How might we interact with future computers? Let me list the ways: by gesture; by hand, foot, and body motion; by the speed and forcefulness of our activities; by our thoughts, feelings, and emotions; by where, how, and when we look; by speech and sound; by music and touch. Imagine it, and it shall come to pass? Not quite, but the potential is staggering, especially in the area of the cyborg—the implantation of bioelectronic devices to amplify human thought, memory, vision, and muscle power.
To date, the way we interact with computers has been incredibly unimaginative and limited. Basically, we sit in front of the box looking and listening, pointing and typing, and occasionally talking. This will change, of course, but the change will come about primarily through changes in the computer itself, getting rid of the boxes and embedding them into devices and appliances. After all, we interact with the computers that control our automobiles with no awareness that computers are involved. Instead, we watch the road, evaluate the instruments (including head-up displays), rotate the steering wheel, depress the pedals, and shift gears. The auto changes state, adjusts the braking, gears, and fuel/air ratios—all without our awareness—by interpreting our inputs as intentions, dynamically adjusting itself to the dynamics of our actions and the car’s responses. New devices will be embedded in whatever the appropriate physical form factor for the activity, with the interaction proceeding naturally, by whatever means is most suitable.
On the one hand, the fundamentals of life and social settings did not change all that much in the past millennium, perhaps because so much is determined by the environment, our biology, and the laws of the physical world. People are born, go through a relatively slow maturation process of roughly 20 years, lead an adult, active life, then gracefully (or not so gracefully) grow old and die. We need food, shelter, medical care, and human companionship. As a society, we need governing bodies, laws, and social institutions. Our behavior is determined by the culture in which we live, including its laws and some enforcement agency. We have developed the concept of money as an aid in trading goods and services, a body of law and an enforcement mechanism to restrict our behavior. Meanwhile, the young must be educated to learn the prior knowledge of the society and the history and behavioral norms of the culture.
This much is also unlikely to change in the millennium just begun.
Human capability has long been limited by biology. Our mental and physical capabilities are limited. Athletes have pushed the limits of strength and endurance. Human working memory has always been limited to a relatively small number of items. Our minds, even of the most talented, are limited. And as we age, we go frail, both physically and mentally.
Up to now, our advances in technology have functioned as accessories, enhancing our capabilities but not making any changes in our biology. But we can see the beginnings of change. Already, we have implanted pacemakers for the heart and artificial organs. We have artificial limbs, plastic lenses in our eyes, auditory implants, and glasses and hearing aids. Two pieces of technology—watches and cellular telephones—are now so much a part of life that many people strap them to their bodies, never to be without them. For some of us, we might add music players, whether by radio, tape, or MP3 player.
For years, I resisted the notion that technology would supplant biology, but now I’m sure the trend is inevitable. We are close to the point where video cameras and memory chips will be tiny enough to be implanted within our bodies. Add some simple circuitry, solve the power-supply problem, and we could supplement hearing and sight, along with memory and reasoning.
Why not build a TV camera with zoom lens into our eyes, allowing magnification of distant scenes or vision through infrared, the better to see at night? Why not amplifiers in our ears? And why not recorders capable of saving all that we have heard, seen, or even felt for later recall? Never again does inattentiveness have to mean missing something. Linger over the interesting parts of life, fast-forward through the boring parts. Add some pattern recognition and never again would we be at a loss for words or forget a name or face. "Why John, good to see you again. Your wife Elaine had knee surgery; how did it go? And your son Peter is about to have a birthday…"
The enhancements are apt to be impressive. Memory aids, calculation aids. Decision aids. Implanted dictionaries and translators. Arithmetic calculators.
Recognize that athletes enhance their bodies to add strength. If it is possible to increase muscle power, why not brain power? Today, we test athletes in an ever-more difficult attempt to eliminate drug-enhanced performance. Some day we may have to do full X-ray (3D tomographic) scans in an ever-more difficult attempt to detect artificial implants.
Why? Because it is possible. Today, we have not yet achieved the necessary miniaturization, but we can see how to get there. Power is still a problem, but it will be solved. At first, enhancements are apt to be implanted for medical reasons, but when people discover that an artificial eye is better than the real one, or that the memory chip that remembers events, names, and facts can be ever-present, the trend will be unstoppable. Order your implant today.
The major remaining hurdle is the control circuitry. How does one communicate with an implanted circuit? Imagine it and it shall come to pass? Not really. The brain communicates with itself through a complex, highly parallel communication process involving the firing patterns of neural impulses, biochemical stimulation that bathes the brain structures with highly tuned molecular structures, and methods as yet unknown. Just how information is stored, regenerated, and interpreted within brain circuits remains a major mystery, one unlikely to be solved soon. Sure, we can record neural firings from tens of neurons. Sure we can stimulate neurons to create crude sensory images and coarse motor control. But full-fledged, precise control of the expert performer eludes understanding—which means the behavior of all of us, for we are all experts in doing our everyday activities like walking, talking, seeing, and feeling.
Linger over the interesting parts of life, fast-forward through the boring parts.
Note how easy it is for computers to perform tasks we find difficult, such as arithmetic calculations and precise memory, how difficult to perform tasks we find trivial, such as walking and talking, throwing and seeing, understanding and creating.
The future holds major changes in computers as they become specialized devices with specialized forms, meaning we will interact with them in an increasingly rich set of natural ways. At the same time, the future promises major changes in humans, as technologies are embedded within our bodies, altering our capabilities. Not only will the devices we use have increased power and dynamic response, but the way they interact with people will be more natural, more complex, and more powerful. An incredible variety of new devices will emerge, most not yet conceived. Many will find their way into the human body, to amplify and transform our sensory, mental, and motor capacities.
Do you think the current concerns over privacy violations and personal autonomy are large and complex? You haven’t seen anything yet.