Suranga Nanayakkara dreams of a world of cyborgs – beings with both organic and mechanical body parts – and is on to making it happen

When Suranga Nanayakkara moved to Singapore for the first time, his acquaintance with computers was still premature. So much so that when he first heard the ‘knock, knock’ sound that pops up when signing into Yahoo messenger, he looked back to check if someone was at the door. “That’s how naïve I was,” he laughs.

This was almost two decades ago.

But, the experience transpired a cataclysmic effect on his relationship with technology. “You could say I felt a bit inferior from that ordeal,” he says. “Instead, I thought the technology was so badly designed. It simply did not take into account how humans intuitively react to the sound of knocking.”

Today, Nanayakkara heads the Augmented Human Lab at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and is a visiting scientist at MIT. The lab is at the frontier in researching new and efficient ways on how humans interact with computers, an area Nanayakkara is all too familiar with. It is at the MIT media lab, while working as a post-doc in the fluid-interfaces research group, that his work came into the light. One of his most noted inventions was the finger reader, a wearable device that enabled the visually impaired to read printed text simply by scanning over them. In 2014, he was listed in the innovators under 35 to watch out for in the Asia Pacific region by MIT Technology Review.

Recently, the government of Singapore awarded a grant to make the finger reader a commercially viable product. Nanayakkara describes the initial prototype as a ‘conceptually good looking, but not a really practical device’. The lack of battery duration and the bulkiness of the device make the wearer conscious of the technology around him. For Nanayakkara, this is not good design. “Technology should be in the background,” he says. “Once you wear it, you should be able to forget it.”

This is the central thesis of Nanayakkara’s philosophy in the realm of human-computer interaction. His daring proposition is that technology should become second nature to humans; a seamless connection so intuitive that it has no learning curve, like putting on a glove.

One of the frontier areas in human-computer interaction is cognitive augmentation – think of it as an exoskeleton of the brain. At its core, cognitive augmentation is about enabling humans to be more receptive and efficient in absorbing information, helping them make swift and optimal decisions in complex situations. The defence industry has been the foremost pioneer in advancing this technology.

Nanayakkara’s lab recently started collaborating with the Singapore Ministry of Defense to develop brain-augmented simulations for its forces. In one such experiment, he explains that a user is given the task of controlling three robots that need to defend themselves from enemy forces. The idea was to assess how a person performs in a multitasking environment, with the added caveat of reducing the cognitive load in making those decisions.

Instead of directing commands using a keyboard and a mouse, the lab uses haptic technology, a communication system that recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibration and motion to the user’s skin. “Skin is the largest external input-output interface to the brain,” says Nanayakkara. “We can’t access the brain directly, and there is no better sense than the ‘skin’ to reach it.”

With a camera clipped on pair of glasses, even the visual data that’s captured is communicated to the user through vibrations. This eliminates the need for the user to be always on the watch out, viewing each interface to check the position of the robots. “Haptic feedback is used as a backchannel to be aware of multiple things without having to use visuals,” he says. “You can look at one and have a feel for the other two.”

How can we design a man-machine interface that feels like an extension of our bodies, mind and behaviour? This is the question that preoccupies his mind. “Most of the devices you call smart are not smart,” he says. “If you ask your digital assistant to make a reservation for a vegetarian at a steak house, it will just follow through.”

For Nanayakkara, computers have a long way to go to reach its true purpose. But, with the surge in AI mainly contributed by the exponential advancements of machine learning such contextual conundrums, it is soon to be resolved. Nanayakkara call this ‘humanizing technology’. “Technology should not influence people to act like machines; but instead, be morphed into people to make us more human.”