Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Humans Made Better With Technology

It is often interesting to watch the future unfold in real time.  In many areas of human development, the small changes accumulate casually, soundlessly, but add up to one grand spectacle when one take the time to observe it and realize they’re looking at something that just a little time ago would have appeared to be the exclusive domain of science fiction.  The recognition of that progress can be a subtle personal breaking point.  It can be either a negative breaking point – jarring one with the realization that the world is morphing by a series of huge steps into something virtually unrecognizable; or it can be a positive one – welcoming a sense of exhilaration as one comes to gain a clear perspective on the lovely places his world seems destined to go.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am prone to be threatened by changed, including and especially technological change.  I am terrified of the myriad ways in which we seem not only willing but eager to throw our humanity away in an endless quest for convenience, and easy security, and ephemeral connections to an increasingly impersonal, electronic world.  But several recent events have given me a sense of the other side of that coin, the exciting promises that come of our eager, whole-body embrace of new technology.

As much as technology swaddles us with petty conveniences and frivolous distractions, the multiplication of those things goes hand in hand with the growth of technologies that demonstrate potential to really transform not just human experience, but human beings themselves.  While the trends have certainly been building for some time, with the rapid development of prosthetics, and of personal electronic devices, and the social acceptance of a constant technological presence in individual lives, it rather seems to me that in the blink of an eye we were on the verge of the widespread technological enhancement of human beings.

That trend is realized in ways that may lie anywhere on the spectrum from subtle to unmistakable.  On the side nearer to familiarity there is the 2008 Olympics.  While the nation and the world were busy watching Michael Phelps make history by scoring eight gold medals at the Beijing games, they may have missed the fact that it wasn’t just Phelps, but also several of his competitors who were systematically shattering former world records in each event.

This wasn’t just a result of that year’s competitors having been a particularly exceptional crop of swimmers.  Advancements in swimwear technology, led by Speedo, effectively made times before and after 2008 incomparable by quite literally reshaping the actual competitors into something more hydrodynamic, squeezed tight in all the right places to make them glide through the water with reduced drag.

It might be hard to conceptualize mere garments as high technology, but however you look at it, the gear that modern industries have produced for their athletes have served to dramatically increase performance and raise the bar for “personal best.”  Technology doesn’t just aid natural abilities; it enhances them.  This is true in other events, as well.  Running shoes have steadily collapsed the ratio of strength to lightness, with Adidas having developed a shoe that redirects power into the turn for long distance track and field competitors.  In that same category, the design of javelins has both increased outcomes and decreased risk of injury by premiering innovative design materials to limit the wobble of the pole upon release without transferring that force into the thrower’s shoulder.  In every one of these instances, if the competitor is capable of performing at a higher level in a high tech outfit than he could do naked, or if different individuals can perform differently based on the design of the object they’re holding, then we’re effectively enhancing the natural capabilities of a human being, even without drugs.  In a way, we’ve been doing this for decades, but it has gotten far more dramatic very quickly, especially in light of the outcomes of the 2008 Olympic Games.

The current Olympic Games showcase something rather more interesting, albeit something that requires a little more speculation to see how it supports my thesis.  South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius has qualified and been permitted to run in the men’s 4 x 400 meter relay.  Pistorius is a double-amputee who will be running on two prosthetic legs against able-bodied opponents, and he purportedly has a real chance of taking a medal.

This probably comes across to many observers as a nice human interest story, but to my mind this is a terrific portend of things to come.  The significance of the story is arguably more social and technological than it is personal.  The Olympics are the ultimate testing ground for the quality of prosthetics.  If false legs are now capable of holding their own in direct competition with the real limbs of athletes in their prime, there can be little doubt that we’ve designed technology capable of replicating the fullest capabilities of the human body.  If we’ve managed that so early in the twenty-first century, how long can it really be before we have prosthetics that actually exceed human abilities?

Unless Pistorius’ prosthetics fail catastrophically, there is simply no way that he will stand alone for long as an example of a formerly-disabled world-class athlete.  Again, with this development, technology has plainly shown itself to be capable of dramatically enhancing the abilities of un-equipped human beings.  Granted, in the present case, it may only be serving to bring a disabled man’s abilities back up to the baseline, but that in itself is truly remarkable, and it leaves it easy to imagine that the technology of the near future can amplify the performance of already able-bodied individuals in similar measure.

All right, let’s not mince words; there’s no more sane way to say this.  I’m talking about cyborgs.  We’re close to having cyborgs among us.  Depending on how you define the term, we may already have them.  I feel downright silly typing that, as the concept still seems far-fetched to me, but I have to reconcile that with the fact that I read a week or two ago about the human cyborg Steve Mann, who has apparently been experimenting with wearable technology since the early 1980s.

Mann made headlines in mid-July after he was assaulted by employees of a Paris McDonalds for wearing his EyeTap Digital Glass camera, which is permanently attached to his head and cannot be removed without special tools, leading the website io9 to brand the attack as the “world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”  Overstated or not, that puts the immediacy of such seemingly futuristic technology into sharp focus.  Technologically-enhancement of human beings is a definite reality, and not just as one-off experiments in distant government labs.  There is at least one individual who is living with such enhancements on a daily basis, blended in with mainstream society.

Taking all of these indicators together, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds and when it will show it to us denizens of the present.  Perhaps it will still be a generation or more.  Then again, Steve Mann’s developments went on in society’s background for thirty years and when I came aware of them I felt they had snuck up on me.  And while I knew how well prosthetic technology was developing, I never anticipated seeing an amputee run in the Olympics.  That too, snuck up on me.  The pace of change is stunning.  If you’re not paying close attention to the patterns, it’s easy to underestimate what the future holds and how soon the future comes.

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