Apple is a company known for innovation. But its rumored iWatch may be a huge misstep.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
The advent of wearable computers was one of Ray Kurzweil's early predictions about the ever nearing Singularity, the moment when computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence and slowly slip out of our control. At the time he said it, the prediction was as strange sounding as the idea we might all one day be wearing phone booths, and yet both have come to pass in their own ways, though in doing so both have revealed arcane inflexibility in how we used to think about computers and phone booths. With smartphones, the world is your phone booth, and with portable, wearable computers it becomes your office and entertainment center.
Apple has arguably played the biggest role in the transformation of both telephone and computer from weighted masses of plastic anchored in place, to constant travel companions, adornments we have begun to treat almost like prized dolls, dressed up in colorful rubber outerwear. For being the prime mover in Ray Kurzweil's futurism, Apple has become the most profitable company in the world, its 2012 earnings of $41.84 billion rank as the sixth most profitable year in recorded history. Mysteriously, the stock market responded to Apple's good tidings with an 11% drop in its share price.
Once Apple came to dominate the smartphone market, the next step in its product line could be a backward one, attempting to revive an outmoded technology.
This schism between skeptical investors and enthusiastic customers is the culmination of a growing uneasiness about Apple's future products becoming overly formulaic, or rather insufficiently miraculous. To compensate for the absence of miracles, rumors have circulated that the company is working on wristwatch that will have the magical properties of an iPhone available by simply looking down at your wrist. A Bloomberg report cited former Nike creative director Scott Wilson in claiming Apple's design chief Jony Ive had visited its watch factories and taken boxes of samples for study. The report also notes Apple has filed 79 different patents that include the word "wrist," with one showing a design for a wraparound wrist band display.
The idea is both plausible and absurd, forwarded by "people familiar with the company's plans." Apple's general trajectory over the last decade has been to simplify the way one interacts with computers and shrink them into a broader array of portable categories, encouraging people to first turn first to their touchscreens for grocery lists, emails, and pastimes. Having a wristwatch join this array, a smaller and marginally more accessible alternative to a smartphone, does somewhat fit with the company's general strategy, but it's also veers into improvements so peripheral to what is currently offered by iPhones and iPod Nanos that the benefits would be hard to pick out and hold onto.
In a review of Kurzweil's most recent book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, Colin McGinn notes that the Law of Accelerating Returns, Kurzweil's famous theory that as computing power doubles ever year information technology grows exponentially, is not a natural law but a psychological one. Kurzweil admits there is a not-too-distant endpoint for the law, where the structure of atoms themselves will prevent computers from becoming any faster. "Once the information capacity of one medium has been exhausted," McGinn writes, "engineers come up with a new medium, with even more potential states and yet more tightly packed. But then the 'law' depends on a prediction about human ingenuity—that we will keep inventing ever more powerful physical systems for computation." The law really says that human ingenuity improves exponentially, a temporary phenomenon that will expire as rapidly as it appeared, an "interesting, historical fact, not written into the basic workings of the cosmos."
If there is an ultimate material limit to our pursuit of technological advancement through microprocessors, there is also a limit to the advancement of human experience had through them. As we are becoming more familiar with life surrounded by computers, it is inevitable that we will soon reach a point where the technically new experiences they can give will start to seem like variations on the same theme. And the more one variates the same theme, the more opportunity the user has to wonder about its merits. Do we really want access to emails, Internet searches, and the digital interlocutions of loosely held acquaintances to be strapped to our wrist at all times? Is there not a relieving effect of being able to see the hard and clear border between technology and environment, which the user has unambiguous control over?
If Apple makes a watch it will be a complete circle of irony in that cell phones gradually obviated the functional need of the wristwatch in the first place. Once Apple came to dominate the smartphone market, the next step in its product line could be a backward one, attempting to revive an outmoded technology. Kurzweil has meanwhile become director of engineering for Google. The early results of this partnership between the world's biggest Internet company and a man who is actively trying to become immortal have been a general plan to train the search engine to be users' "cybernetic friend." Speaking at Singapore University's NASA campus earlier this year, Kurzweil foresaw a future where "the majority of search queries will be answered without you actually asking." This is perhaps the most anticlimactic vision for the future yet proposed, one where computers present us with answers to questions we haven't even asked, like how can I get email and text messages into my wrist watch? Inevitably the answer to every question will be "computers," a response we will, at some point, tire of hearing.