Bill Gates’ Call To Action on Information Overload

09/21/2016 08:25 pm ET

Today the challenge is to make computers more intelligent. Software still doesn’t understand what thing I should pay attention to next – in fact the proliferation of various tools like texting and email and notifications mean the user has a lot of complexity to deal with. Eventually the software will understand what you should pay attention to by knowing the context and learning about your preferences.Bill Gates

When Bill Gates says that there is a problem with information overload, people listen.

I know I did - but this is a problem I’ve been following for several years now. This statement by Bill Gates from his March 2016 Reddit interview (an “AMA” or Ask Me Anything, in Reddit lingo), captures what we’ve been working on at Delvv, where we build user-focused solutions to the information overload problem based on machine learning technology.

As many commentators have pointed out, we have a major problem handling an endless flow of content. We live in an era of ubiquitous information and constant interruptions delivered through our mobile devices. Most of us agree on the problem, but we have yet to widely adopt a workable solution.

The solution, as Mr. Gates implies, is to harness the power of AI to reduce the overall complexity for the end user. This problem is a natural match for artificial intelligence, where profiling interests and needs and parsing natural language are part of the common toolkits that have been developed over the last decade.

Unfortunately, much of the recent activity in this exciting area has been focused elsewhere. Every time we hear about new artificial intelligence technology, we hear about messaging platforms, chatbots and textual interfaces. Left out of the conversation is how we can utilize AI to tackle the the huge usability problems created by our mobile, digital lives. Unplugging may sound like a nice alternative, but it’s not realistic for most of us, most of the time, between our work and personal life obligations.

In other words, merely stepping away from the unmanageable firehose of information coming at us from our devices is not the solution. We need to change the flow of the firehose itself.

It’s not like companies aren’t trying. It has become de rigeur in the workplace tech space to talk about reducing information overload, being less busy, and separating the signal from noise. Messaging and project management products like Slack, HipChat, Asana, and Wrike have gained substantial followings.

Unfortunately, these products seem to throw up their hands at the underlying problem with our devices and operating systems and direct users to a new, less cluttered information channel. The experience is great, until that channel becomes as cluttered as the others, or users realize now they have yet another channel (albeit perhaps more usable and well-structured) to monitor and interact with.

The solution is easier said than done.

There are a lot of barriers to implementing real system-wide solutions to information overload in practice. The biggest one, though, is a fundamental neurochemistry issue--many of us love our interruptions even though we generally recognize that they are disruptive and, in many cases, not relevant. This is driven by a “fear of missing out”--the anxiety many of us feel about not having a tidbit of information. The thought of letting an algorithm make a decision for you about what you should miss can be a scary thought.

Even the busiest and most productivity-focused users seem to share this basic fear. But if our evolution with email is any indication, change gradually happens. With email, we eventually accepted that we needed spam or junkmail folders, and even promotional/social email folders, to help contain the mess of communications we receive. Even though the algorithms that sort our email are never 100% accurate, we’ve come to accept that the risk of occasionally missing a real email is well worth it to keep our brains from exploding from hundreds of daily spam messages.

We made a tradeoff.

Some of the other hurdles facing a solution include the fact that the notifications are quite heterogeneous. Some relate to human communications, and some automated system communications. This makes the problem harder. Another issue is that these centralized functions are deeply linked to our device and computer operating systems. This means that there are security concerns, and the cooperation of operating systems and device manufacturers are needed to fully implement real technology solutions to this problem.

It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t believe that we can continue with the status quo. Something’s gotta give.

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