Evolution accelerated

society2After 30 years in the computer industry, I feel comfortable in saying that computers have changed us, both as a society and as individuals, perhaps in ways we’re not even aware of.

Is the change simply cultural—or something more profound? Could computers be changing our very essence as humans, accelerating or altering our evolution as a species?

The jury’s still out, but there are signs.

A podcast on WBUR, a Boston-based PBS station, got me to thinking about these ideas. The podcast, entitled “Our computers, ourselves,” explores them with technologists, including Thad Starner, one of the inventors of Google Glass. Give it a listen.

Mainframe in your pocket

Let’s begin with the rate of change in technology. Eminent futurists, for example, are telling us that the rate of technological advancement is accelerating exponentially.mainframe_in_pocket

The smartphones that we carry in our pockets today are more powerful than the IBM mainframe computer that NASA used in 1969 to put a man on the moon.

These new mobile platforms, launched in earnest in 2007 when the iPhone was released, have captured billions of users, many of whom are casual computer users at best. One might fairly ask whether all that computer power is wasted on the many people who use their smartphones just to play Candy Crush, check their email, or take the occasional phone call?

A tool…or an extension of oneself?

life_on_phoneHowever, there’s a growing legion of users who run their lives on their smartphones, maintaining their calendars, contacts, and communications, conducting business and research, shopping and paying for things, getting directions, creating and sharing photos and documents, recording lectures and concerts, keeping to-do lists, tracking exercise and counting calories, remote controlling, and so on.

My smartphone is not only a handy tool, I’ve developed somewhat of an emotional attachment it. I carry it everywhere. When, by accident, I leave for work without it, I turn around to get it…can’t go a whole day without it.

Yup, I’m one of those people who run their lives on their smartphones. Beyond an emotional attachment, though, what about this whole evolution thing?

Remembrance agent

In the early 90s, back when Thad Starner was an MIT student, he saw Terminator, the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi epic, and had an epiphany. In the scene where Arnold, as the merciless cyborg, operates on his own damaged eye and arm, a hotel attendant knocks on the door and says, “Hey, buddy. You got a dead cat in there, or what?”terminator

We can see the cyborg from his viewpoint scanning a computer-generated list of possible answers, and finally settling on “F__k you, asshole.”

Of course, Starner’s epiphany was not how to cuss at someone, but rather how a wearable computer could enhance his own intelligence.

In the podcast, Starner recalls his first wearable computer, a 9-pound box that he built in 1991, containing a hard drive, a modem, and a car phone, with wires connected to a keyboard strapped to his wrist, and a display attached to his eyeglasses frame. He named it “Lizzie” after “Tin Lizzie,” the name for the first Model-T Ford to roll off the assembly line nearly 90 years earlier.

Starner improved the device over time, but wore it virtually everywhere he went for 20 years. He religiously typed information into the device and eventually developed what he called a “remembrance agent.”

When he would meet an old acquaintance, the remembrance agent would help him recall information about the person that he could use in conversation. It helped him, he said, to better relate to people because he would always have something about that person to discuss. It made him more confident in social situations.

Becoming mainstream

Google Glass is the most fully realized implementation of Starner’s vision, but it has experienced some social hiccups and has not really been widely adopted.

wearableStill, Starner and his MIT colleagues paved the way for wearable computers. Google Glass notwithstanding, wearable technology is becoming mainstream. However, it seems we’re just at the beginning of the wearable era. Devices are still a bit clunky, and not fully functional.

Personally, I’m excited about the upcoming Apple Watch, but even this elegant and seemingly powerful device looks like a version-one product.

In three to five years, imagine where we’ll be. Given the rate of technological change, wearable computers are likely to be wider-spread and more seamlessly integrated into our daily lives.

The industry is striving for effectively invisible devices. We won’t have to think about our wearables, they’ll just work, giving us the information we need when we need it.

And changing us.

Enhanced experience…or manipulation?

Interviewed as part of the podcast, Vernor Vinge, a mathematician and science fiction author, thinks wearable computing will “enlarge the human experience, not subordinate it.” Vinge is certainly on the same page as Starner and many of his colleagues, but others are not so sure.manipulation

Maggie Orth, a technologist and artist, and former Starner colleague at the MIT Media Lab, weighed in. Orth’s contention is that, when wearable computers become so tightly integrated into our lives, we will use them without thinking about them.

We will be influenced by our wearables without consciously considering that, after all, they are computers that were programmed by people working for commercial entities— businesses that might want to manipulate us…or please us. In Orth’s viewpoint, there’s little difference. We’ll be moved in directions we might not go of our own accord.

It’s certainly worth considering how technology, any technology, will shape us as individuals and as a society. And, even further, whether technology will change us in some fundamental way. And, further still, whether that’s something to worry about or rejoice in.

Watch this space.

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