Many would jokingly describe their smartphone as a fifth limb, but developments in wearable technology are hinting that one day our devices will actually be part of us. In some cases, they already are. Cyborgs are organisms with enhanced abilities thanks to the integration of an artificial component or technology, and many of us already fall under this category.
We tend to associate the word cyborg with science fiction representations of super humans like Robocop or Roy Batty from the film Blade Runner, but our present day cyborgs tend to be those with health complications.
Those suffering from irregular heartbeats rely on cardiac pacemakers and implantable defibrillators to maintain consistent heart function. Most of know at least one person with more common augmentations, like hearing aids or contact lenses — two of our most popular biological enhancements.
In a remarkable development in 2002, Jens Naumann, blind for over 20 years, restored partial vision through a miraculous brain implant. One of the earliest uses of a brain / computer interface, doctors fed electrodes, which were attached to a camera, into his brain. The camera was then mounted on a pair of glasses, allowing Jens to capture the world around him. Shortly after his procedure, Jens used his imperfectly restored vision to drive slowly around the parking area of The Dobelle Institute, the research facility behind his enhancement.
Aside from the obvious technical developments, the most fascinating progress in this field stems from the improved design of these enhancements, and how subtle changes have altered the public’s attitude towards people who use these aids.
It wasn’t so long ago that prosthetic limbs were not only expensive, but quite jarring to look at. Thanks to 3D printing and its open source approach to design, prosthetics are becoming more accessible and far more attractive.
These aids have also become increasingly useful. 36 years ago, with a prosthetic leg, Terry Fox ran 3,339 miles across Canada in the Marathon of Hope. An unimaginable feat at the time, he had to adjust his running style, developing a double skip to accommodate his condition. Fast forward to 2008, and prosthetics had developed to such a degree that double amputee Oscar Pistorious was not permitted to run in the Beijing Olympics because his prosthetic limbs constituted an unfair advantage over his fellow athletes.
What used to be a garish disability has slowly shifted to become an accessible — and in some cases advantageous — enhancement for those in need. And now, as brain-machine interfaces are being incorporated into these prosthetics, patients have the opportunity to manipulate their artificial limbs through brain-implanted electrodes.
In a $14 million project, 150 scientists worked together to build an apparatus that enabled a paraplegic to not only walk, but perform the ceremonial kickoff at the 2014 World Cup.
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Design for Humanity is an interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. You’re currently reading part 7 of 7.
Akin to prosthetics, virtual reality was once a bulky, limited technology. However, it’s finally coming of age, and if its current capabilities are any indication, it’s an interface that is poised to blend the lives of millions of people in ways never thought possible. Future projections suggest that VR will eventually attach itself to our everyday eyewear in the form of clear lenses.
As lens technology progresses along with VR, it’s not difficult to imagine a contact lens with a broad range of capabilities, allowing us to move seamlessly through fantastical virtual worlds, the augmented present, and immersive trips into the past.
Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook are leading the charge into the the past:
“I think about my baby daughter and the way I want to remember her first steps. When I took my first steps, my parents just took a pen and wrote the date down in a baby book…when my cousin, when her son took his first steps, she took a photo with a camera. My sister, when her son took his first steps, she took a video on her phone. But I want to capture the whole scene. So, I hope we can take a 360 video. So that way, even if my parents and my family aren’t there to experience it in person, they can feel like they’re right there with us. VR is the next platform, where anyone can create and experience anything they want.”
The VR experience that Zuckerberg describes above, however artificial, is far more direct and intuitive than the way we presently interact on our devices. Indeed, we’ll be placing a helmet on our heads, or a lens on a pair of glasses, but once we’re immersed in the scenario, it will be feel far more natural than the learned way we interact with our present interfaces. As we’re becoming increasingly aware, social applications like Snapchat and Facebook add several layers of interface for us to navigate.
This idea is supported by Ken Perlin, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at New York University. He refers to these distorting layers as “interference,” comparable to static on a landline telephone. According to Perlin, every interface includes some level of interference: points where communication breaks down. Our best tools work because they are natural user interfaces — our interaction with them feels like an organic extension of our natural behaviour.
Historically we’ve had to interact with computers through a variety of tools: screens, mouses, keyboards, etc., but there are new interfaces being developed that help to mitigate interference, whether it’s a chip that reads our temperature or brain-computer interaction.
As brain-computer interaction becomes more prevalent, it’s possible that it will eventually replace our more traditional interfaces.
The result would be a consistent communication with future devices, a sort of digital telepathy where embedded AI would be able to read brainwaves and translate our biological information in a myriad of ways.
The line between humanity and technology may soon get very blurry.
If we take the idea of the brain / computer interface another step further, we might be able to link our mind to other minds, creating a human to human interface that could potentially give us direct access to an infinite number of human ideas in a way we’ve never experienced before.
Ignoring the sheer amount of content we’d have access to, let’s ask ourselves a brand new question: what would this experience be like? How would it feel to be directly connected to another human mind and the content within?
Privacy issues aside, we’d have access to ideas, dreams, memories, memories of dreams, and the like. Would our experiences cease to be individual? Would our identities bleed into one another? Not to mention the ways in which our experiences and identities would become intertwined with the web of knowledge and content we’d have access to.
The idea that looms largest is AI’s role in the above scenario, especially if, as many predict, it eventually exceeds the capabilities of the human mind in every aspect. Our natural inclination is to fear such a scenario, to revert to ideas explored in The Matrix and other science fiction parables.
What if AI’s infusion into our brain-computer interface provides a transcendental experience heretofore unimagined?
But what if AI’s infusion into our brain-computer interface provides a transcendental experience heretofore unimagined? Perhaps the combination of the human mind, and all of its nimble flexibility, will be perfectly complimented by an endless sea of knowledge and an AI with a curiosity even hungrier than ours.
If you can imagine a world where every morsel of knowledge can be summoned at a split second’s notice, and problems can be solved in tandem with a massive team of human and artificial minds, than perhaps a future that is well-suited to human flourishing is not so far away.
Design for Humanity
An interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk.
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This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.