Recently, on my daily subway commute, an adorable toddler sat in her stroller wriggling to get loose. After snacks and a pacifier lost her interest, her mom did what so many parents today do to occupy their children: she handed the baby her cell phone with a cartoon playing on it.
What happened next fascinated me, and before I explain I should note that I’m a mom as well , though my children are now in college and high school. As a result I was never faced with the toddler tech challenge as it hadn’t existed yet.
The baby quickly maneuvered the screen, knowing exactly where to touch to minimize the window and access other videos. She scrolled rapidly through the videos, swiping her index finger along the screen with certainty. She knew how to select the one she wanted. It all would have worked perfectly if we hadn’t hit a dead spot with no internet service that prevented her new video from loading. The frustration in her face as she watched the little loading circle go round and around as she pushed on the screen with no result was priceless.
Putting the failure to launch aside, I was amazed, even dumbfounded, by the way this little person, who doesn’t use words or know her letters or numbers, could navigate a complex device with such ease to get what she wanted. Watching her got me thinking about the seamless interaction between this newest generation and technology. Their expectations are already so great and they’re barely walking.
Contrast that innate feel for technology with the unease that many GenXers and younger Baby Boomers sense when they hear words like “automation” or “artificial intelligence.” I can’t comment on the Millennials viewpoint as I don’t live with any, but I know that for the GenZ class (my kids) doing anything manual that could be done by a machine or a service seems stupid: “It’s not the 80’s anymore, Mom!” is a common refrain of my offspring.
I believe the difference between my teens and the toddlers of today is subtle yet important: my children still have an expectation that they have to tell a “machine” what to do; they have to trigger the action to happen, whether via a verbal command (“Alexa”/“hey Siri”) or a couple of clicks of a mouse or screen. By contrast, for the youngest among us, the lines of delineation between the physical and virtual world are becoming nearly invisible.
In his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, visionary thinker Kevin Kelly paints a startling picture of the scale of the change to come over the next 20-30 years. He points out that automation, AI, a ubiquitous cloud, virtual reality, and real-time everything are just in in their infancy. While it all feels a bit overwhelming when taken collectively, the norms we take for granted today – web 2.0, smartphones, information on demand, ecommerce, a billion people connected via social networks, etc. – were hardly conceivable 25 years ago.
In his chapter on interacting, Kelly prophesizes that in the decades to come our digital interactions will involve more senses, intimacy and immersion. As we engage online, Kelly says “The system will check out a candidate’s attributes. Do the pulse, breathing, heart rate, voice, face, iris, expressions and dozens of other biological signatures match who (or what) they claim? Our interactions will become our password.”
Alas, we aren’t quite there yet, but we certainly want a better experience when we are asked to identify ourselves online today. We want systems that know us and only require minimal information to prove who we are.
We certainly don’t want the nuisance of having to remember random information from our past for the purposes of identity verification. Fortunately for consumers opening accounts and making important transactions online, complex algorithms and machine learning technology exist today to easily prove who we are, while at the same time protecting us and the institutions we engage with from fraudulent bad actors.
I have no doubt that the adorable toddler I encountered on the train last week will be ready for this rapidly expanding digital world, but she’ll also have high expectations for a seamless virtual experience that knows exactly who she is, because anything less will simply be unacceptable.