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Over the history of time, the most paradigm-shifting innovations have shared a common trait. In this presentation, I go over some import innovations from the past that changed the world and have greatly impacted the way we live today, discussing the one thing they all had in common. In addition, I will discuss considerations all future innovations should include.

Event Details

Pluralsight Live 2020


Video: Secret to Great Innovation


Well hello, everyone, and thank you for joining me. I know you could have been doing a lot of other things at this moment, so I'm very grateful that you chose to be here with me. I also want to thank Pluralsight for inviting me to speak for this year's LIVE event.

Let me introduce myself real quick. My name is Gerard K. Cohen, and I am the Lead Accessibility Strategist for the Digital Solutions for Business Group at Wells Fargo. I currently have two courses on Pluralsight for front-end developers. The first is on meeting web accessibility guidelines, and the other is an introduction to developing custom components with ARIA. So if you work on the front end of the web stack, I highly recommend that you check out both of these courses.

I want to start off by telling you a true story that happened to me and my wife recently. We were taking advantage of our health and wellness program by scheduling a biometric exam through one of the approved pharmacies. In the earlier part of the week, I went to this nationwide pharmacy's website to schedule our appointment, but I was having problems with the website. Of course, with my background in front-end engineering, I attempted to troubleshoot and look for some workarounds with as many little front-end hacks as I could. I gave up after a while because it was obviously a back-end issue as it always is, and so I assumed that everyone else would be having the same problem online.

So we just decided we would show up early on Saturday morning to beat the crowd. When we arrived, we were greeted by a touchscreen kiosk for signing in and getting into the queue to be seen. Now even though this was a touchscreen, it was not very responsive to our actions, so I struggled to get our information entered. On top of that, it was about 40 screens long, and it was really slow to advance. If you could imagine tapping on the Next button to move from screen to screen took about 10 seconds each, so no exaggeration, this checkin took me about 15 minutes.

We sat down when were done finally, and I witnessed person after person struggling to get checked in. Now a wild thing about this kiosk was that it did not allow for the scheduling of any appointments for 1 hour before the doctor's scheduled lunch break. And I saw this one woman start well before the hour. But by the time she got to the end, she was not allowed to schedule herself because she had gone over that threshold. This meant that she needed to wait for 2 hours to schedule her appointment for later in the day. I mean, I was frustrated for her.

So of course, for us, appointments were running behind, and it didn't look like we're going to be seen before the doctors break. I'm pretty certain that the doctor had came out to tell us that we needed to wait until after her break to be seen. But I think she saw the look of hunger on my face since I had been fasting for 24 hours, and she just knew if I wasn't seen then that I would have wasted my fast and come back another day because I was ready to eat. Thankfully, the doctor ended up staying a little bit longer to see us, cutting into her break.

Now I want you to think about this entire experience. Basically, there were two automated systems that failed terribly, and the only thing that saved that situation was a live human. So that brings me to the TLDR part of my presentation. Everyone is wondering what is the secret to great innovation? And here it is...

Don't forget the humans.

No matter what your innovation is, you need to be intentional about including as many different kinds of humans as possible. People change over time. Methods of interaction and devices change. You get older and hopefully wiser. On top of that, each of us are different from one another. In fact, it's those differences that make us humans and not cold robots. Steve Wozniak, one of the cofounders of Apple, says it best by saying The human is more important than the technology. Make things more human.

This is Satya Nadella, and he is the current CEO of Microsoft, and he says, as we talk about technology, one of the things we need in particular as technologists and decision-makers is to keep in mind the timeless values that drive what we do. How are we going to use technology to empower people? We definitely want more productivity and efficiency, but we do not want to degrade humanity.

