This is the second chapter of Insights from the Future, a book I'm writing about technology, innovation, and people from the perspective of the future. This chapter is set 14 years from now, and is based on technology I tested at  CES 2018 just last week. The book is a collaborative exercise, and you are invited to participate (see below).

For details on the impact this will have on business and success today -- and what you might do to prepare -- scroll to the bottom of the article.

Incompatible Gesture Languages Disaster: Guest Accidentally Buys $25M In Bitcoin, Bankrupting Host​

January 12, 2032
Rochester, NY resident Joseph Black is liquidating his mansion and collection of antique 2000s-era internal combustion cars after a houseguest accidentally purchased no fewer than 160 Bitcoin, worth over $25 million at time of purchase.

His guest blames incompatible gesture languages for the massive miscue.

"I was just trying to switch the walls from 'White Andes' which is awesome and all, but a little boring when you want to party, to Hawaiian Sands," explains Becky Franklin, 18 years of age. "But Joey is on New Millennium, and I'm on Android Ambient."

New Millennium, of course, is the latest gesture language from China-based international technology conglomerate Baidu. The company claims its RF-based technology is sub-millimeter accurate and virtually instantaneous, enabling full control of Baidu Home OS via its built-in personal AI.

Unfortunately for Mr. Black, New Millennium's gesture language is fairly different from the US-standard Android Ambient, thanks partly to cultural differences. Android Ambient includes pointing gestures, considered rude in China, while New Millennium includes actions that are simply incomprehensible to Americas, like ear-pulling. 

To make matters worse, both languages are extremely extensible.

Black, a currency speculator by trade and self-professed "nerd 2.0," has built a whole range of gesture customizations that enable him to track, manage, buy, and sell global cryptocurrencies as well as stocks.

"I can basically do my entire job from my zero-gravity chair," Black told me this morning. "It's pretty sweet."

Not quite as sweet, perhaps, is that the extended index finger roll, with elbow bent, is the Android Ambient gesture to switch wall screens to the next scene.

But in Mr. Black's customization of Baidu New Millennium, that's precisely the gesture to start trading.

Adding insult to injury, when Ms. Franklin didn't get the desired surf-and-sand results from the home's customizable floor-to-ceiling house-wide screens, she made the repeat gesture, assuming the system was confused.

"The only problem was, that was Joey's selection signal for one of the cryptos that he buys and sells: Bitcoin," Franklin says. "Then, when I tried my usual back gesture, I accidentally confirmed the purchase. When I repeated the gesture, trying to get the system to re-set, all it did was buy more."

The buy was expensive -- Bitcoin is currently trading around $150,000 U.S. -- but that wasn't the worst part.

Thanks to global instability caused by California's potential secession from the so-called "middle states," Bitcoin traders have experienced pricing volatility not seen since the early days in 2018. That means wild swings in valuation of $40,000 or more. And since Black was not only out of town but on a two-hour "digital detox" session in the famous GoPaleo resort in L.A., he didn't get notified by his automated systems that he was down almost $6.5 million on the trade within the hour.

While the seminal cryptocurrency may recover, that could take months or even years.

Unfortunately, Black's trading desk, Coinrex, isn't waiting to collect.

"There's really nothing we can do," Coinrex PR director Gina Torrance told me when I contacted the company. "Margins have to be covered ... otherwise we're out the difference."

Neither Baidu nor AlphaGoogle, which makes Android Ambient, are willing to help. In spite of multiple attempts -- even at world governmental levels -- to standardize the two main global gestural languages, the two have stubbornly resisted, claiming technical difficulties.

Not helping matters is that AlphaGoog's system uses different technology: ultrasound emitted and heard by multiple devices around the home such as smart speakers, screens, smart glasses, and even old-fashioned phones. The system uses echoes to triangulate and understand both large and fine motor movement and enable homeowners to customize their environment.

