start of 2015, he spoke directly of this technological phenomenon: “I will answer very simply that the internet will disappear,” said Schmidt. “There will be so many IP addresses … so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.”
Schmidt was talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) and the not-too-distant future world of connected devices and infrastructure. It’s not a stretch to think about our past relationship to the internet as being just as rudimentary as inputting command lines for every action we made on a computer — plotting our course across the web in a linear fashion, instead of a myriad of "hands-free" processes occurring simultaneously. “Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic,” Schmidt continued. “And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”
This idea of a technology dissapearing act has also been shared by Kevin Ashton (the man who first coined the term "Internet of Things".) Speaking at a conference in Seoul, South Korea in 2014 he said, "RFID tags are kind of invisible, and that's an interesting caution ... as we move to the future. Some companies, some nations are going to get left behind simply becasue the Internet of Things is invisible. So don't be fooled by the fact that you see smart phones everywhere or video games everywhere, but you don't see the Internet of Things everywhere. The reason you don't see is becasue it is so small."
Privacy and security in this new invisible frontier will always be a concern of course, but innovation rolls on. When e-commerce came around in the Dot-Com era we were reluctant to put our credit card information online. Now, in the 2nd quarter of 2015, U.S. retail e-commerce sales totaled $83.9 billion. If we once balked at the idea of sharing our social lives online, you wouldn’t know it today; not with 1 billion people logging onto Facebook in just one day — 1 out of every 7 humans on earth. We might be sensitive about sharing health information online, but as we track our health and fitness with wearables more and more, how long will it be before we start forwarding that information to our primary care providers?
Technology Disrupting Healthcare
The idea of “disappearing” technology is compelling in industries like healthcare, where communication between clinicians and their patients is paramount. When nurses are able to spend more time with patients, they are less likely to suffer falls, infections and medication errors, and are more likely to be satisfied with their care. Patient care has become a primary focus in healthcare technology developments. This is happening, in part, with the transition of hospital staff adopting mobile-based technology and workflows. It's helping to streamline clinical operations, and service operations as well. “I think the biggest advantage of tablets in the OR is the fact that they bring data closer to the patient,” said Dr. Andrew Litt to OR Today back in 2012. “COWs [computers on wheels] helped in this regard, but tablets take it several steps further. And many patients today, who use smartphones and tablets in their everyday lives, expect this kind of mobile technology from their healthcare facilities.”
Using mobile technology outside of the clinic, increased internet bandwidth and speeds have made telehealth a viable option for initial consultations and follow-ups. "Doctors right now spend a lot of time with patients who don’t need to be in the office,” said Mayo Clinic physician Steve Ommen in a recent article for Forbes. "If we can change the way they interact with people who don’t need to be in the room, we can improve access for people who do.”
With a population monitoring their health through smart devices connected to the Internet of Things, perhaps in-person hospital visits will change as well. One can imagine, (like Schmidt described) as patients enter the hospital setting, the space adapting to that particular patient — downloading primary care information detailing allergies to medication, preexisting conditions and a wide spectrum of other health analytics. This data would have been collected over time through wearables and other health monitors. Imagine the power this kind of data might have to make costly and unnecessary testing disappear.