For skeptics, Google’s recent decision to abandon sales of its current iteration of Google Glass is mere confirmation that wearing technology is a step too far. To underscore the point, last year an Australian public servant was asked to leave upon entering the office armed with one such pair (alas the story, it turned out, was an April Fool’s hoax).
Yet an alternative perspective quickly presents itself. When one British survey found people checking their smart phones as many as one hundred and fifty times a day, the distinction between wearing and carrying gets murky. Add to the mix the imminent launch of Apple’s smart watch (not the first to market but expected to be the most widely sought) and a myriad of fitness, recording, and medical devices, we’re clearly on the cusp of a new era of wearable technologies.
There’s no reason, however, for digital pioneers to accept technology as an outer layer of the human body. Biometrics, much discussed in recent years though largely limited to a few beachfront bars and amusement parks, are slowly gaining traction. One Toronto start-up, Bionym, is piloting an identity management solution based on the unique rhythms of a heart beat (and all the while provinces struggle with the privacy implications of combining a driver’s license and a health card…).
More profound health transformations are taking shape. In 2014, for example, scientists embedded a “Neurobridge” solution into the brain of a 23-year-old man paralyzed from the neck down following a severe diving accident. Ian Burkhart’s ability (viewable on YouTube, naturally) to clench his fist is a medical breakthrough that carries profound hope for millions. Indeed, deep-brain implants (known as “brain pacemakers”) already help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s for thousands of sufferers.
In an October 2014 article published in the British daily, The Telegraph, Arthur House explores the implications of such innovation and the prospects for a “post-human” future. He profiles a community of emerging “cyborgs” enthusiastically blurring the line between humanity and technology, and asks: should we stop them or join them?
The article explores the notion of “transhumanism,” essentially a commitment to overcome the limits of human biology, and its growing popularity, that had especially deep roots, not surprisingly, in Silicon Valley. Ray Kurzweil, widely regarded as the futurist responsible for popularizing the “singularity” concept (a point in time estimated at approximately 2045 when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence) is Google’s director of engineering. San Francisco is home to a burgeoning neuro-gaming community and Facebook’s purchase of Oculus reflects a major investment into virtual reality and the “possibility of completely new kinds of experiences,” to quote Mark Zuckerberg.
Governments, already overwhelmed at the complexities of deploying wireless devices, have barely begun to scratch the surface of wearables. Health care and policing and security are two areas with massive public expenditures and obvious potential for wearable innovation: patient self-tracking will underpin mobile health solutions, whereas video recording devices on frontline service providers has been much discussed in the aftermath of recent racially-tinged shootings in the U.S.
Debates about privacy and the potential for a surveillance society will only grow more pronounced and polarized. Biometrics offer potential alternatives to incarceration for criminal offenders; more controversially, they can enable the monitoring of public service clients in order to incentivize behaviour and lessen fraud, monitoring that can also apply to public servants themselves.
Looking ahead to longer term issues of whether a cyborg future awaits (or more accurately, what sort of future unfolds), governments and legislatures must craft public spaces to openly deliberate and prepare the groundwork for what’s to come. Traditionally, in Canada such matters may have been the purview of the Senate, at one time less constrained by partisanship and electoral calculus, but now adrift in a sea of dysfunction and public indifference.
As the technology treadmill accelerates, alternative mechanisms must be forged, such as Finland’s Committee for the Future, to facilitate societal learning and readiness for the complex and ethically divisive choices ahead. A new form of democratic observatory is urgently required to engage both thought-leaders and every day citizens in preparing for humanity’s next chapter.