Mission Briefing

By most interpretations it’s rather silly to call this a mission briefing. There is not a formal mission, nor are the concrete objectives. With missions, objectives do not change and their scope is limited. What I’d like to do here is give a sense of my own direction and focus. I’ve gone into this a little bit in my about page, but I’d like to expand a bit on the core themes, explain their importance and my thoughts on how they play out in the market place.

One of the most important single beliefs I hold is that computation can augment the human mind. Historically tools have always allowed us to manipulate the world around us easier and probe the universe with greater accuracy. Computers and Mathematics allow us to augment the models by which we think about the world, and therefore are incredibly useful aides in addressing the problems and issues that face us. We’ve made a substantial amount of progress in this area in the past 60 years. We can communicate far more easily they would could in the late 60s and we use computers to inform nearly every technical question we have. However, as I’ll get into later, there is still an immense amount of work to be done.

If we look back to the history of Computer Science it’s clear that there exists an immense amount of ways to approach programming a solution to any problem. We’re just now starting to see services that implement a similar design to Grail (1968), but they are few and far in-between. In the late 60s we didn’t really know what computation was about and as a result we tried a lot of different ways to model a computers actions. Now it seems like the vast majority of technologists have forgotten that there are always other ways of solving a problem. It’s important to consider the possible ways to represent the problem and remember that Computer Science is still a relatively new field.

In 1963 Ivan Sutherland demonstrated Sketchpad, a general purpose drawing application that included a constraint solver. With Sketchpad you could create template objects, instantiate them, and define rules regarding how they behaved when deformed or combined. Since 1963, we’ve created thousands of specific editors for specific purposes. Instead of using a general purpose tool, you use Autocad, Sketch or Photoshop to do your work. Each comes with their own file formats as well as their own slant on how to model the problem of making 3D models or Graphic Designs. I believe that the general solution is more powerful and useful then the specific one. Similar to how programming languages have general interfaces, programs at a higher level ought to be able to communicate to each other and share functionality.

We increasingly turn to software to answer our questions, Bret Victor has a great paragraph about our increased dependence on software in his essay Magic Ink:

People turn to software to learn the meaning of words, learn which countries were bombed today, and learn to cook a paella. They decide which music to play, which photos to print, and what to do tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday at 2:00. They keep track of a dozen simultaneous conversations in private correspondence, and maybe hundreds in public arenas. They browse for a book for Mom, a coat for Dad, and a car for Junior. They look for an apartment to live in, and a bed for that apartment, and perhaps a companion for the bed. They ask when the movie is playing, and how to drive to the theater, and where to eat before the movie, and where to get cash before they eat. They ask for numbers, from simple sums to financial projections. They ask about money, from stock quote histories to bank account balances. They ask why their car isn’t working and how to fix it, why their child is sick and how to fix her. They no longer sit on the porch speculating about the weather—they ask software.

It’s important to consider the role software plays in our day to day lives. As software begins to permeate our day to day lives, this question of how software interfaces with each other becomes increasingly important. Most critically the questions that we can ask of software are limited by how the program is designed. There are two responses to this realization, either everyone learns to code or software has to somehow become more flexible. I am firmly in the second camp.

Taking Stock

If we look at the software we’ve made up till this point, we’ve been incredibly successful in two areas, Communication Software and domain specific Manipulation Software. The scale at which we can communicate with each other is staggering, although much of such communication (including this post!) is dominated by text. The software we use to manipulate content is generally domain specific, we have editors for images, videos, text, slides, or grids of cells but not generalized editors for content.

While these domains fall neatly into a specific business use case, they are all either about conveying an idea to a coworker or understanding a piece of data. While specific tools for professionals ought to exist — and I’m glad they do — most people reach for the tool that is overkill for their purpose. If you are designing a billboard, by all means use Illustrator or Photoshop, but if you’re sketching out a concept or teaching a coworker something, chances are the tool you’re using is overkill for that task.

The web in many ways was supposed to solve this problem, hypertext (HTML) was supposed to allow for manipulation of content and dynamic content. Instead what we’ve found to be the case is that the content itself stays static, while the page is merely a vehicle for content that is not computational. For example on Youtube, the videos are the content and a static, the webpage is a delivery mechanism for the traditional content. This is the case across the vast majority of websites, with the exception being graphics experiences, or interactive infographics.


Outdated Constraints

Essentially we are continuing to enforce constraints on our software that are limiting the medium. While these constraints may have allowed for the program to be workable in the past, those choices ought not to impose on the flexibility of the software once they are not needed.

Malleable Software

Software is essentially constrained to what the programmer designed it to accomplish, while all software follows this essential law, some have less restrictions than others. It’s important to refocus on what we really want, which is software that is malleable to the end user and does not restrict the types of questions they can ask. Physical goods that people enjoy using are malleable as well, they conform and adapt to how the person uses them. Clothing and boots are broken in, furniture holds other items, and cars are modified to tow a trailer or carry a Christmas tree on top.