So let's talk about a few examples of paradigm-shifting technology throughout history. The first one I want to talk about is from 1801. Pellegrino Turri invents the typewriter, and there are other inventors of typing machines, but his was significant because he also created the carbon paper that was used as ink for the machine. So the story behind this is actually kind of funny, in my opinion. Back in those days, when a blind person wanted to write a letter, they needed to dictate their words to someone else to write down. Apparently, Mr Turri had fallen in love with a very beautiful countess who was losing her vision. And so he created this typewriter so that she could write him some saucy letters in private without having to dictate them to anyone out loud. I guess today this is what the young kids would call sexting. Eventually, typewriters gave way to keyboards, and we still use them today. You're probably sitting in front of one right now.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the patent for the telephone, and there's a lot of controversy around the invention of the telephone with a lot of other people claiming they invented the telephone before Bell and some people even claiming that Bell had stole their idea. But in any case, Bell was awarded the patent, and so we consider him the inventor. Here I have one of his very first telephone calls for you to listen to. "Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell."

Now Bell's inspiration for the telephone came from wanting to amplify sound because his mother and his wife were deaf. He was also a private tutor to Helen Keller, and obviously we still use phones today.

In 1877 following after the work of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph. I also have a very early recording of Edison and his phonograph, so let's take a listen...

"Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, that lamb was sure to go. (Laughter)"

Sounds like he was having a good time there.

One of Edison's intended uses for the phonograph was to create audio books for the blind. Blind people no longer needed to depend on family and friends to read to them. They could just listen to recordings on the phonograph.

Now this one is interesting. Moving into the 20th century, in 1913, Dr Edmund Fournier D'Albe invents the optophone. The optophone was the first OCR, or optical character recognition device, and his attention was to allow blind people to read books on their own. The optophone itself as a product did not last very long because it was really, really slow. But it did end up giving us OCR technologies, and this was a very important invention at the time.

In 1948, Bell Labs, which was started by Alexander Graham Bell, invents the transistor. Transistors are small devices capable of amplifying current, transistors eventually lead to being an active component in practically all modern electronics. Transistors are what allow us to have small electronic systems, and it's in everything that we use today. Interestingly, one of the main uses of a transistor was to decrease the size of hearing aids for people that were hard of hearing.

In 1973, Vint Cerf, recognized as one of the fathers of the internet, invents TCP/IP, the transmission control protocol/internet protocol. He did this while he was working for the Department of Defense. TCP/IP is considered the backbone of the internet, and it's how we're able to connect to each other. Right now, obviously, we're all using the internet to stream this presentation.

Another important innovation is speech synthesis, and it has its roots from the Bell Labs in the 1940s But in 1975 however, a company called TSI invents the first handheld speech synthesis called the SPEECH+, and this was a talking calculator for the blind. I have some audio of what this sounds like...

"87 + 65 = 152.00."

Today, speech synthesis is used for all kinds of voice interfaces. And if that synthesized voice sounds familiar to anyone, maybe you played the 1980 video game Berserk, which had talking robots using speech synthesis.

Here we have another entry by Vint Cerf. In 1982, Vint Cerf creates the first commercial email system while he was working for MCI, and it was called MCI mail. In this picture, he's receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, just one of the many accolades he has won over the years. Now I don't know if you can tell in this picture, but maybe you can see he's wearing a hearing aid because Vint Cerf is actually hard of hearing, and his wife is totally deaf. It's said that his inspiration for creating commercial email was to be able to communicate with his family members. Of course, we still communicate via email today.

Another father of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web in 1989, and this sits on top of the TCP/IP protocol that Vint Cerf invented. The World Wide Web is what we use to interact with each other on the internet. Not too far after, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee creates the first web server and web client or browser. You can actually still see the first website that he created, and it's dedicated to describing what the World Wide Web is. Of course, this entire presentation is running in a browser, so we're still using his innovations.

Finally, if I take all the innovations I have mentioned, typing, sound amplification, reproduction of sound, OCR, speech synthesis, and the internet, if you put all that together, you get mobile computing. All the innovations throughout history that I've shared are varied in type and impact, but I'm sure you have noticed some similarities that bind them all together. Most of these innovations have to do with connecting humans together because humans need connection, and in the process, they were able to improve the quality of life for people.

