I'd like to share this (edited) essay I wrote earlier this year, about the future of technology. It's a somewhat whimsical take on where things are headed, but I believe that—aside from the indulgent, fanciful presentation—we do achieve change through a series of individual steps. If you ever wonder at the fast pace of technological change, take a moment to consider the big picture of merging technology with humanity.
As a society, we often use technology solutions to improve the human condition. Some of these improvements, such as the hearing aid and the artificial heart, entered our cultural awareness decades ago, while others are more recent. Though we now consider these corrective technology innovations to be somewhat mundane, they have raised the human condition by extending lives and improving mobility. But technological enhancements are not limited to implanted devices such as hearing aids or artificial hearts. Today, many people carry "smartphones" that provide "always on" connectivity to the Internet, and "Roomba" robots clean our houses for us. These devices were considered science fiction in the year 2000, but in 2013 they are commonplace.
Transhumanists seek to take these enhancements to another level, by applying new technology to improve our intellectual, physical, and psychological capabilities. Moving beyond merely "corrective" devices, the transhumanist vision is to advance humanity via hybrid technological improvements. To the transhumanist, merging humanity with technology is simply a step forward in a technological progression.
In order to envision this future, we can draw inspiration from other sources. One of our most fruitful sources is science fiction. Although science fiction is not a predictor of future technology, it can inspire us to discover a new vision. So let's look ahead using science fiction as a lens.
|A cochlear implant is an implanted electronic hearing device, designed to produce useful hearing sensations to a person with severe to profound nerve deafness by electrically stimulating nerves inside the inner ear.
~ U.S. Food and Drug Administration|
To previous generations, deafness was a permanent disability. While partial deafness might experience some improvement through hearing aids, the completely deaf could expect no such relief. The cochlear implant innovation changed the world for those with profound nerve deafness. Using implanted devices and computer chips, this "bionic ear" produces useful hearing sensations through direct electrical nerve stimulation inside the inner ear.
This sort of minor bio-modification isn't all that surprising. After all, we have had hearing aids, artificial hearts, and pacemakers for decades. Compared to these medical devices, the cochlear implant is a small step to the next level.
|The man in the helmet, eyes hidden, was bobbing his head from side to side as he accessed gaze-activated menus.
It's a minor step to suggest humans might use wearable technology as personal advancement rather than corrective devices. Not yet available to the general public, although currently undergoing beta testing via Google's "Explorer" program, Google Glass features a lightweight headset that enables the wearer to record video, take pictures, search for information, participate in virtual conversations via Google Hangout, translate words and phrases, navigate directions, send messages, and display weather and flight information.
Google Glass seems to emerge from the realms of science fiction. William Gibson's novel Idoru describes a helmet-like device that enabled the wearer to navigate menus in a computer system, much as we might use a keyboard and mouse today. Gibson's fictional innovation was technological futurism in 1996. As in most science fiction, characters do not consider the gaze-activated helmet to be fantastic; to the contrary, it is part of their world, a new "norm." And while the popular press in 2013 is excitedly proclaiming "the future is now" with the imminent arrival of Google Glass, within a year it will be part of our cultural consciousness.
|"It's a virtual light display," Freddie said, eager to change the subject. "Anything can be digitized, you can see it there... Mr. Warbaby walks around and looks at stuff, he can see the data-feed at the same time. You put those glasses on a man doesn't have eyes, optic nerve's okay, he can see the input. That's why they built the first ones, for blind people."
~ Virtual Light|
The short story Johnny Mnemonic (Gibson) presents a character who has undergone cybernetic surgery to add personal data storage. This allows him certain advantages as a "data trafficker," necessary to the plot of that story. Another example is the virtual light display in the novel Virtual Light (Gibson). This wearable device overlays data with a direct visual feed, providing an augmented reality experience.
While augmented reality systems are commonplace today, the virtual light headset works by directly stimulating the optic nerve, providing the sensation of vision even to those previously unable to see, hence the name virtual light. This combination of external technology with the human brain takes virtual light displays an extra step beyond Google Glass into the realm of transhumanism.
|The nexus, which housed the nanotech that built the LINK inside the human brain, was implanted at birth when the skull was malleable.
~ Fallen Host|
Wearable computer/human interfaces are not unimaginably far away from direct integration. A "pluggable" computer system such as those shown in the 1999 movie The Matrix could allow for not just augmented reality but virtual reality. The LINK in Archangel Protocol by Lyda Morehouse demonstrates a similar integration, described as a small computer implanted in the skull, and directly connected to the human brain. The technology is described as a plausible future technology, a new vision of some forthcoming human state that is itself inspired in part by extending current technology concepts.