Most people don’t have the same sense of ownership over their software, the physical equivalent is working with immense opaque spheres. There does not exist any means of changing the interfaces, or making the software your own. If you’d like two spheres to work together the best you can accomplish is placing them closer together, if you want to modify the functionality the best case scenario is to affix a change with force of will and copy + paste.

With physical goods there is a notion of building something new from components, from various furniture you build a living room, from different components you create a outfit. There is no such composition with software, and as a result you can not create anything new, or consider an alternative way of doing things. As a result people are locked into various alternative world views, but have no means to create their own.

Communicating Goals

Communicating goals is an incredibly difficult endeavor, but it seems as thought there is progress being made here. But first, what is exactly valuable about communicating a goal to a computer? Fundamentally UI is about communicating intention. However with a UI we first consider how the software has represented the problem, then make actions that convey our intentions within that model. Communicating goals is the inverse of this interaction, instead of internalizing the model the software has chosen, we instead signal our own goals and intentions and the software reasons about the best way to achieve those goals. This model of interaction is immensely more powerful than poking a grid of pixels, as it places the burden on understanding the model on the machine, instead of on the user.

However, this seems like a pipe dream. If such a machine existed all problems in the field of Human Computer Interaction would be solved. So the question is how far away are we, and will we ever arrive? While I do not have definitive answers for these questions — and I doubt anyone does — I am confident that we are making substantial progress. Systems like The Wolfram Language illustrate a deep knowledge about the objects in the world and the computations can be done with them. The first step towards representing goals is to represent the objects goals are defined in, and in that regard we’ve made meaningful progress.

The Market

If the vision that I’ve outlined above is so superb why is it that this isn’t the world we live in? What factors and incentives are a play that are keeping this vision from being a reality?

First, and perhaps most importantly, value is only created when a significant number of companies adopt. If few other companies adopt you have wasted time and resources developing a technology that serves no purpose. Furthermore you cannot expect to start such a project knowing if others will adopt the technology.

Currently there is no market demand for such communication across products and services. Users have no idea that things could possibly work in such a manner and therefore also have zero expectations that they do. No user looks at a companies effort and laments the lack of compatibility or expects them to do better in this regard. The majority of users are focused on features and GUI updates, not interfacing with other programs.

Beyond these issues, the incentives fundamentally skew towards increasing switching costs in order to maintain a current market cap. Once you have a user paying for your product why would you make it easier for them to switch to a competitor? Companies want their software to be defensible, and allowing people to move data across products is the antithesis of having a moat.

Traditionally the only plan of attack was to create your own standards and standard representations. This rarely works, with the notable exception of open source code and standards. Bringing the same values into the product discussion is a different task altogether and the last thing I want to do is create a standard to rule all standards.

A possible plan of attack

This is not so much a plan of attack as it is a list of interesting paths to be explored.

Computational Building Blocks

In order for people to feel comfortable with computation the model has to make logical sense. We ought to strive to make computers operate in a manner that is naturally expected and logical to the end user. We’ve made some really outstanding progress in this area, but there’s more to do. One area that is lacking is in making software compose and work together with other software. Computational Building Blocks is the notion that all pieces of logic can be combined together to form more novel and specific software that can in turn solve more specific problems. Of course you want to do this without breaking down the high level abstractions to the end user. Some software already does a great job of modeling the problem in a way that matches closely how their users think about it, but those applications are not malleable, and certainly are not the norm. Making everything a block that builds upon each other allows for modularity and malleability. It also allows users to ask questions that they would not be able to ask otherwise.

What needs to be known?

Another way to think about the problems in HCI is through the lens of what needs to be known to complete a certain task. For example in order to send an email you need a email address, credentials to send an email from that address, recipients, a message body and so on. If the system knows you need to do something and in order to complete that task it needs a few pieces of data, the system should only ask for those items. It shouldn’t ask for things it already knows, therefore focusing on the novel information to the task you’re trying to perform. This can be applied to more complicated problems as well, the user may even provide an indication of what computation path would be the most fruitful for achieving a specific task. However the system is always working in a goal framework, and is solving for the goal with a given set of computational constraints.

As computing becomes more complicated and heterogeneous these constraints will become more important as programs could be running across multiple machines working towards the same goal. The key for the end user, is that the computer works towards a task you provide and you help it along the way. The computer takes care of the computer aspects, while they provide the goal and information needed.

Wrapping up

Of course nothing I’ve said here is easy to fix, but I do think it is worthwhile to spend time working towards such a future. If we don’t most people will not feel empowered by software. Instead of creating they will consume, instead of exploring they will watch, and perhaps worst of all it will become exceedingly difficult to cope with the deluge of information and data that can only be made sense of by computing.

Perhaps you think this is fruitless, or a naive quest from someone without enough years under his belt. If you do, reach out and tell me why. If you agree and think this is worthwhile to spend time considering, reach out, I’d be interested to hear your perspective as well.