The company claims to have over five million vistas, including thousands of livestreams, in its extensive global library.

"It's an unfortunate situation, and we feel really bad that Mr. Black chose Baidu's technology," an AlphaGoog representative told me. "If he had selected Android Ambient, the built-in AI would have detected that Ms. Franklin's height, size, and shape are significantly different than Mr. Black's, and the system would have required a higher, audible level of confirmation for a trade so large."

Baidu said something similar, suggested that Black had disabled several security protocols to speed trade requests. Hour traders like Black often made dozens if not hundreds of trades each hour, making small fractions of money on each transaction.

Personal trading is a requirement in the U.S. now, of course, since the anti-technology Fair Investing Act of 2027 limited the use of automated systems and AI agents in stock and currency trading.

The only good thing in the whole scenario?

Black doesn't blame his friend Becky for the disaster.

"I don't boast about it a lot, but I'm a seriously hot-stuff trader," he told me."I'll pick up a gig with one of the family private wealth foundations and be solvent again in half a year."

"This is only a minor setback."

Black may be solvent sooner rather than later. His lawyer says that Baidu "failed, according to their own terms of service, to provide adequate security of verification prior to the sending of the execution for the Bitcoin trade."

If successful, Black could recover all or part of his lost funds.

Minus legal fees, perhaps.

Notes and additional thoughts:

I'm writing this book as a collaborative exercise. Each chapter is posted to my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds before going live on Inc. Magazine. If you'd like to participate in critiquing and improving these posts, connect with me there. Alternatively, join my Telegram group here.

Time-frame, technologies, and impact:

Time-frame: 
14 years

Technologies used: 
Ambient awareness via RF and/or ultrasound

Impact of technologies:
The first human-to-computer language was punch cards. We graduated to text and MS-DOS, say Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. Then came the graphical user interface with keyboards and mice, and more recently the move to tap-and-touch on small devices, and then began speaking to our machines. Moving from handsets to headsets -- smart glasses and VR goggles -- will be next, say Scoble and Israel.

If so, the sixth revolution will likely be gestures, which shipping smartphones are already today starting to understand with technology from companies like Norway's EllipticLabs, demoed recently at CES 2018.

Ultimately, we'll have a rich and varied way of communicating with technology via all of the above (except for punch cards) as each is appropriate.

Gestures will be great because just as voice is lower-impact than tap-and-touch for some activities -- like requesting music -- gestures will be even lower-impact. And, of course, potentially less intrusive in public, when you may not want to audibly speak commands.

The challenge is that just as there are different standards and conventions on Android and iOS, the two dominant computing ecosystems of our current age, gestural languages are evolving on smartphones and in VR/AR/MR systems like HTC Vive, Meta, Hololense, and Oculus Rift that are diverging.

While we largely standardized keyboard and mouse input across desktop computing platforms, this may not happen with gestures.

The business opportunity today:
Find a way to build a universal gestural language. Establish a foundation or consortium that brings together the major players in gestures and work to standardize the languages.

Or, build a virtual tower of Babel to serve as a translation layer between different gestural languages, which translates one to another in real-time.

If both are impossible, advocate that companies which are developing gestural languages at least recognize "foreign" gestures and notify users when they are using incompatible signals.

Insights people contributed to this post:

Cultural issues:

USC professor Dr. Julie Albright contributed the important insight that gestures are cultural, and that this could contribute to understanding, translation, and confusion issues.

Legal implications:

Startup CEO James Ross suggested that Baidu could be legally culpable for not supplying or requiring sufficient verification before enabling massive-scale transactions.

Universal standards:

Tech company co-founder Gaurav Ragtah suggested that universal standards are virtually impossible, and dealing with conflicting standards is a problem we will never completely solve.

User interfaces:

Thanks to Shel Israel and Robert Scoble for their explanation of the transformations in computing user interfaces that we've seen to date in their book The Fourth Transformation.

Published on: Jan 15, 2018