For some time now the lines between biology and technology, reality and virtuality and humans and machines have been blurring. Now we’re seeing it happening in the mainstream marketplace. Is a new kind of human is on the way?
You may have noticed recently a sudden explosion of new gadgets that link you to your bodily functions. It may not immediately look this way, but their arrival marks the beginning of one of the world-rocking trends the 21st century will bring — the literal melding of us with our machines.
It’s beginning this way: with very cool gadgets like the Fitbit, Nike FuelBands, Basis and Body Media gadgets. They fit on your wrist or arm and report to you on a regular basis how you’re sleeping, how much exercise you’re getting, how many calories you’re burning, steps your climbing, miles you’re covering. They sense your body heat, perspiration, and in some cases, your hormone levels. These gadgets will not only fill you in directly on how your anatomy is getting on, but send reports to your iPhone or Android device, or a website, where you can view all of the exciting facts and trends.
Even five years ago these devices would have cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, now they are selling for around $100, and prices will undoubtedly drop. Together with these gadgets are a swarm of new Dick Tracey-style wrist watches hitting the market. The initial versions of these gadgets from Samsung and Sony have been underwhelming (Do we really need a wrist band to tell us who is calling?) Apple has been apparently developing a so-called iWatch that many hope could bring something fresh and new to wearable computing, but again, it’s been difficult to see what Apple invent that would be that different. After all, finding ways to integrate such a thing with hand motions for your Apple TV (swiping, selecting etc.) or with Siri voice recognition technology so you can order your TV around like your iPhone would be nice, but is it enough to part with several hundred more dollars? Maybe … if it’s combined with very high end sensors that can also download all sorts of health data that can help you live smarter and healthier.
That may be exactly where Apple is headed. The rumor mill now has it that if you’re a scientist, engineer or manager in the wearable technology and medical sensor fields and want to work for Apple, you’re in luck! Apple has been aggressively hiring experts to develop skin patch technology that would kick wearable computing into another universe; devices capable of analyzing your blood for glucose values, potassium levels, kidney function, cholesterol and electrolyte balance, all without sticking you with a single needle. The advantages for people with diabetes, or heart disease or kidney problems is clear, but there may be advantages to the huge and aging baby boomer population, tens of millions of people who clearly don’t like the idea of encountering the grim reaper. A mainstream-Apple-style product that provides this market with highly accurate feedback that could mean tweaking diets, enhancing supplements, and accessing treatments that improves and extends the quality of life could make the iPhone look about as innovative as a PEDS dispenser. This marks a whole new kind of communication system, not one with other people, but one with yourself. Integrate this with your phone, tablet and computer and you have a whole feedback system that is constantly monitoring your anatomy. You see where this is headed, right? This technology is enabling us to create electronic organs that are erasing the lines between technology and biology. We are on the verge of becoming cyborgs. And this is just the beginning.
If you need further proof , check in with Amal Graafstra, 37 years old and a man who has been resolutely computerizing himself by implanting his body with rice-sized radio frequency identification devices (RFID). This enables him to do things most mortal humans can’t — like open his car, log into his computer or enter his house just by waving his hand. It’s working well enough that so far he has sold 500 of the tags to a growing group of customers. Next, in addition to RFID tags, are smart tattoos like the ones that Google’s Motorola Mobility branch is developing that will carry built in microphones, power sources and transceivers that can be applied to your throat so you can tell other devices in your world what you want from them simply by talking.
These devices, though, will soon seem bulky, almost laughable, when science finally gets down to the business of creating nano-machines, 1000 times smaller than a human cell, that can be injected into bodies and brains to pull off all sorts of neat tricks. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted we’ll see this within 15 years. Berkeley scientists recently published a paper that proposes implanting people’s brains with “neural dust” – thousands of tiny sensors. Their initial use would be medical, to help patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or brains damaged by strokes or injury. But consider the possibilities when millions of nano-machinse can be dispatched to cleanse your arteries of plaque, or enhance your memory, or provides ways to override your brain and deliver virtual experiences that feel as literal as walking down the street does today. Such devices could mean “visiting” another city, country or planet, or an entirely imaginary world, without ever leaving your living room. The possibilities are both tantalizing and terrifying.
Our relationship with our technologies have been growing increasingly intimate since our ancestors invented the first flint knife over two million years ago. Every invention since from the wheel to the computer chip has enabled us to leap over the slower mechanisms of our genetics to change and enhance ourselves. Now, however, we’re entering a new age — one in which we and our technologies ill be melding, literally, eventually invisibly. I wrote about this in the epilogues of Thumbs, Toes and Tears and Other Traits That Make Us Human (see – http://www.kurzweilai.net/cyber-sapiens) and Last Ape Standing (see – http://www.popsci.com/category/tags/chip-walter ), and have predicted that the next human will be a new species that we ourselves are in the process of creating right now. Not one whose genes have changed so much that a new branch of the human tree must be decreed, but one so thoroughly embedded with technology that it becomes a different creature, not a Homo sapiens, but a Cyber sapiens, part biology, part technology.
No worries. we won’t look like the Borg. In fact we probably won’t look very different at all. Nevertheless, I suspect resistance will be futile.
Do you think this trend is good or bad? Let us know.