Leadership Insight

The Future of Technology is Recognition

At our annual 2019 Bombora Client event held a few weeks ago, we were introduced through our own Jay Parkinson, MD to a true Renaissance man, technology polymath, and deeply engaging thinker—Kevin Slavin, PhD.

Oh, he’d probably deny it all, but what else can you call a fellow who’s been trained and engaged in the arts, that also serves as a leading researcher with a well-funded team at the MIT Media Labs, who later served as Chief Science and Technology Officer for the multimedia space in New York called The Shed, is currently Vice-Chair of the Cooper Union, and . . . the list could go on. It’s not just that he’s done all of this, but the way in which he thinks about behavior at the intersection of culture, technology, and science that makes him so interesting. His TED talk on Algorithms gives a taste of how he thinks, speaks, and works. And, as I have always found with incredibly bright people, he is legitimately funny.

Underneath his impeccable deadpan delivery, however, were some incredible insights into the evolving role of technology in our society. We generally think about speed, automation, or process efficiencies when we dig into how technology will affect our lives. Kevin bypasses that traditional fare to focus on the “humanity” of technology, and how this human-ness can change the very nature of our relationships not just with tech, but also with each other. He argued that for all of technology’s ability to augment human “intelligence,” perhaps its most important contribution will be to augment human “recognition.”
That’s actually a really big idea.

Sure, computers are getting good at recognizing our faces, and even the always-late-to-the-party health sector is starting to use the growing mountain of data to propose treatment plans based on much better evidence—including predicting health issues and illnesses. That’s pretty cool stuff, but it’s not really (or at least entirely) what Kevin is pointing to when he says “recognition.” He’s focused on what technology can do to augment our human interactions—not just optimize processes—and the ability of tech to help us recognize that the detailed nuances of our behavior actually have a huge impact on healthcare. Everyone is concerned that digital will drive people out of healthcare, to be replaced by what . . . robots? Alexa? Or maybe, as Kevin points out, it can and should be used to bring us closer.

He gave the example of Warby Parker, and his personal story of trying to order glasses online for both the first, and then again the second, time (both unsuccessful). Kevin let a year or so go by, and then he finally visited a newer physical location. His in-store experience was enlightening, because the salesperson had all of Kevin’s online history and preferences, could recognize what he had gravitated to in the past, and was able to make personalized suggestions that were both to-the-point and full of that coveted “wow” factor. WP already had his payment information, and the entire experience (which actually began online three years before—think “Episode of Care”) was simple, seamless, and completely focused on recognizing, recalling, and immediately addressing his needs.

He compared it (unfavorably) to a contemporaneous process of buying a new refrigerator, which was ten times more expensive, and ten times less tech-enabled of an experience. Kevin astutely noted that while there were some digital tools designed to help the employee get basic information about the refrigerator, there was no information readily available that was for—or about—Kevin as a consumer. The technology that facilitated the refrigerator sale was, by design, all about inventory control and unwittingly, didn’t dedicate even a single electron to human recognition. Its very architecture was designed for a completely different purpose, and as they say, Architecture is Destiny. The comparison—and associated pictures comparing the “architecture” of the common EHRs that quickly followed—were met with audible groans in the room. Appliance Store vs. Warby Parker—unintentionally but unfailingly—each by their very architecture, able to recognize and personalize (or not) for the individual.

Kevin closed his presentation by speaking about “system design” in general and Service Design specifically (which I will touch on in future posts). But his challenge to our clients, and to us, was to ensure that we develop technology to supercharge what we already do, and in so doing, change the way we can relate to, and engage with, our members.

I’ll quote his concluding thought below:
“We can build software to eat the world, or we can build software to feed it, to heal it, and to improve it. That looks very different than optimization. It looks more like delight.”

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