Connection is really important. A recent report by Cognizant titled 21 Jobs of the Future said "No matter how technological our age becomes, ultimately we, as humans, want the human touch. We want technology to help us as a tool, but we don't want technology for technology's sake."

Steve Wozniak, speaking about Steve Jobs, said "That's how he looked at the world. You don't really want a piece of technology, a certain type of chip. What you want is a solution to a problem in life."

Taking this concept and circling back to the innovations I shared, one other important similarity amongst all of them, which I'm sure you've noticed because I've been very intentional in pointing them out was that these innovations treated disabilities as a design challenge and, as a result, created assistive technologies as a solution. Assistive technologies are basically any kind of hardware, device, or software that is used by disabled people to help remove barriers created by a mismatch of their abilities and the environment around them. In most cases these barriers are in place due to bad design decisions that did not account for varied abilities or capacities.

Now let's talk about some upcoming future innovations real quick. Today, we are currently in what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and people are extremely excited. Now just a little bit of history here. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to mechanize production. The Second Revolution used electricity to create mass production. The Third Revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production. Finally, the Fourth Revolution blurs the lines between physical, digital, and biological spheres.

Each industrial revolution has no doubt improved the livelihood of people and created great economic stimulus. The Fourth Revolution is interesting because it has the potential and hope to do the same, but the revolution that we're in the middle of right now is a little different. With each revolution, there has always been a fear of losing jobs to the machines. But now the Fourth Revolution is closer to being the real thing. And instead of creating more jobs, we might actually end up seeing a loss of jobs that would create a greater divide between those on the positive side of the revolution versus the negative side of the revolution. All the smartest people in the field are excited but cautious because, well, most of you have seen movies like Terminator or those Boston Dynamics videos of robots moving like humans. We have an idea of what can come about if we're not careful, and yet we're speeding in that direction faster than ever.

Now this couldn't be a proper presentation on innovation if I didn't mention one of the major players in the industry 4.0, and that is obviously artificial intelligence and machine learning. There's a lot of hope for AI and for good reason. But just like any other tech, we need to make sure we use it for the right reasons. I'm sure some of you remember this commercial on TV with the rapper Common talking about Microsoft and how AI is being used to make better beer. Now no offense to bear drinkers, but personally, I don't feel this is the best use of AI, and this is just a simple and funny demonstration, but still. Is this what we want with our technology? Is this what we want our greatest minds working for?

Stephen Hawking said that "AI is likely to be the worst or best thing to happen in humanity." To confirm that point, a Pew survey of tech experts found that over one-third are worried that artificial intelligence will make humanity worse by 2030. 2030. That's only 10 years away. And honestly, I'm just not ready for that part of it.

Now even though there are a lot of warnings about AI, we should still be encouraged because we still have the opportunity to solve some serious things for people around the world. The biggest obstacle right now for AI is that it has a limited understanding and awareness of the world. AI needs to be programmed and instructed on how to be aware, and this is the next frontier for those in the AI world. Interestingly, this is also typical for people with intellectual disabilities, and this is a huge opportunity. If you can study and focus on improving and enhancing the abilities of those with severe intellectual disabilities, we can certainly use the same technology for AI. Focus on solving the problem for humans, and you will solve the problem for the machines.

Now I don't want this to be a bashing session on AI, so I do want to go over some specific use cases of AI that is helping humans to be better. This one is my favorite, and it's another contribution by Microsoft. It's the Seeing AI app for the iPhone, which uses the power of AI to describe people, text, and objects in a natural way. And I have a short video that explains this a little better.

