Design For The Augmented Age

November 02, 2020

Throughout human history there have been significant innovations that have defined our civilisation in the way we think and act. For several million years our actions and thoughts were defined in the paradigm of Hunting and Gathering. Following this period through multigenerational innovations we entered the Agricultural Age which extended for thousands of years. Subsequent inventions of the printing press and reading glasses generated a foundation for our collective civilisational consciousness to expand. This gave way to exponential innovations that allowed us to arrive more rapidly into the Industrial Age and Information Age.

Today, we're at the precipice of our next significant era - the “Augmented Age". History indicates that this exponential innovation horizon will usher a new age resulting in more rapid and radical changes in the way we solve problems - further accelerating the expansion of our collective consciousness and innovations.

The previous asymmetry between our digital and physical worlds is changing, impacting our shared reality. We are begging to see the coupling of our digital world and physical worlds. Manufacturing and utilities are measuring vital performance increases using the Internet of Things (IoT). Surgeons are experimenting with holographic anatomic models during surgical procedures. Governments are generating digital twins of their cities as virtual test environments to help improve decision-making and scenario-planning.

Still, today's technological applications are just snippets of what could be accomplished. To accelerate and maximise our potential we must design systems in which humans and machines function collaboratively in ways that complement each other's strengths and counterbalance each other's limitations. Our inherent human abilities are going to be augmented by computational systems transporting us into the Augmented Age.

"Men will set the goals, formulate the hypothesis, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking. . . . The symbiotic partnership will perform intellectual operations much more effectively than man alone can perform them."
- J. C. R. Licklider

To expand human and computer intelligence, we must explore the relationship by understanding and transforming our perspective on how we interact with technology:

  • We must shift perspectives from seeing machines as separate entities that fundamentally are technologies that automate tasks, to exploring the idea that machines' capabilities will be used to augment expanding our collective consciousness and improving the abilities of humans,
  • Consider the full potential of both humans and machines evolving mutually creating more value for each other, rather than the approach of machines as a tool for reducing costs.
  • We need to develop a more general outlook of designing systems for human-computer collaboration, rather than a human-dictated view of deploying technologies.
  • We need to change our focus to a more cohesive cyber-physical world rather than individual physical or virtual worlds.

Through changing our perspective towards working together and augmenting each other’s work, we will start to occupy a new space of advancement and produce unique ideas and solve problems in new and beautiful ways.

What is this new space, and how will this human and machine collaboration work?

Exploring this question is a project called "HIVE" conducted by Autodesk. The project’s objective was a prototype partnership of algorithms, robots and humans, working collectively to solve a remarkably complicated design problem; the task was to build a pavilion.

The humans navigated around the construction site, shaping and forming the elements. They carried out the labourers tasks, which is very difficult for robots to accomplish because of their non-isomorphic body. Conversely, the machines did the fibre winding, which is virtually impossible for a human to do. And all of this being directed by an AI system, telling the humans and robots what to do and managing and tracking the numerous individual components. Most excitingly the construction of this pavilion was not possible without humans, machines and algorithms collaborating and augmenting each other’s work.

Humans, machines and a better process for operating algorithms will side-by-side yield more reliable outcomes than both the most gifted humans or the most advanced algorithms working in isolation. The need to design these systems for human-computer collaboration demands more attention.

The late Steve Jobs explained augmentation and the concept of human-machine collaboration very well.

"I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we're tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. . . . Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list, but somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. . . . A human on a bicycle blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that's what a computer is to me . . . it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with; it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."
- Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is recognised for introducing human-centric design thinking into the personal computer. For us to achieve human-machine symbiosis and the "Augmented Age" it will require a similar foundation of design thinking into the domains of, robotics, data science and AI.

The state of things to come will be unlike anything we've ever seen before. We're going to have a world with more variation, more connectedness, more dynamism, and, of course, more beauty. Why? Because we will be redesigning the relationship between technology, nature and humanity.

Let's design the Augmented Age.

Link copied!

  1. Lesh, Neal & Marks, Joe & Rich, Charles & Sidner, Candace. (2004). "Man-Computer Symbiosis" Revisited: Achieving Natural Communication and Collaboration with Computers.. IEICE Transactions. 87-D. 1290-1298.
  2. J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-computer symbiosis,” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, March 1960, -%20Man-Computer%20Symbiosis.pdf. In this essay, Licklider analogized the relationship of humans and computers with that of the fig wasp and the fig tree.
  3. Jobs made this comment in the 1990 documentary film Memory & Imagination: New Pathways to the Library of Congress. Clip available at “Steve Jobs, ‘Computers are like a bicycle for our minds.’ - Michael Lawrence Films,” YouTube video, 1:39, posted by Michael Lawrence, June 1, 2006, https://

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