I found myself on a moving sidewalk recently. Typically I walk them, rather than just standing. I enjoy the exercise between flights, plus that feeling of walking so much faster than usual. Ever since childhood, I’ve loved the rushing feeling as you step off at the end, catapulted ever so slightly as your body connects with unmoving ground and slows to your normal pace.
It occurred to me, walking through this unfamiliar airport, that this is what the augmented biology of the ((very) near) future will feel like.
It’s fascinating to realize that when people look back at this time they will see the transition point so clearly — while in the mire of today’s lived experience it is obscured to us.
Walking sidewalks aren’t new, but they offer a useful analogy here. We’ve had devices like them for quite a long time, actually: elevators go back to the 1850s and escalators the 1890s. Moving sidewalks were patented way back in the 1870s, and first operated in the 1890s. On the surface of it, all these things are just people movers — they move people faster and more easily in a direction that we want to go. But there’s an important distinction.
The ‘augmented travel’ of a moving sidewalk feels more natural—it’s closer to where our future is taking us. With a moving sidewalk you’re not stepping into a closed box. You don’t have to time your step, so that you’re securely footed and not straddling two steps. You can continue, in full and normal stride, both onto and off of the moving surface. Once on, there is nothing to think about or do — no buttons to push or pay attention to.
The sidewalk ejects you — gently though a tad thrillingly — and you are free to continue your unbroken stride.
Moving swiftly through that airport , I realized that this sort of seamless augmented, embodied life will be increasingly commonplace. Glimmers of it are already here, in many ordinary places.
Just a couple of weeks ago I rode my first power-assisted ebike. Sitting on the bike felt familiar: although it was bigger and clunkier, the buttons and levers were close enough to what I already know about bikes.
But the effortlessness was breathtaking! Being whooshed away so rapidly with only a few pumps of the pedals is a fantastic feeling. I wondered, frankly, why everyone isn’t riding these things.
And the more you look, the more you see this kind of human-machine augmentation everywhere.
Movies like Pacific Rim entertain us with futuristic visions of giant robotic warriors, armed extensions of a real human fighter. But today, remote surgery can be done by skilled physicians. Drones can be piloted by people seated in chairs on the other side of the planet. Night vision goggles extend our visual range, and we can listen in on places and conversations that are remote or out of auditory range.
We humans have messed with our biology for a long time. Alcohol, drugs, and pharmaceuticals were all discovered or invented precisely to create an altered state and change our experience. It’s possible, really, to view all of medicine and surgery as forms of augmented biology.
Maybe we have always done so. Homo sapiens is, after all, the tool-using primate. But I think we’re only just beginning to understand the implications of these integrated, augmented systems. The reality and impact of truly living ‘human plus’.
It’s easiest to see this kind of biology tinkering starting with the physical body. And it turns out we’ve supplemented the body for a long time.
In June 2017, reports of a 3,000 year old prosthetic toe on an Egyptian mummy reinvigorated conversations about the extent to which people have understood — and manipulated — our basic physiology.
This working toe, complete with its sculpted, trimmed(!) toenail, is an elegant solution created thousands of years ago. It is likely that people used canes and crutches even long before that. A quick search on the history of walking canes returns Euro-centric answers ranging from 20th century, to 1850s, to 1600s, but it’s hard to imagine humans walking upright didn’t think to pick up a stick to help them balance.
We use things to help us see, and did so long before we strapped a pair of glasses to our face. Zenni Optical has a fascinating page on the history of eyeglasses; Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now series on PBS has an entire episode on the use of glass.
We use things to help us hear — from the ‘hearing trumpets’ of hundreds of years ago to today’s minuscule, in-ear ‘assistive listening devices.’ We build devices to let us walk, race, climb, and even fly. We augment our basic biology all the time.
So what’s different now? Why did the moving sidewalk captivate my imagination as it transported me across the airport?
I spend a lot of time thinking about digital technology, and especially its impact on the relationship between parents and kids. Which is why I think the biggest shift in the rapidly approaching future of augmented biology is from the physical to the mental — altering brain waves and thought patterns.
Digital technology has shifted if not the overarching goal of parenting, then at least the emphasis of it. Between the distractibility, the possibilities of addiction, the access to pornography and the exposure to violence, today’s digital tech requires that people be able to regulate themselves at levels never before seen in human history. That’s important to understand.
Today’s digital tech requires that people be able to regulate themselves at levels never before seen in human history
It would be a mistake to consider this simply an issue of willpower — willpower alone won’t answer the weight of the problem. But it would also be a mistake to consider this not to be about willpower — because willpower plays a crucial role in our ability to set up tools and techniques to support our ability to act toward our goals.
It’s a question of exerting our willpower at the right times and in the right ways to enhance our ability to stay focused on what we need and want to. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that in the face of today’s tech we are already outgunned.
We will need to augment more than our physical bodies. We will need to augment our minds.
We will need an augmented willpower to go along with our advancing technologies, I suspect. Our ability to self regulate — to deliberately direct our thoughts, emotions, actions, and especially our attention — will require planning and foresight, ongoing monitoring, and reflection so that we can see our mistakes and learn from them. We will need to design our spaces to assist us in this task, because the effort to do it will be herculean; already is almost that, in fact.
Just look at communication. Through text, email and social media I communicate with more people each day than my parents would have in a months. I can be reached by anyone in my circle — or people I’ve never heard of — at any time of the day, through any one of numerous channels. How do I decide who to respond to? How do I decide who to ignore?
The weight of all this deciding is exhausting.
