Science fiction writer Frederick Pohl wrote a memoir called The Way the Future Was. This is a wonderful cognitive dissonance that speaks poetically about visions of the future that we had in the past. Today’s future visions are collapsing rapidly into visions of the present, and may even become very quickly obsolete, given the mind-blowing speed of change that we live today.
One vision that has endured, though, is that of the human mind connected to a worldwide network. Though William Gibson was not the first to propose this idea, his 1986 cyberpunk novel, “Neuromancer,” certainly popularized the notion. We’ve got the worldwide network; all we need to do now, is plug ourselves into it. And we will. Soon.
Like it or not, human minds and bodies are going to be altered by technology, and our new cyborg selves are going to be interconnected – with each other, and with inanimate objects.
Implants, Prostheses, Exoskeletons, Wearables
Know anyone with a pacemaker, an insulin pump, a blood pressure monitor? Most likely, they are already cyborgs – these things are usually implanted – causing much consternation when the wearers need to pass airport security checks. These devices can easily be fitted with RFID chips to identify them, or with other communications devices that allow them to be monitored and adjusted without surgical intervention.
Medical devices that enable mobility-impaired people to move, replace missing limbs with new capacities, or regulate internal processes are a natural and exciting place to start this kind of research, but there are other avenues to watch.
At the University of Washington (USA), professor Babak Amir Parviz and his students are working on solar powered augmented contact lenses that use sensors and wireless technology to trigger hundreds of embedded LED’s and display images right on your cornea! At the University of Ghent, in Belgium, researchers are doing something similar with LCD displays.
Wearable interfaces – clothing, glasses, etc. but also wearable devices such as Sixth Sense, that read gestures and turn any surface into an interface or control surface, are also changing the way we connect.
How will we deliver content in these contexts?
In my previous blog post here, I suggested that we could actually grab data with our hands, and directly manipulate it. If we combine the augmented contact lenses with a Sixth Sense style gestural interface, we’ve got it – just a heartbeat away. The ability to directly grab and manipulate virtual information as if it were material is one of those game changing cognitive shifts, the implications of which we have yet to discover.
In our increasingly security-conscious world, RFID implants are one of the more popular areas of exploration, and not without consequences. Dr. Mark Gasson, a researcher at the University of Reading (UK) recently implanted himself with one to operate security doors and his telephone, among other things. Dr. Gasson has now become the first human infected with a computer virus – and his chip has been spreading the virus to the swipe cards of other researchers at his university.
When we’re all “plugged in” to the grid, will we all be attackable by the authors of malicious “computer” viruses? Will we have some sort of user assistance to rid ourselves of them? What’s a firewall implanted in a human body? Will they go phishing in our internal organs?
These questions might sound grim, or even paranoid, but they will need to be dealt with, and quickly, as more and more of us are implanted with connected devices.
Another area of research is what is generally called “biocomputing” or “wet computing.” Wet computing uses biochemistry to find better computing solutions using molecules or living organisms to carry electrical charge and to perform computing functions.
There are many such projects running today. One example, The European Union-funded SECO project views IT as something more than hard and software. It takes the property of living systems – their ability to self-organize – and tries to endow computer technology with this ability.
Other projects are focusing on neural networks involving artificial constructions using living tissue. Professor Bill Ditto, at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is working on artificially constructed, but still organic “brains.” He has a prototype constructed from leech neurons, which is capable of performing simple arithmetic operations.
Many researchers theorize that future supercomputers will be hybrids that join wet systems with traditional silicone-based computers. Will these be living organisms? Cyborgs? Will they be conscious? Will they then have a conscience? Rights? Responsibilities? What are the ethical implications of building such hybrids, and how can we even start to understand them?
The Internet of Thingummies
Any day now, we’re going to see some sort of real manifestation of the “Internet of Things.” This has been defined by journalist Cameron Scott as “a network that connects devices, from sneakers to massive industrial oil- and gas-drilling equipment, and runs the information they provide through big data-analyzing software.” The idea is, among other things, that the “things” talk to each other without human intervention – and make decisions for us.
Now, let’s suppose, for a moment, that we have lots of these connected bodies around – bodies that have prostheses, implants, exoskeletons, or wet systems and are plugged into the worldwide network.
Will our implants and prostheses be communicating with our refrigerators, our sneakers, our oil- and gas-drilling equipment without our intervention? What kinds of information will they be exchanging? What protocols will we have for controlling them? How can we be sure, when we are plugged into a net that is full of valuable, wonderful information, but also of pirates, phishers and SPAMmers, that we are exchanging “good” information?
Content workers of the world, this is our challenge. Getting it right needs to be our core skill. We are the information architects, the content strategists, the designers, and the content developers that will shape how connected bodies communicate – with each other and with inanimate objects. Some of us might be very excited by the possibilities of such development, others might find it terrifying, but either way, it’s going to happen. Our skill is communication, and in today’s developing world, our expertise is to know how to do it ethically.