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[WSF19] ‘The Technology That Transforms Us’ — Will Science Fiction Become Science Fact?

Who’s ready for a brain implant???

Brian Greene’s annual World Science Festival hit Manhattan again last week, and AiPT! Science was there! Keep coming back all week for more coverage!

A quote often misattributed to philosopher Marshall McLuhan says, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” From the stone hand axes of prehistoric man to the modern iPhone, tools have largely defined our species.

But how do our devices today connect us to our past? And how will the next innovations shape humanity in the future? Those were the questions at the heart of last Thursday’s World Science Festival panel in New York City, titled The Technology That Transforms Us.

The obsidian hand axe was perhaps the first second generation technology in all of human civilization. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts called the use of obsidian “the beginning of innovation. “It is, when fractured, the sharpest known substance,” Potts said.

Stills from 2001: A Space Odyssey

These sharpened obsidian tips, designed to be installed on spears, were passed along by primitive man from one group to another, up to 50 miles or more from their source. Potts sees this as “evidence of the first social networks.” Today, he says, surgeons sometimes prefer obsidian over steel for surgery, because it mitigates scarring.

“One of the most fascinating things about the stone tools is the way they shaped our genetic evolution,” said evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich. “One of the things that hominids used tools for was to cut and process meat and other hard foods, which released the selection pressures to have these large jaws … And also fire and cooking breaks that stuff down. So then our digestive system and our teeth and all adapt to this. So we’re co-evolving with our tools and our technology over hundreds of thousands of years.”

Joe Henrich, Rick Potts, and David Pogue

Philosopher David Chalmers thinks an interesting aspect of modern technology is “it’s increasingly actually serving as an extension of our mind or our brain. Functions that used to be performed by my brain, like remembering phone numbers — I mean who remembers a phone number with their brain anymore? I can’t remember the last time I did that. My phone is actually serving as my memory, an extension of my mind. Google Maps is serving as my navigation system. We used to have a hippocampus for that.”

Chalmers admitted modern software maps are superior, but our technology is also rewiring our brains. According to Henrich, specialized circuitry develops in the brain when you learn to read. Author and columnist David Pogue, who moderated the panel, describes a study that used a functional MRI scan to look at the brains of ten 14-year-old girls who had never played video games. Then, after extensive play for six weeks, new scans found their brains had swelled like an exercised muscle.

So where is our technology headed? “What we found in our work was the transition from the big and clunky to the small and portable, and the history of technology has been the same ever since,” Potts said.

But it’s the development of brain-computer interface technology that promises to change the game in terms of how our tools reshape us, according to Isabel Pedersen, a digital rhetorician and Canada Research Chair in Digital Life, Media and Culture. She brought a brain-computer interface device with her that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to read fluctuations in the brain. This model was specifically meant to aid in meditation and relaxation.

“This is baby steps,” she says. “But we thought that this is the future promise for technology that you will be able to use digital-telepathy to, you know, at home, you’ll be able to make selections of television shows you want to watch or streaming media that you want to watch. All of that will play out with a brain-computer interface in the future.”

Isabel Pedersen demonstrating brain-computer interface technology

“We need to project, study 300 years in the future in order to basically get in front of innovation and get in front of how society is affected by it,” Pedersen said. She’s helped chronicle the long history of wearable tech for an exhibit called Wearable Past, and she’s convinced the trend of attaching devices to our bodies will continue as part of what she calls a “continuum of embodiment.”

“What we do in our lab is we highlight, with a metadata system of keywords, these early versions of wearables,” Pedersen said, “and we link them to future projections for things that inventors are making now.”

Henrich wasn’t sold. He said it’s taken a long time for wearables to gain tracgtion, with people only now starting to embrace the Apple Watch. After 40 years of attempted head’s up displays, even Google Glass failed to catch on.

