Symbiosis? IoT and the future of human augmentation

Tod Ehlers: Soothing to your stump, CC-BY on Flickr

Yesterday I ran into TagMe, a toolkit by students of MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group designed to “turn the personal environment into an extended communication interface”. Similar in spirit to IFTT, the kit combines an all-purpose device (in this case a bracelet) with small, personalised recipes that interface with RFID-tagged objects and surfaces to trigger equally small but useful interactions such as sending a text, flashing a light or recording a piece of data.

Nice little project, but I can’t help but see a disconnect between recipes that are presented as something fun, casual and uniquely personal, but only work if you own, and are already carrying a compatible device at the point of need.

Well, duh. You might say.

This is a problem today, but soon enough everyone will own a suitable device — wearable or otherwise. Mobile products once had similar problems…until we reached that tipping point where once complex edge-cases morphed into mundane (but still useful!) interactions.

So…what will bring on the tipping point of sensor-driven human interaction? According to this snippet from Jawbone’s CEO, it may be something you ingest each morning with your bowl of congee.

“The first thing you have to crack though [love the imagery here!] is actually getting people to wear it” Rahman said onstage. “If you can keep it on all the time, the amount of information you get about the user is staggering.” …[so] instead of trying to get people to remember to strap their tracker on, Rahman proposed having them simply swallow it.
…eventually he sees a future where your internal Jawbone fitness tracker can sync up with all the tech in your environment, working together to make a seamlessly healthier and more comfortable world. For example, a tiny monitor in your bloodstream could sync with your home automation system, raising the thermostat when your body temperature is lower, or dimming the lights when your melatonin levels drop, signalling that you’re getting sleepy.

I can’t help but chuckle at the rock-solid convenience of this solution.

  • A wearable can help you track and (eventually) control your world…
  • This is something that we will all apparently crave. It will be awesome! And those who don’t crave it will miss out on a life of bountiful seamlessness that will outweigh any concerns over privacy or human agency over the veritable tsunami of data this will generate.

Ergo…let’s devise creative ways to ensure everyone wears one— forever (…“always on, always with you” like the more useful bits of those clever tapeworms from a Mira Grant novel).

In all fairness though, there’s nothing immediately sinister about an embedded sensor (or at least there needn’t be) if you consider the potential value to society, be it medical or even cultural or artistic. “Elective” adaptations devised as a form of personal expression, a form of becoming something different, but in a uniquely personal way — better than you once were.

“We all want to be our best selves. But what if you could add almost anything to your body and mind? A camera here, an exoskeleton there. This is the world that some biohackers imagine — one in which humans can extend their abilities beyond the limits biology has set for us.”

So fair enough, let’s say we decide that embedded sensors are in fact a useful thing. It would probably then follow that — for non-specialist uses at least — we would want to implant, ingest, or otherwise affix just one of them (or maybe one a day, if it’s likely to be…expelled) that can seamlessly communicate with a variety of common platforms and APIs.

Mass crowd-sourced environmental data would seem like a worthwhile variation on the theme but you wouldn’t want to wear a separate device just for this purpose.

If current day tech, consumer electronics, and wearables are anything to go by however, mass adoption of one uber-interoperable sensor seems a touch optimistic. Stakeholders (which would in this case include governments, health authorities and insurance providers…just to name a few) would have to agree on a universal standard while still allowing a degree of openness that would enable brands to differentiate and adapt these devices, allow an ecosystem of ways to legally maintain and upgrade them, and enable users to retain as much agency over their data as they see fit or are entitled to by law. (So basically everything that existing DMCA anti-circumvention laws, or company EULAs don’t all0w when it comes to basic productivity software).

I have a 125kHz EM4102 tag in my left hand and have for almost two years. I’ve been wondering if you think it’s worth it to remove my current tag and upgrade to a 13.56mHz S50. Is the read range about the same, worse, or greater? Really I love that you can use it with Android phones (even though I’m an iOS guy)...

(Excerpt from an article on complexities and legalities of RFID removal complete with fairly bloody photos.)

Even biohackers are less than optimistic about how people-centric these products will be — which is only further fuelling their experiments.

‘We want to be able to understand this technology before big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped — the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip.’

You could of course argue that, even long-term, walking around with a small menagerie of sensors wouldn’t be so bad. FDA approved. “New normal” and all that. As one researcher suggested in a recent BBC interview:

“Some people are horrified by this…Years ago there was fear over vaccinations and now it seems perfectly normal to have cells injected into us.”

Um. Exactly… Probably not the best example in certain quarters, but still — what could go wrong from having so many of these things within us?

One common “side effect” might be the occasional epic battle between your native algorithms (ones that you’ve chosen, or are at least aware of) and those of partners or squatters (i.e. the mother of all third-party tracking pixels) over who has the privilege to control your heating, whether you’ve earned enough karma points to skip that ad on YouTube, the price of that Häagen-Dazs you’ve been craving (don’t think they don’t know!), or what lane your self-driving thing is permitted to travel on.

Think I’m being sensationalist? Here’s a snippet from the London Oyster RFID payment card site describing “Card Clash”…a problem you’d kind of expect would have been engineered away in early contactless prototypes .

If you touch more than one contactless card on a reader at a station at the same time:
- The reader could take payment from a card you did not intend to pay with
- You could be charged two maximum fares for your journey. This happens when the reader charges one card when you touch in and another card when you touch out
Only touch one card on the reader when touching in and out to avoid paying with a card you did not intend to use.

Sure. Yep. That’ll work when you have three of them embedded in your elbow and one is mostly a dumb terminal controlled by your prosthetic knee (old rugby injury…) that was made by a startup that was just acquired by Uber…who would really prefer you not take that bus.

Although designed as proxy-facilitators of human desire, you could easily imagine algorithms going above and beyond what a person might expect of them. After all, we didn’t write the algorithm (…but we did accept the EULA).

Hold on. Is this it? Why you haven’t invited Mikael to the dinner? I was really hoping to introduce him to Dana’s friend from Barcelona.

(awkward smile)
I’m sorry. I know you guys like to hang out, and I do really like him. Honest I do. It’s just that his promotion triggered one of those Platinum firmware upgrades.

What? Seriously? Man, that guy has all the luck…

Yeah, well hold that thought. I’m sure he’s enjoying the status perks but he’s also now incapable of walking into a room with overriding something. Remember how overcooked the chicken was last time? And that horrible Michael Bolton playlist we had to endure? Yep. Totally him. Our apartment even awarded him admin status — which i’m sure he won’t use — but that’s little reassurance considering he was the first one to complain about the chicken.

I don’t actually doubt that we will ingest sensors, but if the entire goal is seamlessness, we’re going to need some very different business models. Models that put users ahead of the compulsion to own and control an ecosystem of data, sensors or actuators (…especially given that in this equation, the actuators will sometimes be us).

Maybe we can even build a future where human augmentation has all sorts of motivations — shareholders, growth and business models often being the least of them.

And wouldn’t that be great for once?

Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind, but these days a device attached to his head turns color into audible frequencies. Instead of seeing a world in grayscale, Harbisson can hear a symphony of color — and yes, even listen to faces and paintings.

A beautiful sound-clip by Frank Swain and Daniel Jones captured through a creative modification of the “smart” Halo hearing aid. The project asked the question: What would it mean to develop an additional sense which makes us continuously attuned to the invisible data topographies [from internet exchanges and cellphone relays] that pervade the city streets?

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