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Nonkiller Apps Are The Future: Here's Why

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I first heard the term "killer app" in 1992, when a fellow Apple engineer explained to me that every computer needed one. Without a killer app, the computer would never cross the chasm between being a toy for a small audience of enthusiasts and becoming a must-have tool for a mass audience of consumers. VisiCalc, one of the first popular spreadsheets, was the killer app for the Apple II personal computer. For many people, Microsoft Office was the killer app for Windows computers. Email was the killer app for BlackBerry smartphones. Consumers didn't buy computers -- they bought killer app machines. Much of my professional career as a technologist has centered on building killer apps.

The killer app concept is alive and well today. Clearly, the killer app for the modern computer is the web browser. Few of us would buy a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone that could not connect to the World Wide Web. New computing devices, like smart TVs and Google Glass, are still waiting for their killer apps. Without a killer app or two, these technological marvels will fade away like the Apple Newton did more than a decade ago.

I assume the term killer app came from the phrase "to make a killing." I never thought much about the metaphor -- the use of the word "killing" as a synonym for "succeeding" or "winning." But it's a little creepy to think about what the word killer really means. After all, a "murder app" or "homicidal app" doesn't sound appealing, and yet all these words are interchangeable synonyms.

Back in the 1970s, a preeminent social scientist was struck by an idea that changed his life, made him reevaluate his research, and caused him to coin the word "nonkilling." His name was Dr. Glenn Paige, and his revelation came when he recognized the true cost of all the killing humanity was doing in the name of security. Paige went on to write at length about the issue and found the Center for Global Nonkilling. He now works with world leaders to realize a world where killing is not an acceptable means to an end.

One thing that has changed since Paige started on his mission is the rapid adoption of computer technology. In the 1970s, computers were just starting to become consumer appliances that a non-technologist might own. Now, our phones and automobiles have become computers. Very shortly, we'll be living in the "Internet of Things" where computers are ubiquitous and killer apps are running our lives.

But this violent language is the opposite of what we should be doing with technology. The world needs more nonviolent, life-bettering apps. Instead of aiming for "killer" apps, we should be looking to nonkilling, the same concept Paige champions.

I have this sense that most killer apps are developed and implemented without regard to their impact on human quality of life or life expectancy. When we engineers sit down at the whiteboard and start dreaming and coding, we generally don't think about killing or nonkilling. We think about solving a very specific set of problems, and we don't try to "boil the ocean." That means unintended long-term problems and side effects are usually left unaddressed.

When the engineers at Google created the world's most powerful search engine, I'm sure they had no idea that they also created the ability for a troubled user to search for bomb-building recipes. When the engineers at Facebook created the world's most richly connected graph of human relations, I'm sure they had no idea it could contribute to teenage suicide. When the engineers at Microsoft created the Xbox, I'm sure they really didn't think about the impact of highly realistic, first-person shooters on those for whom the line between reality and fantasy is not very clear.

As our world becomes more computerized -- or rather, as our world becomes more automated with software -- the unintended consequences become more devastating. The line between online and offline is about to be erased. It's long past time that we technologists take our blinders off and think about how our killer apps impact the messy, complicated, dangerous world where everything has a chip and network access.

Specifically, we technologists can start to design with nonkilling in mind. We can focus on nonkiller apps that take into account the impact of software on a user's environment and long-term prospects.

While I'm not sure Google would say it in this way, the company is making great progress on several nonkiller apps:

  • Google's "safe search" mode and search algorithm improvements are starting to put up obstacles between users and risky content. This is not censorship. It's just a means to put the harmful stuff out of immediate reach.
  • Google's self-driving car is a nonkiller app that could save thousands of lives every year. Already we can buy cars that are programmed to recognize and avoid dangers.
  • Google Glass is a nonkiller app because its built-in video camera and microphone will be a boon to user-generated news content and social media-based activism. It gets harder and harder every year for governments to mistreat their citizens because the ability to create and communicate reliable evidence is in the hands of every consumer.

Facebook is also working on some nonkiller apps. While many of my friends worry about privacy, I'm more worried about the psychological effects of isolation. Facebook is headed in the right direction with the recent improvements in privacy controls and the way news is posted on users' timelines and profiles.

Apple's Touch ID has the potential to be a great nonkiller app. It makes the phone less desirable to steal and less vulnerable to hacking. While it's not yet perfect, if Apple can perfect the idea I'd love to see it on all sorts of devices -- including rifles and handguns.

Even the Microsoft Xbox can be a nonkilling app with games that promote exercise, like Dance Dance Revolution, and fill idle hours with organized activity. There are moms who buy their teens Xboxes to keep young adults off the streets. We just need more games like Minecraft and fewer like Warcraft.

As the world becomes the "Internet of Things," we technologists can take our killer apps and convert them into nonkilling apps. The virtual swords can be reprogrammed into Internet plowshares that dramatically reduce violence -- both accidental and intentional.

We just need to get organized behind the idea of nonkilling as an end in itself, and not a low-priority problem. We live in a dangerous world, and much of it is dangerous because of how we have manufactured the world with our killer apps. The next time we're sitting in the garage, dreaming up the "next big thing," let's keep nonkilling in mind.

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