Society may not yet embrace embedded computer networks, but some have experimented with implanted technology like the cybernetic implant worn by artist Neil Harbisson, who was born with a form of total color blindness. Harbisson describes himself as a cyborg, someone who extends their senses using technology as part of the body; he uses an embedded computer and electronic eye to translate colors into sounds, transmitted via bone conduction. Instead of seeing color, Harbisson "hears" color as different tonal frequencies. Harbisson's direct technology integration is still far from Morehouse's LINK concept, but steps into the realm of assistive augmentation.
|A cybernetic life-form thousands of years old which is part organic, part artificial life... The Borg have a singular goal, namely the consumption of technology, rather than wealth or political expansion as most species seek.
~ Star Trek Database|
Harbisson describes himself as a cyborg, but he is only an introduction to what we usually consider a "cyborg." Steve Mann is closer to the typical cyborg description: Mann's Digital Eye Glass system is permanently affixed to his head, and cannot be removed without special tools. Mann's Digital Eye Glass takes technology enhancements to another level, by applying new technology to improve our physical capabilities. Moving beyond merely "corrective" technology devices, Mann's goals echo those of transhumanists: to advance humanity via hybrid technological improvements.
It is a precursor of future technology. Science fiction hints at possibilities. Star Trek's Borg show humans who have grafted technology onto their bodies. The Borg have a singular goal: the consumption of technology to advance their species. While the Borg are an extreme case, other science fiction, including the Deus Ex video game series, considers similar technology augmentation for professional enhancement. Through these upgrades, the cyborg user may apply new technology to improve their intellectual, physical, and psychological capabilities including increased intelligence, strength, and comprehension.
|"We are called Cybermen," replied the Cyberleader. "We were exactly like you once. Then our Cybernetic scientists realized that our race was weakening... Our life span was contracting, so our scientists and doctors invented spare parts for our bodies until we could be almost completely replaced."
~ The Tenth Planet|
Once society adapts to technology augmentation, some might consider taking the next step: instead of using grafted technology, merge directly with the technology. Science fiction carries many examples of this type of transhumanism, but the most popular example is the Cybermen in the BBC television series Doctor Who. Writer Marc Platt describes the Cybermen as humans who have augmented their bodies with technological spare parts in order to become stronger:
In Spare Parts, the last survivors of the wandering planet Mondas are faced with imminent extinction. Forced to live in underground cities, their only hope of survival is to extend their lives by augmenting their bodies with technological spare parts... To that end, the Mondasians' Chief Scientist, Doctorman Allan, devises a body containment suit—a cyber suit—which controls all bodily functions.
Cybermen are not robots, but human beings who have exploited technology to improve their lot. At the same time, they became an enhancement of original humans, made smarter and stronger through technology advances. The Cybermen have met the technological singularity; their computer/human interfaces have become so intimate that the Cybermen become superhuman in both mind and body.
|Davros began to speak. He described his years of struggle to develop the travel machine that would protect the creatures into which his race must evolve.
~ Genesis of the Daleks|
When humans reach that level of transhumanity, what's the next step? Once we find it acceptable to merge ourselves with technology, and effectively encase ourselves in technology, why do we need our original human bodies at all? As with transhumanity, science fiction may eventually inspire our final step to posthumanity where we discard our current notion of the human body and reconceive the human race through the lens of science and technology.
This evolutionary step is paralleled by Doctor Who's Daleks, who were originally humans. At the culmination of a long and terrible war, they devised technology-enhanced "travel machines" in which to protect and perpetuate themselves. The Daleks considered their travel machines the ultimate technology enhancement: technology had improved their intellectual and psychological capabilities to the point where their physical form became irrelevant. Whatever their final appearance, the Daleks originated as simple humans; they simply ended up in metal casings.
The Dalek example is multiple steps beyond today's simple technology aids: the cell phone and the cochlear implant. It is not a huge difference to go from cochlear implants to Google Glass, or from wearable devices to direct integration. From step to step, each change is not that big. Humanity progresses in a series of small steps to a larger world that presently we would not recognize as normal. It's obviously a huge leap from beginning to end, from cochlear implants to Daleks. It may take generations, but ultimately a baby with a cochlear implant will be basically the same as the posthumanist Dalek.