Are you a cyborg?
Chances are, you don't think of yourself that way. Normally I don't either although, according to a common, loose definition of the term – "an organism that has enhanced abilities due to technology" – I am one. I've had cataract surgery, so my eye is now a synthesis of organic and synthetic parts, which meets another common definition. And there's no question that my vision has been enhanced by that little piece of plastic.
If you prefer that the synthesis involve something a bit more robust, how about cochlear implants, or pacemakers, or insulin pumps, or robotic limbs wired in to the nervous system? All of these are more active than an artificial lens. They enhance the body's natural functioning by creating and maintaining their own feedback mechanisms. They create cyborgs, walking among us.
Then there are powered exoskeletons, like the HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), coming soon from Lockheed Martin. The HULC's initial intention is to help soldiers in combat carry a load of up to 200 pounds at a top speed of 10 miles per hour for extended periods of time. Sensors in the foot pads relay information to an onboard microcomputer that moves the hydraulics to amplify and enhance the wearer's movement. It's amazingly flexible. The system allows the user to run, walk, kneel, crawl, and even squat. It may be strictly military today, but the vast potential for enhancing human capabilities means that it won't be long before it's adapted to civilian tasks.
Great strides forward are being made in the field of direct brain implants to treat, for example, noncongenital blindness. And the "eyeborg," codeveloped by colorblind British artist Neil Harbisson, is an external, head-mounted device that allows Harbisson to "hear" colors by translating them into sound. Demonstrating the device at a TED conference in 2012, Harbisson said that he did not feel like a cyborg when he first started to use the eyeborg, but that he did when he noticed that the software and his brain had combined to give him an extra sense.
There is also a very active subculture of so-called biohackers, whose members are experimenting with self-administered implants of various kinds. British scientist Kevin Warwick pioneered entry into this space in 2002, when he implanted a temporary 100-electrode array – about the size of a couple grains of rice – into his arm, in order to link his nervous system to the Internet. He was then able to use his thoughts to operate a mechanical hand 3,000 miles away. After he persuaded his wife to get implanted as well, they conducted a successful series of experiments in which they were able to establish direct communication at a distance between two human nervous systems. When she moved her hand, he felt it.
Other biohackers have skipped the scientific training altogether and simply turned their kitchens into labs where they experiment on their own bodies. Lepht Anonym, a young Scottish woman, is the acknowledged avatar of this group. For the past several years, Anonym has been engaged in extending her senses by implanting tiny magnets and other electronic devices under her skin, allowing her to feel electromagnetic fields.
Anonym calls what she's doing "transhumanism," or cybernetics for the masses. Since DIY surgery is frowned upon, since good anesthetic is hard to come by, and since doctors are reluctant to help her, she just fortifies herself with vodka and applies the scalpel to her flesh. It hurts, she admits. A lot. Every time. She has to have a friend there to catch her if she passes out. And she's put herself in the hospital several times.
Many will think her merely another crazy person. But she shrugs off criticism. She's out there because she wants to be. "Bodily health takes a big f***-off second seat to curiosity," she says. "Though it hasn't really changed my life, it's just made me more curious." She's committed to being a true cyborg. Now, living without the gentle sensation of feeling the invisible is a difficult thing to imagine, she says. One of the implants stopped functioning once, and she describes it as like going blind.
People like Warwick and Anonym are still fringe, no doubt about it. But cyborgs of a sort are about to go very mainstream, with the introduction of Google Glass. And what happens after that is fascinating to contemplate.
Google Glass represents a giant step along the path to a future that Kevin Warwick and other forward thinkers like Ray Kurzweil think is inevitable. That future belongs to the cyborgs. Warwick believes that once our brains are enhanced with powerful implanted electronic processors and we are neurally linked to the global Net, our descendants will enjoy upgraded memories, sensory expansion, enhanced communication capabilities, and much more, all without losing their human qualities. They'll be endowed with enormous problem-solving skills, able to "think in ten dimensions," as he puts it. The marriage of massive computing power with our particular gifts – for intuitive thinking, pattern recognition, perception of relationships, and the like – will make it possible to transform the species, the planet, and perhaps eventually, worlds beyond our own.
Actually, we have no choice, according to Kurzweil. As he writes: "If you go back 500 years, not much happened in a century. Now a lot happens in six months. Technology feeds on itself, and it gets faster and faster. It's gonna continue. In about 40 years, it's gonna be moving so fast, the pace of change is gonna be so astonishingly quick, that you won't be able to follow it. Unless … you enhance your own intelligence by merging with the intelligent technology we've created."
