Extending Humanity

"Bionics is not only about making people stronger and faster. Our expression, our humanity can be embedded into electromechanics."
--Hugh Herr

I watch Ted talks far less often than I should. It is because of no contempt or disregard for the talks themselves; rather, I simply don't have enough free time to adequately absorb the wealth of information they contain. I was recently shown the talk embedded below by a friend, however, and I admit that it has been quite a while since I've been so glad to watch a video.

Technology inherently involves a certain "wow" factor. It can be described as a measurement of how impressive a certain advancement is; learning about an arcane polymer recently developed has a relatively low wow factor for most people, and seeing, say, the first properly implemented teleporter would have a fairly high wow factor. Herr leverages this very well in the talk by virtue of simply using the technology he is describing; it is in fact so natural that the viewer forgets it is even being used at all, leading to a strengthened "wow" moment every time they are reminded that the limbs on which he is standing are not, so to speak, the original manufacturer's equipment. The talk also hits home for me not because of a personal experience but because it is a topic of massive interest to me; though a computer scientist at heart, I am fascinated by the idea of computer system biointegration. Several people have expressed distaste with this concept, almost to the point of fear, asking why I would be interested in such an invasion of self. My answer is simple: it has to happen; it is inevitable.

Why do I say this? How can I feel confident asserting the eventuality of an occurrence? I view it as a convergence, somewhat similar in sense to Kurzweil's singularity. It's the same reasoning that sparks almost all of my interest and enthusiasm for the subject. My view is that, over two different time scales, humans have slowly been developing two very similar machines. The first is internal. For millennia, humans have been (sometimes unwittingly) developing a system within ourselves that is up to tackling some monumental tasks, including image processing, facial recognition, efficient storage and recall of information, managing the balance and function of countless mechanical systems, on-the-fly construction of 3D environments, and the hefty burden of self-preservation, all while dealing with constant emotional unrest, hormonal alterations, and physical injuries and impacts. What's more, we've managed to pack it all into a few pounds of tissue sitting in the darkness of our heads.

At the same time, for the last few thousand years we've been working on our own little project as a species, something outside the cavity of our skulls. We've been creating number systems and abaci, building these funny little things we call computers, letting them network amongst one another, and trying to teach them how to think. In short, we've been doing our best to replicate our minds. And here's the interesting part: for the most part, we're good at it. We've made these little metal things that can crunch numbers ridiculously fast, process data with accuracy far outstripping our own, and can store, organize, and relate data like nobody's business. But the same time, there are still things at which we easily beat computers. We can recognize friends far faster. We are better (perhaps too good) at recognizing patterns in seemingly random data. The murky mires of natural language and sentient thought are just beginning to show up on the horizon for our fancy little calculators. In short, the computers inside our heads and those in our hands each have their own unique advantages and disadvantages in different areas, but--and here's the important part--the gaps left by those disadvantages are getting smaller for the computers we make. The systems we've built are growing (mostly by our hands, though in some rare cases, of their own accord) smarter, faster, and more capable. As our understanding of our own response systems grows, so does our ability to transfer that onto mechanical and electronic systems, enabling us to blur the line between hardware and wetware. Neural networks are an increasingly popular model for algorithms that can learn on their own, we are learning from the structure of the body and applying it to our own constructions, and we're doing our best to incorporate natural-sounding emotions in the devices that talk to us.

All of this is wonderful and amazing, but it isn't what spurs me to dream about bionics. What is so breathtakingly well demonstrated in the talk above and what holds, in my mind, the most potential for the future, is the point where the computers outside our heads and the computers inside our heads finally grow together. This is a sticking point for many people to whom I've discussed the idea. The thought of having the brain, the most utterly personal of organs, invaded by foreign equipment is scary to say the least (I'll talk about this fear more in a bit). But this convergence is no new trend; it's merely one toward which humanity has been moving for centuries. We have transitioned from trusting computers with our calculations to trusting them with our schedules, our communications, our ideas, our memories. We've traded out punch cards for keyboards, mice, and, more recently, touchscreens. Each packed with an arsenal of sensors and monitoring features, the devices glued to so many of our hands and pockets know where we are, when we're there, and what we're doing; they can learn our habits and rituals, spot patterns in our behavior, and provide alerts and information accordingly to assist us; they learn to know our faces, our voices, our speech patterns, and our moods. They are starting to sense our heart rate and temperature, with more biometrics to follow. To me, it's a short jump before these devices cross the barrier of our skin and no longer need to worry about clunky interfaces, and what's more, we're already in the middle of a running start for the jump. Computers can garner a much clearer understanding of a command from electrical pulses in our bodies than from clumsy and inaccurate gestures.

And yes, I will freely admit, this is a scary idea. Beyond that, it's terrifying. It's a massive leap of faith to give computers that still can't quite tell if I'm saying "Aunt Lisa made a peach pie" or "Aunt Lisa played the beach, bye" access to our brains. But it's progress. Instead of falling back on the overused "you can't stop progess", I propose an alternative: "you shouldn't stop progress". If we had cut aviation funding after the first plane crash, we certainly wouldn't have the level of safety in air travel we do today. Will there be accidents? Mistakes? Of course there will! In a somewhat cold, impersonal manner, I welcome them--they give us a chance to learn and improve. But the benefits that will sprout from this moment of unification so far outweigh the pitfalls that in my mind we have no choice as a species to run with it and run fast indeed.

Before I float away from my laptop on a cloud of futurism, though, let me return to the talk.

Herr makes the point that a person can not be broken. They may be vulnerable physically, yes, but that is irrelevant; a person is much more than their limbs and the ability to overcome physical injuries is what makes them such. Throughout the video, the limbs Herr wears have a quiet beauty all their own. They are not overbearing, nor are they indistinguishable from human limbs. They are not a replacement for a loss; they are a complement. This I think is a crucial point, one that Herr makes several times in his own words. Bionic equipment is not intended to replace outdated human equipment, it's intended to be an upgrade and a tribute. Our design of artificial limbs has been modeled off of our own limbs, and that's fantastic, because it means that they're already a great fit for us! We're patterning materials after muscles and operations after our own gaits, and soon we'll be doing the same with processing algorithms and memory storage. Maybe it seems like a big leap, but that's because (again, channeling Kurzweil here) the rate of advancement is increasing. In a few centuries, we went from wooden peglegs to plastic peglegs with a few more hinges, and in the space of a couple decades, we've gone to impressively accurate replicas of a functioning human leg. This is what excites me the most about biointegration of computers. We are so close as a species to breaking another barrier of the same type that was shattered when we invented the wheel or when we developed the first computers, and once we've passed it we'll open up an entire new world of possibilities ranging from resolving societal issues to solving scientific problems to more greatly understanding ourselves and our own peculiar mechanisms.

In conclusion, yes, it will be frightening. When the first person hops on the web with their brain instead of their eyes and their fingers, it will be scary. But as soon as we hit that point we can start improving, and that's the idea that keeps me interested.