Pedersen, however, thinks that technology’s story isn’t over. She’s looking into newer 2-D augmented reality “smart glasses” that are trying to succeed where Google Glass failed. “It has a laser that projects back onto the eye, so it’s not a visual overlay the way Glass was,” she said. “The reason I think Glass failed was that people weren’t really ready for it. There wasn’t a reason to use it. It got in between you and other people. It obstructed your vision.” For Pogue, Google Glass also failed because wearers “look like a cyborg” and everyone knew you paid $1,500 for it.

But Chalmers sides with Pedersen. He believes society could get used to the spy camera feature. “Maybe there’s going to be a little rule, like you got to have a red light on when you’re using the camera so people know,” he says. “It won’t surprise me if that becomes socially acceptable.”

A company called North is currently taking another stab at smart glasses technology with Focals. Focals look like normal glasses, but they connect to Alexa through voice commands. You could theoretically have much of the functionality of your smartphone while keeping your hands free. This augmented reality system can also provide more data about the people or things the user is looking at.

While virtual reality implies full immersion that filters out the real world, augmented reality adds digital elements to the live world, like with Pokemon Go. Unlike Google Glass, Focals don’t have a camera. But given how the Alexa system is tracking what you say and where you go, Pedersen wonders if Focals aren’t even more intrusive than Glass.

David Chalmers

“In the years to come,” Chalmers said, “it’s just going to get more and more seamless. One of the next steps is going to be augmented reality technology, where everyone’s just got their glasses, which project all kinds of things into the world. You know, the kinds of things I right now do on my phone.”

And then he thinks the following generation of technology will be the brain-computer interfaces. “You go from having the computer sitting on your desk, to having the computer in your pocket, to having the computer in your glasses, to basically having the computer talk directly to your brain. And at that point, I mean, maybe the last step is when the computer actually gets built into your brain.”

Henrich doesn’t think people will get behind future technology that requires bodily implants. “You need surgery to replace your phone? Like, who’s going to stand for that?” he said. But Chalmers argued that once your friends start taking the next step and suddenly have advantages over you, prior reservations over body modification will melt away.

People are already implanting devices into their hand. Some companies have given employees the option to implant their IDs into their wrists, which makes it easier to enter the office by just swiping their arm at the turnstile, instead of a badge. Elon Musk is currently trying to develop implantable brain-computer interfaces at his company, Neuralink.

One direction Pedersen sees this continuum of embodiment going is ingestible technology that we swallow. This could be in the form of microrobots that perform a function in the body such as diagnosing disease. “I think people are a little more comfortable with the idea of ingestible technology than they are, say, a brain implant,” she said.

But every technology inevitably faces what Pogue called a “fear backlash.” In Ancient Greece, Plato criticized the advent of writing in his dialogue, The Phaedrus, because he worried reliance on writing would weaken our memory capacity.

And just a few years ago, a headline in The Atlantic asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Chalmers answered with a no. “As long as the technology is there around us, it’s extending us,” he said. “It’s making us better. So I would actually argue Google is making us smarter.”

In time, the fear backlash may swing the other way and target the older technology, like driver-operated cars, Pogue said. “There’s going to come a time when people who want to drive themselves are considered a danger to everyone else, like antivaxxers. Like, get off the road! You’re endangering my perfect [self-driving] car.”

“I think these tools transform us,” Chalmers said. “They really at least have the capacity to improve us. They don’t necessarily improve us. But they’ve always got that capacity.”

French cultural theorist Paul Virilio has said, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” Technology is neither good nor bad; it all depends on how we use it. “It’s up to us to use it,” said Chalmers. “And that’s ultimately what makes me optimistic, is by giving us the capacity to think better, to be better, that ought to be a challenge we can take.”

“Technology allows us to see a common humanity in a way that is really, really important and meaningful to us,” Potts said. “But there are going to be people left out if we’re not careful.” Potts thinks the real concern is unintended consequences.

“We change the world through our technology. The technology changes us. And I think the question ahead is, can we live a life purposefully with that technology in a way that makes sense, that builds meaning?”

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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