While we are not yet advanced enough to start implanting tiny quantum chips in our brains, we are entering a precursor era – that of the wearable computer.
In a sense, we entered a sort of cyborg state over 20 years ago, when the combination of exploding computer power and the rise of the Internet gave us an enhanced perception that streamed the whole world into our heads. At first, we could only experience that at our desks. But in the blink of an eye, we jumped from there to being able to carry our computers around with us in ever smaller packages. Today, the Net is there any time we want it, right at our fingertips –thanks in part to the technological contributions of some of the companies in the BIG TECHportfolio.
But what if we didn't even have to reach into our pockets? What if we could wear the Internet? What if it were in our face every waking moment? Would we want that? Well, we're about to find out.
The technology is not new. Cutting-edge Canadian engineer Steven Mann has been into this stuff for decades. It was way back in 1981, in fact, that he constructed the first prototype of his head-mounted display, the EyeTap. It was a device that could be clamped to the skull, and which replaced one eye's normal field of vision with a computer screen.
Over the years, Mann has continued to refine the EyeTap – we're now at generation four – but the intent has remained the same.
"Personal empowerment," Mann writes, "through [the EyeTap's] ability to equip the individual with a personalized, customizable information space, owned, operated, and controlled by the wearer."
The advantages of wearing a computer on one's body, Mann says, include but are not limited to: instant and perfect recall of information, when and wherever needed; sharing consciousness and immediate experiences with another person; multitasking with others while still doing one's own primary work; enhanced personal safety (everything that happens to you can be recorded); mobility – freedom from wires, outlets, and modems; and synergy – the creation of a space in which the computer functions as a true extension of the mind and body.
Perhaps. But will it sell on Main Street? Google Glass is the Internet giant's leap into an unknown where that question will be answered.
General release of Glass will not come until next year. But Google recently rolled out a beta version and made it available to a select circle of testers. Leave it to Google to do that in a rather unconventional way: to become a "Glass Explorer," first you had to audition on Twitter (#ifihadglass) or Google+ for access to the product, and show that you are one of the "bold, creative individuals" they're looking for. Then you had to fork over $1,500 for the privilege of being the first in your neighborhood to sport the next must-have fashion accessory.
Applications are now closed. The company says on its website that it has "been overwhelmed, entertained and inspired by your responses … and we will be notifying successful applicants soon. If you don't hear from us, don't despair! There will be more chances to get Glass at a later date."
What exactly is Google Glass? On April 15, the technical specs were published, and the MyGlass companion app for Android was made available for download. Write-ups by first users are beginning to trickle in.
It seems pretty easy to use, after you've gone through the setup steps. You just say the magic words – "OK, Glass" – and you're off and running. Functions are limited for the moment. They're voice activated and include: "Google"; "take a picture"; "record a video"; "get directions to"; "send a message to"; and the like. There's audio but no earpiece; it works by vibrating your head.
However, acclimating to the screen takes time. It doesn't sit in front of your eye, but rather up and to the right. So that's where you have to look, and it isn't a natural motion. Some Google staffers told Tech Crunch contributor Drew Olanoff that "it took them up to a week to be able to focus on the screen properly."
"Let's start with what Glass isn't. Glass isn't a replacement for your cell phone, since you have to pair the device with the one you have for cellular functionality. It's not a device for watching movies or YouTube videos and it's not going to replace your computer. You won't be able to read full search results on the tiny screen, but you'll be able to get to really relevant information quickly.
"What Glass seems to be, in the few hours that I've spent with it, is a device that picks up some of the things you do throughout your day and makes that information more easily accessible. Currently, the only built-in integration for a third-party service is Path."
So it would appear that Glass is more promise than performance at this point. But those who want to boldly push it into new areas are lining up. On April 10, Google Ventures announced a partnership with two of the biggest technology venture capital firms in the world – Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins – on what they're calling the "Glass Collective." The three firms will share seed investment deal flow for entrepreneurs and developers who are working on Google Glass software and hardware.
They are undoubtedly champing at the bit, because having the ability to chat with chums and record everything you see during your waking hours are novelties that will probably wear off rather quickly (not to mention boring your friends to tears – although given the breadth of triviality that is routinely shared via text messaging and Facebook, the boredom threshold may be very high indeed).
