I, Cyborg

Being better cyborgs may make us — paradoxically — more human.

There is an existential unease lying at the root of the Internet of Things — a sense that we may emerge not less than human, certainly, but other than human.

Kelsey Breseman

Kelsey Breseman, engineer at Technical Machine.

Well, not to worry. As Kelsey Breseman, engineer at Technical Machine, points out, we don’t need to fret about becoming cyborgs. We’re already cyborgs: biological matrices augmented by wirelessly connected silicon arrays of various configurations. The problem is that we’re pretty clunky as cyborgs go. We rely on screens and mobile devices to extend our powers beyond the biological. That leads to everything from atrophying social skills as face-to-face interactions decline to fatal encounters with garbage trucks as we wander, texting and oblivious, into traffic.

So, if we’re going to be cyborgs, argues Breseman, let’s be competent, sophisticated cyborgs. For one thing, it’s now in our ability to upgrade beyond the screen. For another, being better cyborgs may make us — paradoxically — more human.

“I’m really concerned about how we integrate human beings into the growing web of technology,” says Breseman, who will speak at O’Reilly’s upcoming Solid conference in San Francisco in May. “It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘cool new thing’ mentality, but you can end up with a situation where the point for the technology is the technology, not the human being using it. It becomes closed rather than inclusive — an ‘app developers developing apps for app developers to develop apps’ kind of thing.”

Those concerns have led Breseman and her colleagues at Technical Machine to the development of the Tessel: an open-source Arduino-style microcontroller that runs JavaScript and allows hardware project prototyping. And not, Breseman emphasizes, the mere prototyping of ‘cool new things’ — rather, the prototyping of things that will connect people to the emerging Internet of Things in ways that have nothing to do with screens or smart phones.

“I’m not talking about smart watches or smart clothing,” explains Breseman. “In a way, they’re already passé. The product line hasn’t caught up with the technology. Think about epidermal circuits — you apply them to your skin in the same way you apply a temporary tattoo. They’ve been around for a couple of years. Something like that has so many potential applications — take the Quantified Self movement, for example. Smart micro devices attached right to the skin would make everything now in use for Quantified Self seem antiquated, trivial.”

Breseman looks to a visionary of the past to extrapolate the future: “In the late 1980s, Mark Weiser coined the term ‘ubiquitous computing‘ to describe a society where computers were so common, so omnipresent, that people would ultimately stop interfacing with them,” Breseman says. “In other words, computers would be everywhere, embedded in the environment. You wouldn’t rely on a specific device for information. The data would be available to you on an ongoing basis, through a variety of non-intrusive — even invisible — sources.”

Weiser described such an era as “… the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives…” That trope — calm technology — is extremely appealing, says Breseman.

“We could stop interacting with our devices, stop staring at screens, and start looking at each other, start talking to each other again,” she says. “I’d find that tremendously exciting.”

Breseman is concerned that the Internet of Things is seen only as a new and shiny buzz phrase. “We should be looking at it as a way to address our needs as human beings,” she says, “to connect people to the Internet more elegantly, not just as a source for more toys. Yes, we are now dependent on information technology. It has expanded our lives, and we don’t want to give it up. But we’re not applying it very well. We could do it so much better.”

Part of the problem has been the bifurcation of engineering into software and hardware camps, she says. Software engineers type into screens, and hardware engineers design physical things, and there have been few — if any — places that the twain have met. The two disciplines are poised to merge in the Internet of Things — but it won’t be an easy melding, Breseman allows. Each field carves different neural pathways, inculcates different values.

“Because of that, it has been really hard to figure out things that let people engage with the Internet in a physical sense,” Breseman says. “When we were designing Tessel, we discovered how hugely difficult it is to make an interactive Internet device.”

Still, Tessel and devices like it ultimately will become the machine tools of the Internet of Everything: the forges and lathes where the new infrastructure is built. That’s what Breseman hopes, anyway.

“What we would like,” she muses, “is for people to figure out their needs first and then order Tessels rather than the other way around. By that I mean you should first determine why and how connecting to the Internet physically would augment your life, make it better. Then get a Tessel to help you with your prototypes. We’ll see more and better products that way, and it keeps the emphasis where it belongs — on human beings, not the devices.”


If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter.

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  • Steve

    I think that one is underestimating the start of Cyborgness. Today, many of us could not survive without the technical systems to deliver food and water. We run faster than humanly possible in cars, survive temperature extremes outdoors (<50 degrees f) due to the invention of clothes, gain more nutrition out of items such as corn due to the technology of cooking, cut cleanly though items due to knives in our kitchens and even have modified our height though the application of nutrition. What most people are starting to be concerned about is augmented cognition. The problem is that this has been going on for a long time. Think about libraries, schools, writing and even the creation of language. While the application of embedded silicon and eventually though bio-engineering carbon structures may seem like a new idea, they are just an extension of the human condition to adapt to and have our environment adapt to us.

  • wardred

    There are some things where a “better interface” would allow technology to slide into the background. A simple example is a good GPS unit with great voice recognition rather than having to type in a start and end destination. Maybe with a see through display on your car’s HUD rather than on a small screen set somewhere out of the “normal” view of the driver so that all you have to do to see your next turn is change your focus point, rather than look away. Taken even further your car drives itself and you no longer have to worry about the road – you can interact, safely, with the passengers in the car, or over a cell phone.

    That said, we’re single taskers. If I’m composing a note to billy, be it with pen and paper, on a cell phone’s screen, a keyboard, or a device capable of reading my thoughts so I don’t have to talk, type, or write, I’ll still be concentrating on that note. I may *try* to talk with people around me, but then both my conversation and my written note would obviously suffer.

    There are a couple ideas that excite me, but neither really solves the problem of ignoring those around us in favor of our toys. One is the idea of an augmented mind via a neural interface. This is a long way off, but having the “hud” behind one’s eyes, rather than something strapped on top of them is kind of exciting. Add in a computer as part of one’s brain, and some wireless technology built into that, and I could see a realm where you get the best of the binary and analog worlds when it comes to thinking. The wireless bit would allow one to offload tasks that are too big for your built in computer, but just having the built in computer offers some cool vistas. There are just some calculations that computers are better at than humans, and being able to think in both modes would be quite exciting, I’d think.

    Another idea I like to kick around is a companion device along the lines of the movie “Her”, with an optional robotic avatar ala Persocoms in “Chobits”. I’m not talking the end game in either show where the computer surpasses us, but an actual companion device. It could be as small as a Furby, or as large as a human. (Technically it could be any sized, but I don’t think we’d want anything bigger than that unless it’s a vehicle we’re riding in or a domicile.) Secretary, personal trainer, a more “natural” interaction with you and the people around you than typing in a screen, etc. You’d run into strange situations where an adult might become emotionally attached to the device. Asking something with even a hint of a personality about something that’s available online could be a lot more natural than breaking off a conversation to look it up on one’s phone, and a computer *would* be able to multi-task like that without breaking the illusion that the conversation is the center of its world.

    I guess if you combined the two ideas you could “ask” the computer side of you to Google for the currently tallest building in the world, or how close we are to getting long chains of carbon nano-tubes for a space elevator with a minimal amount of interruption and have it return the results to you. . . but even then, the regular gray matter would need to take some time out to send and receive the data from the computer half.

    I think an external thing that’s everyone could talk to, as a part of the conversation, rather than something one person does away from the conversation, could be more natural. Cell phones aren’t that far from it. They have voice recognition and offline processing. Offload the computing and get a bit of rudimentary “personality” into it, put it into speaker phone mode, and it could join the conversation rather than taking people out of it.