Business is a human-to-human activity. That’s a simple truth we’ve lost sight of, says SAP Chief Futurist Martin Wezowski. He proposes a human-centric approach to technology that could offer an “empathic symbiosis” of people and machines.

Technology has become such an integral part of our lives that we are often lost without it. When was the last time you looked for the best route on a map and didn’t turn on your navigation device?

But sometimes technology can also drive us nuts. Especially when it doesn’t understand what we want from it.

“What is needed is not a new way for people to look at technology, but no less than a paradigm shift towards a mutual understanding. Human ingenuity and machine intelligence in empathic symbiosis,” says Wezowski.

Our Disenchantment with Technology

Although technology has come a long way – from the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, to reading glasses and medicines – we’ve also learned that it’s a double-edged sword.

While technology is more present than ever in our work and daily lives, a certain disenchantment with technological progress has set in. Our generally hopeful attitude towards benign technological progress has been challenged by the knowledge that technology can sometimes create new problems, like privacy issues, the spread of misinformation, and cybercrime.

In fact, the speed at which technology is evolving is sometimes perceived as a development that might eventually leave humans behind. People worry whether they might lose their jobs to automation or if insurance companies will deny them as customers due to certain information included among all the data that is being collected about us. And there is the looming fear that machines will become smarter than the people who build and use them.

“There are, in fact, many years ahead of us during which the most relevant intelligence in the room will be the human ingenuity and creativity brain,” Wezowski reassures. “But what does it mean for us, if many people actually don’t like the way things function today? Systems that are supposed to make my life easier still ask me to fill out forms and type in my login credentials by hand.”

Let’s Focus on (Digital) Me

“By and large, we are still hunters and gatherers in the workplace,” Wezowski says. “There are so many things we need to actively look for every day! Phone numbers, files, customer numbers.”

Augmenting humans with machine knowledge enables them to remember all these mundane details at the speed of light. Machines are simply better at handling large amounts of data. But there are also things that machines cannot grasp that are self-explanatory to humans.

“Making the machine understand why you get up every morning and go to work is not easy,” Wezowski says. “How can I explain my ambition and my purpose to a machine? How can the corporate vision of my company and our heartfelt purpose be translated into machine understanding?”

Therefore, it is not enough to optimize technology – to make machines run faster and more reliably, to feed them with more and more data and develop better algorithms. Technology must optimize people’s lives: their daily work, habits, and interests. The things that truly matter to us humans. Getting to know the human that the software is being built for is only the first step.

“Work is already very hard today. All sorts of help is required for us to function throughout the day and reflect where we are at,” Wezowski says. “With the amount of information that we produce and need to internalize and understand to make decisions, we reach our cognitive limits even with eight hours of sleep and daily meditation.”

When machines share our cognitive load or even take it off our shoulders, we can focus on strategic and visionary thinking instead and let the system take care of those mundane details like providing the necessary files for the next meeting or customer numbers.

Composed Applications Depending on Your Needs and Wishes

Applications will have to understand more context to avoid becoming just another layer of complication.

“We are the ones who can make applications more context-aware by sharing knowledge about ourselves – safely, securely, privately,” Wezowski stresses. “This is what the DigitalMe project is about: the contextual understanding of the individual, not the generalization of individual problems using personas.”

A human-centric approach means creating technology that can differ from situation to situation, responding to our needs and desires. It can learn from our behavior and compose itself accordingly. Each individual encompasses many roles: scientist, coach, mother, lacrosse player, and so on. For one composed software to support you with picking up your daughter from school in the afternoon and with budget negotiations for your next project later that day, applications need to be anchored in the individual.

Depending on the role you find yourself in a certain situation, the software you need at that precise moment must compose itself differently each time. By allowing the software to get to know the individual and thus helping to shape the software, it will eventually be a reflection of him or her, Wezowski believes. “We’ll understand each other without having to make an effort. The better the application knows us, the more respectful it can be towards our pains, needs, and preferences. It can even point out your own habits and preferences to you – at your request.”

“So, augmentation will go both ways. It will be more than a mere division of labor into machine-fit and human-fit tasks,” Wezowski says. For people to appreciate this additional help it must be offered in a reflective, unobtrusive, and nudging way.

“Imagine it more like a flow of thoughts or a discussion that you are a part of,” he says.

The Desktop of the Future

“Only what you need, only when you need it,” Wezowski sums things up. “Knowledge assembled in front of you and revealed in your situational context.”

Instead of the human asking, “How does this software run, where do I have to insert my user ID and click?” the software will act on the question, “How does this human behave?” Not people in general, not a generic persona, but Kate, Ling, Samira, or João – the individual in a given context in real time.

“We expect no less than a cultural shift from this compassionate software,” Wezowski says.