This isn’t simply about what apps to use to manage your email or social media posts, or whether you turn off your notifications. It’s about the underlying structure of cognitive demand, of psychic demand, from being available all the time, and having to manage that flow. What deeper solutions will we create to address this?
As our tools increase, our capacity for managing them must also. This is especially true for children, given that the executive function drivers in our prefrontal cortex are not fully developed until about age 30. In the face of today’s technology onslaught, kids are sunk without deep self-regulatory power, and I am doubtful that we can build enough of that natively.
Take this example. Kids now have smartphones at unprecedented ages. Unprecedented obviously because smartphones didn’t even exist until 2007, but also because we never used to put tools of this magnitude into the hands of children. We are now seeing that phones carry an enormous burden along with their benefits. Can kids learn to regulate their use? Can adults? The jury is out. Just last week I met with a group of talented, concerned professionals to talk about the future of humane technology. I was startled to hear so many stories of tech addiction. If adults are this vulnerable, what are we doing to kids?
And so I believe we will need to augment more than our physical bodies. We will need to augment our minds. We will need augmented willpower and augmented self regulation, because without them the sheer power of our bodies will be too great, and the power of the distraction outside our bodies will overwhelm us.
We will need augmented willpower and augmented self regulation
What will that look like, I wonder? How do today’s technologies point to where we’re heading?
The good news is maybe we’re not headed for the bleak future of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World.
VR guru Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, has said he thinks AR will far outstrip VR. In a recent Recode podcast, he argued that VR is good for a short time; for immersive experiences, but not for prolonged use. He doesn’t foresee people jacked in for 10 hour stints, living their life somewhere else.
Science fiction of course foreshadows VR’s ability to transfer our consciousness to another form. Yet as Bailenson points out, VR, with its fully immersive experience, is fantastic — but it also puts the body at risk. The body separated from its physical/perceptual reality after all still needs to be fed, sleep, and excrete. It must watched over. Whether that’s as William Gibson envisions in The Peripheral, to guard against assassination, or as Bailenson recounts prosaically, simply spotting to keep someone from falling or walking into walls.
Listening to Bailenson I was reminded of a time in college when I ended up ‘babysitting’ a friend who was on a very bad LSD trip. I sat with my friend, spoke soothingly, and kept them from hurting themself in response to what they thought was happening. It was sobering to see how utterly disconnected they were from their physical reality — and that they would stay that way until the drugs had run their course.
Without being alarmist, VR’s alluring total immersion clearly carries real risk, even if we don’t yet know how much or for what populations. Today’s highly immersive gaming is already claiming teenagers. And that is not hyperbole. Just talk to any of the growing number of families who have had their children removed — by force — to residential rehab facilities in order to detox them — from gaming. We live in stunning, powerful, confusing, overwhelming times.
AR on the other hand, supplements our experience. It will be additive, enhancing the experience we are already having. And as that newly re-discovered toe shows us, humans have been finding ways to supplement our bodies’ capabilities all along. That seamless, natural augmentation, like the moving sidewalk, may be easier for us to adapt to. Certainly
Layering, blending, bending. These seem to be the direction our near-future biological augmentation will take. Google glass may have failed to take off as a product, but it certainly points the way of where we are headed: Seamless interaction, in support of what we want to do.
The human propensity to alter our biological substrate may be long-standing, but the options for doing so are rapidly accelerating.
I tried to demo a pre-release version of the Muse headset back in 2013, at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. I was eager to try out their demo challenge — lifting an object with my thoughts! Demand was so overwhelming I never made it off the wait list. I have a friend who uses the current Muse headband regularly, and loves how it helps them tune into their brain state and change it.
Neurofeedback, or biofeedback more generally, isn’t new — early research goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. Consumer EEG devices are new, though, and they are quickly becoming mainstream. Like the flurry of brain-training apps, these devices promise to teach people to reshape their brain.
That new augmented biology is our rapidly approaching future.
Jane Metcalfe, co-founder of WIRED magazine, launched her latest venture NEO.LIFE one year ago. A keen observer of near-future trends (she also launched my favorite designer chocolate company, Tcho), Metcalfe’s online magazine focuses on the hackable intersection of biology and technology. Metcalfe isn’t alone in her interest in this new frontier:
“Bill and I sometimes wonder what field we would go in if we were doing it all over again. We both agree: the intersection of biology and computer science.”
-Melinda Gates, multi-billionaire philanthropist
One of the most audacious efforts I know of is being led by Mary Lou Jepsen, and given her track record of success I wouldn’t bet a penny against her being able to pull this off. Jepsen’s startup, Openwater, is working to create
“a wearable with MRI-plus resolution that can enable telepathy as well as drastically transform diagnostic costs for healthcare”
Augmented biology is no longer the stuff of science fiction.
There’s so much to explore as we figure out how to modify our bodies, minds, perception and experience. AR and VR look to be key places where this will take place. And with the rapid infusion of VC money into AR/VR, I think we’ll be seeing it quite soon.
One question that bears asking — Where does the biology stop and the augmentation begin? I think there’s an important distinction to be made between altering our state through things we ingest/inject, versus using a device we can take off (or turn off, if it’s implanted inside the body).
Will permanent bionics a la Will Smith in I, Robot be treated as the same as removable prosthetics? Will enhanced cognition from a stimulant be viewed as equivalent to an AI implant? Will rearranging our DNA or neurons be like anything we’ve seen to date?
A starting shortlist of things I think make a difference
• You can opt out
• Short duration
We’ve entered a time of rapid social change. We’re already in it. Where we take it may determine what it means to be human. I’m somewhat equal parts fascinated and horrified and eager.
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