So what else will Glass do? One app that seems like a cinch to catch on is on-board, real-time auto navigation and GPS functionality. This is what your view of the road would look like through a Glass:
Your vision is not impaired, and all you have to do is glance up to follow the directions to your destination.
Government, of course, is not sitting idly by. Already, legislators in West Virginia are considering a law that would ban the use of head-mounted displays while driving. But as reviewer Damon Lavrinc asked on Wired: "What's more dangerous behind the wheel? Constantly checking and poking a small smartphone screen stuck to your dash or tucked away in a cup-holder, or simply glancing up – through a transparent screen directly in your field of view – to see when to make your next turn? Even built-in systems designed by automakers aren't much better, with small touch points, horrid user interfaces and finicky voice controls."
Auto apps definitely won't stop with navigation, either. As Lavrinc notes: "Glass could replace everything from speedometers to music controls. And do it better in the process." The interface between car and driver is going to get a whole lot tighter.
But what is really likely to capture the imagination of both developers and users is the potential for creating an "augmented reality," something Steven Mann has been refining for many years.
Basically, the idea is to layer a second, 3D reality on to whatever you're seeing in front of you. To take a simple example, you could enter a room full of people and superimpose upon them their names and as much more personal information about them as you want. Or you could look at a product in a store and learn immediately if a competitor has it at a better price. But the sky's the limit here. For instance, Mann has also developed software that allows him to see behind him, to alter the colors of his immediate environment, or to transform billboards and other rectangular shapes into virtual boxes that display personal messages rather than their actual content. He lives, quite literally, in a world of his own. Soon, we will all be able to.
Sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, in his book Rainbows End, takes that a step further and envisions a society in which everybody is "wearing." A mediated reality then could be shared, meaning that each party could define how he appears to others, and another party could define the scenery, with the real and virtual becoming increasingly hard to differentiate.
However, if you think you may want to opt in to this world, Mann – who has done this longer than anyone – notes that there are consequences. It has proven, for example, surprisingly difficult to give up the EyeTap. When he goes without it, he feels nauseous and unsteady, and as mentally naked and vulnerable as he would be physically if caught without his clothes in the middle of a shopping mall. Caveat emptor.
Will Google Glass change the world? Not as presently constituted, but version 2.0 or 3.0 well could. With sufficiently powerful apps and some kind of motion detector linked up (see Bits & Bytes, below), you might be able to use your hands to direct all manner of interactions with the physical world, like the villain in Daniel Suarez's chilling futurist novel, Daemon.
Those kinds of capabilities raise all sorts of legal, ethical, moral, and social questions that will have to be addressed. With merely what Glass can do now, notions of privacy are going to have to be revised. Interactions with authorities will be more frequently documented. "He said, she said" arguments will begin to disappear. People will become more circumspect about what they do and say in public. (Or not; perhaps we'll just adapt to living in the constant presence of cameras.) And so on.
Mix that in with shrinking, accurate sensors which allow you to control computers with nothing more than your mind, and a future where we walk around constantly linked to the Internet and each other doesn't seem so far off.
It's only a handful of small steps from there to cyborg.
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Bits & Bytes
Now That You've Got Glass (Tech Crunch)
As noted in the article above, combining the Google Glass with a motion detector would open up a universe of possibilities. This offering, coming soon from small startup Thalmic Labs, could be just the ticket.
Darling, Phone Home (Huffington Post)
We've heard that couples when they're separated sometimes keep the fires burning by engaging in phone sex (not that we would ever do such a thing, of course…). But what if, in addition to your voice, you could send some provocative touch along, too? Well, it turns out there's an app for that. And remember when opening this that it may be NSFW (Internet shorthand for "not safe for work").
Goaaaal… (PC Mag)
Want to digitally capture your kid scoring the winning goal, close up in high definition and 3D? Sony is getting ready to release binoculars that do just that. Also packed in are electronic autofocus, image stabilization, and even a GPS. Won't be cheap, though…
Hacker Wars (Detroit Free Press)
The conflict between hackers and those who would thwart them will always be with us. This past Tuesday, the potential for damage was highlighted when someone hacked the Associated Press account on Twitter and sent out a bogus story saying that President Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House. The Dow promptly plunged 150 points. Now Twitter is promising a two-step authentication procedure that will add another layer of security to its system.