(Video plays): "I'm Saqib Shaikh. I lost my sight when I was 7. And shortly after that I went to a school for the blind, and that's where I was introduced to talking computers, and that really opened up a whole new world of opportunities. I joined Microsoft 10 years ago as a software engineer. I love making things which improve people's lives. And one of the things I've always dreamt of since I was at university was this idea of something that could tell you at any moment what's going on around you. I think it's a man jumping in the air, doing a trick on a skateboard. I teamed up with likeminded engineers to make an app, which lets you know who and what is around you. It's based on top of the Microsoft intelligence APIs, which makes it so much easier to make this kind of thing. The app runs on smartphones, but also on the Pivothead smart glasses. When you're talking to a bigger group, sometimes you can talk and talk and there's no response. And you think is everyone listening really well, or are they half asleep, and you never know. I see two faces, 40-year-old man with a beard looking surprised, 20-year-old woman looking happy. The app can describe the general age and gender of the people around me and what their emotions are, which is incredible. One of things that's most useful about the app is the ability to read out text. -Hello, good afternoon. Here's your menu. -Great. Thank you. I can use the app on my phone to take a picture of the menu, and it's going to guide me on how to take that correct photo. -Move camera to the bottom right and away from the document. -And then it will recognize the text. Read me the headings. -I see appetizers, salads, paninis, pizzas, pastas. -Years ago, this was science fiction. I never thought it would be something that you could actually do. But artificial intelligence is improving at an ever-faster rate, and I'm really excited to see where we can take us. As engineers, we're always standing on the shoulders of giants, building on top of what went before. And in this case, we've taken years of research from Microsoft Research to pull this off. -I think it's a young girl throwing an orange Frisbee in the park. -For me, it's about taking that far-off dream and building it one step at a time. I think this is just the beginning.

Now I don't think that Pivothead smart glasses are available anymore, but the Seeing AI app is, and it's free and it works surprisingly well. So if you have an iPhone, I highly suggest that you play with it.

Another interesting use of AI is called Replica, and it is essentially a virtual assistant that learns from us to become us by using text conversations. It can answer emails and texts and respond just like you would. Now I know this sounds kind of wild, maybe it sounds like a Black Mirror episode, but once you get past the initial thought of it, there are some really great uses for this. The creator of this app realized that there's a spectrum of conversations that people have. And on one side are conversations that people would pay not to have, like ordering food or paying bills. And the other side are conversations that you would pay to have, like a therapist, a mentor, or a best friend. Replica can handle both of these types of conversations, and imagine the help this would be to serious introverts, for example, or people that have difficulty speaking. It could be a great companion for lonely seniors that are missing their family.

On this screen, I have Widex Evoke, which is the first hearing aid using advanced machine learning to learn from the wearer's inputs and preferences and even shares this learning with other wearers around the world. Wearers tell Widex Evoke what sounds they prefer by choosing between sound options presented on their smartphone. It then uses this data to deliver even better real-life sounds from the wearer's personal preferences when they need and in real time.

So we talked about past innovations and the danger of future innovations, but I want to leave you with some important considerations to think about while you're coming up with your own paradigm- shifting innovation. Tim Berners Lee, who I spoke about earlier as the father of the World Wide Web said "For people who want to make sure that the web serves humanity, we have to concern ourselves with what people are building on top of it. And here are some of the things for you to consider while building your next paradigm-shifting innovation.

Now most of these have to do with the design of user interfaces. But don't let the fact that you're not an interface designer prevent you from learning or understanding these considerations. They have a really big impact on how humans are able to receive and benefit from your great innovation.

The first is pretty easy to consider, and that's color. Choose colors wisely because not all humans can see colors in the same way. One example. The reason why Facebook is branded with blue is because Mark Zuckerberg has a red/green colorblindness. The color he sees best is blue, and that's why Facebook is blue.

Another consideration is the contrast of colors. Be careful of foreground and background colors. You should be able to clearly see the difference between colors, regardless of an inability to see those different colors. Recently, just a few years ago, Dropbox went through this multimillion dollar rebrand, which included changing the shade of blue in their logo to ensure proper contrast against various background colors.

