man on phone in front of "productivity" sign
Our self-induced overstimulation from notifications is eating away at our ability to focus. Can AI solve the problem? PHOTO: Andreas Klassen on unsplash

Two collisions involving U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific Ocean have been attributed to information overload experienced in complex operational situations. The June collision of the USS Fitzgerald and the August collision of the USS John McCain in the waters off the coast of Tokyo, both involved high tech ships with slow-moving commercial vessels, the second in especially crowded waters.

One observer compared the boat traffic in Tokyo Bay to the air traffic over O’Hare airport in Chicago. The problem according to Kevin Eyer, a retired US Navy captain, is that in crowded waterways sailors are overwhelmed by the pinging of warnings coming from multiple systems. There is no way to process so much information while trying to simultaneously manage weapons systems and listen to communications.

This scenario has been mirrored in airplane disasters as well. The Air France flight 447 crash in 2012 involved pilots ignoring multiple alarms as they struggled to focus on stabilizing the plane before it crashed. Similarly, many fighter pilots report turning off alarm systems because they interfere with the concentration needed to fly the plane during battle.

The Daily Hazard of Information Overload

While most of us don’t command Navy warships or commercial airplanes, the challenge of dealing with information overload brought on by technology while trying to focus is a daily hazard: on the road, in the home and in the office.

Case in point is the huge spike in pedestrian accidents that has been attributed, in part, to people texting while walking and driving. This week I saw a man riding a motorcycle on the highway, holding onto the handlebars with his right hand, while texting on his phone using his left hand … at 60 miles per hour!

At home, much of the information overload is self-induced. Whether it’s the urge to check your phone before you even get out of bed, while watching TV, or while eating at the dinner table, it’s a new dopamine craving that is overloading us with Facebook posts, Instagram updates, YouTube videos, Messenger and WhatsApp messages, and yes, email. 

Even when you put the phone down you aren’t out of the woods. A number of studies show the mere presence of a smartphone on a table degrades our ability to focus on what’s going on around us, something researchers call the "iPhone effect."

If you think it’s getting bad, then consider we aren’t even close to hitting the saturation point.

New smart appliances like home security camera alarm systems, environmental controls, and virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant are invading the last remaining domestic spaces unoccupied by technology. I recently installed one of these remote camera alarm systems. The peace of mind I thought I was buying has been more than offset by the continuous notifications and false alarms that distract me on an hourly basis.

“Surely these are just birthing pains,” say technology pundits, “every generation of new products goes through a period of adoption and adaption. Once the vendors work out the kinks, these systems will fade into the background and they will become a natural part of our daily use of technology, like electricity and running water."

Not to rain on this technology parade, but let’s take a quick reality check. Our society accepts — without challenge — the argument that problems brought on by technology are best solved by … even more technology. And information overload is no exception. Just consider virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, which claim to simplify our information needs by becoming a one-stop solution for all information requests. Do they solve the problem or do they merely add to the noise?

Context Switching Drags Us Down

New automated systems incorporate incredible amounts of new capabilities built upon the latest generation of artificial intelligence, which include voice recognition, natural language processing and machine learning.

One of the problems is that each of these new systems is a technology island, with little situation awareness of what else is going on in the vicinity. In a vacuum, each performs admirably. The security camera works perfectly when it generates alerts, but it operates independently of Messenger and WhatsApp notifications. It’s when you combine all the products vying for our attention, that information overload kicks into overdrive. 

Because messages are not connected in any meaningful way, it is hard to process them. The security camera alert takes the mind in one direction, an invitation to a party from a friend takes it to a completely different place. Each notification induces a context switch that directs our mind to change focus. These context switches negatively impact our ability to focus, and absorb and retain information, while inducing fatigue and stress.

Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue?

Can new technology squelch the information overload cacophony brought on by all our disconnected systems? I think there is good reason to be optimistic. And the key is the smartphone, because it represents the one aggregation point where all the information converges. Plus, the smartphone knows an awful lot about us. And this is the information that can be used to make sense of all the noise. This knowledge can be constructed by combining data from the installed apps and by applying intelligence to inputs generated by the myriad sensors built into the phone.

We are starting to see seeds of this capability already. For example, the latest version of iOS can use its internal accelerometer to disable message delivery and phone calls while a person is in a moving car, thusly helping them focus on what is truly important: driving the car.

Another example is Google Now, which uses the phone’s GPS coordinates to deliver relevant location-based information, for example, by responding to search for restaurants by providing a list of nearby establishments.

Motion and location represent two forms of situational awareness, or context. Context is important because it provides the key to solving the information overload problem by reducing the ambiguity inherent in information request.

Context becomes even more powerful when two or more types are combined to define relevance. As an example, while on the way to the airport on a recent trip, I did a Google search looking for the terminal I needed. What I got back surprised me. Rather than a list of sites containing information about the local airport, Google displayed my flight itinerary, including my flight number, e-ticket number, gate number and flight status. Because I was using Gmail and Google Calendar, and because it knew my location, Google predicted what I wanted to know. 

While this spooked me at the time, these are the kind of experiences we can look forward to. Privacy issues aside, this smart presentation of information is a powerful way to reduce information overload by homing in on what is important and relevant.

The downside is that you need to use a single vendor’s systems to get this to work. For example, if I was using Exchange or some other email/calendaring system, Google would not have been able to find my flight itinerary. In fact, this is one of the levers vendors like Google and Microsoft use to drive consumers to adopt their complete set of tools. Of course, this convenience comes with a price: loss of privacy and vendor lock-in. It’s a decision one should consider before plunging in head-first.

The bottom line is that while information overload at home is likely to get worse before it gets better, technology might just provide a viable solution. Of course, we experience information overload at work as well, but that is another story altogether … stay tuned.