Lastly, be aware of using color alone to signify meaning. As an example, we often use red to mean something is bad or green when something is good. But what if you're like Mark Zuckerberg and are unable to recognize red or green? Then what would happen when you use only those colors to signify something? The meaning of those colors is lost. So using plain text or icons in addition to colors is a good way to augment colors to provide meaning.

The next consideration is language. Basically, use simple language. There are different reading and comprehension levels. Not everyone speaks English as a primary language. Using simple language helps everyone.

Next, be prepared to internationalize. The internet made the world a smaller place, and someone from a different part of the world that doesn't speak English may want to use your application, site, or service. Now you don't necessarily need to translate into every language out of the gate, but you should be able to support different languages when you're ready to do so.

Lastly, it's not necessary to require gender, age, or prefix anymore for signup forms. If those things are absolutely necessary, then make sure you at least provide a way for users to change those values as these things can change over time.

Touch interfaces have simplified interactions for users. If your innovation involves touch, make sure that you have large touch targets. They should look like they're interactive and be large enough to activate. Try to avoid complex gestures. You shouldn't have to move your hands like a magician revealing a trick as an important gesture. Also, don't require actions to be completed within a certain amount of time or require gestures to be completed within a specific time sequence or tempo. Above all, make sure you provide alternate interactions. Gestures should not be the only way to accomplish something. Sometimes just a single tap or a swipe should be enough.

As I mentioned earlier, voice interfaces have been a big help to a lot of people. It was predicted that 50% of all searches will be by voice in 2020. And by 2023, 25% of business interactions will be by voice. Those are things like schedule meeting rooms or tasks in health care, hospitality, and entertainment, for example. But you have to be mindful of different speech patterns and accents. I had a good friend from Mexico that said he couldn't use Siri because it didn't recognize his heavy Mexican accent. Now these things are getting better, but we still have a lot to do to recognize things like stutters or stammers. 7.5 million people have trouble using their voice, and at least 3 million people stutter.

Now be sure to use short and easy-to-remember utterances. Long commands to memorize and say just doesn't help. Instead of being required to say set timer for 15 minutes, you should be able to accept timer 15 minutes. As mentioned earlier, make sure to provide alternate interactions. Voice should not be the only way to accomplish something. Of course, the easiest alternate is just to accept typed commands.

Facial recognition is not really new, but it is something that's becoming more mainstream. It's been around since 1965, and, surprisingly, we still have the same problems today as back then. As with voice interactions, be aware of varying situations. Lighting will change the way people look. A beard may change the way someone looks. Different angles change faces completely. Different people look different. There are different skin tones and shapes. We've all heard these horrible stories, for example, of automatic paper towel dispensers only recognizing light-colored hands or eye-scanning technology not able to recognize Asians. It's happened, and this is absolutely horrible. It excludes people by the very traits that make them human. So be sure not to build in any bias into your technology. And again, as always, provide an alternate interaction. Facial recognition should not be the only way to accomplish a task.

For example, how do you think face masks during COVID have impacted facial recognition? It's a good thing you can unlock your phone in other ways instead of using your face. And that's a real use case of providing an alternate interaction.

And my last consideration. The best way to avoid those horrible situation based on a personal bias is to hire right. Diversity and inclusion is extremely important. If you are sitting in a room and everyone looks like you or comes from the same place, then something is wrong there. A lot of times we hire based on a specific company culture. We want to hire people that fit that existing culture. But we shouldn't be trying to fit the culture. We should be trying to expand it and add to the company culture by hiring different people. Quite simply, there should be no presentation without representation.

If you are making things for people, you should have all people represented and included in the process. We don't just do things for humans. We want to do things with humans, and this is the key. This is how we can be sure to uplift humans because if your innovation does not impact or uplift humans, then all you're doing is creating technology to replace humans.

So I leave you here with one last reminder...

Don't forget the humans.

Thank you, everyone, and enjoy the rest of Pluralsight LIVE.