A day in the life of superman-machine

September 24, 1999

A phone embedded in your ear, a teddy to record your child's thoughts, implants squirting neurochemicals to make you happy. Donald A. Norman describes the human body of the future.

Technology changes rapidly; people change slowly. Evolution moves even more slowly; human beings have not evolved in significant ways throughout recorded history. Up to now, technology has acted as a supplement to human capability. A calculator does not enhance the brain, but a person plus a calculator is a far superior calculation device to either a person or a calculator alone. The calculator acts outside the body; the power of the unaided mind has not changed. What will happen when the technology is small and powerful enough to be implanted within the body, perhaps directly connected to the brain: will technology supplement the mind?

Today we have artificial implants for bones, limbs, and organs. These are primarily mechanical in nature, although the pacemaker is an information device, helping the heart time its operations. We are starting to see sensory implants - artificial cochleas and retinas. I myself have two artificial lenses - plastic lenses instead of the normal biological ones.

But what happens when the newest information technologies merge with biological technologies? What happens when we have implants within the body that affect our cognitive powers?

In the coming 100 years we can expect major changes. Some technologies will start to encroach upon human biology and evolution. The future will see artificial sensory systems, communication devices embedded under the skin, perhaps computational systems as well to enhance memory, sensory abilities, physical strength and language skills. Perhaps planning for a baby will be somewhat like ordering a new automobile: the proud parent(s) will be able to choose from a list of options - physical characteristics, hair and eye colour, bone structure, cognitive abilities. Will this planning and artificial implantation of technology be possible? Will it be permitted? If not, will bootleg sites spring up to do it anyway, perhaps in geographical locations that will thrive as legal havens for activities frowned upon in more traditional legal systems?

The basic needs of people are fixed by biology: the fundamentals have been with us for thousands of years and are unlikely to change within the next century. These include the necessity for food and shelter, for social relationships, for family bonding, education, sports and entertainment.

Sex, gender differences, emotions and intellectual curiosity are likely to remain unchanged.

People are motivated by a wide variety of drives, desires and needs. Some of us work together harmoniously, cooperatively. Some compete and try to control. Some defraud, lie and cheat. Cognitive prostheses must build on top of the existing biological substrate. In the future prostheses will enhance our senses, our memories, our ability to communicate and our emotions.

Built-in enhancers to make audition more acute, vision more precise; built-in zoom lenses; built-in recorders to capture sights and sounds. All of these are well within technological reach. It may be decades before they are small and reliable enough, but the ability to enhance the power and range of hearing and seeing is well within our grasp. Do we wish this to happen? Perhaps more relevant is the question of whether or not we could stop it if we wanted to: I suspect not.

I once wrote an essay entitled The Teddy in which I predicted the development of a toy teddy bear that was given to a child at birth, a bear that could record the child's innermost thoughts and aid in its development. As the child grew older, the teddy was replaced with more suitable devices - but preserving all the information from generation to generation, eventually being implanted in the brain, the better to allow the person to record all that had ever happened, all that was ever thought.

I speculated upon the legal implications. Would others be allowed to have access to the contents? What about with court orders? What about after a person's death? Who owned the recording?

Is this possible? Yes. Is it desirable? Not clear. Our fallible memories are blessings, for if we remembered too much, we would have trouble recalling the important items from among the trivia. Thus the Russian neuroscientist Alexander Luria reported that his patient S, a person who never forgot, found this to be a curse, not a blessing.

We already have pocket-sized cellular telephones. It will not be long before they are small enough to be embedded beneath the skin, perhaps in the flap just below the ear. Couple them to the nervous system and you have continual communication. How would society change if everyone could be in continual communication with others? Groups can be both more and less intelligent than individuals.

How would society change if one were never alone, if there were always someone talking to you, giving guidance, debating your actions? Or perhaps deriding your abilities, egging you on, falling prey to group decision-making - consensus rather than bold imaginative steps. The thought is not pleasant. The science fiction author Vernon Vinge has speculated about a race of animals that were in continual communication: their group intelligence was far superior to that of any individual. They had trouble fathoming human beings, for here, each "singleton" had an intelligence approaching that of their group.

But why stop with memory enhancers and telephones? Language translation is just beginning to be possible. Within the next 100 years it will certainly be practical, even if imperfect. What about implanted translators? Pitch synthesisers to enhance one's voice? Built-in calculators, maybe even a small memory chip of precoded information - encyclopaedias, reference works and the like. Surely if we can embed a telephone we could embed a web browser, yielding its information as visual or acoustical images.

Emotion is still the stepchild of the neural and cognitive sciences, less well studied and less well understood than the mechanisms of sensation and thought. Nonetheless, progress is being made in understanding the chemical, electrical, and anatomical substrates of emotion. What if implants would deliver precisely controlled squirts of neurochemicals, or controlled electrical signals to relevant brain centres? Pleasure centres could be enhanced, emotional feelings suppressed. The devices would almost certainly start out as medical prescriptions for controlling malfunction, but could easily be subverted to enhance pleasure and to produce artificially enhanced mood states. Would we have a generation of brain zappers?

If these predictions seem outlandish, they are mild compared with what others have proposed. I try to be restrained; others have suggested that we could do entire brain "uploads", transplanting mind into electronic memories and devices. Imagine the day when human wetware is replaced by software. Ugh. Fortunately, I do not believe this possible, certainly not within the timeframe imagined. Moreover, I do not think we will crack the internal coding of thoughts, emotions and actions that would make direct communication with the nervous system possible; I think it will always be mediated through our existing sensory systems. But then again, I could be wrong.

Donald A. Norman is professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and president of UNext.com, a Chicago-based distance education company. This is an extract from Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future (Oxford University Press/The THES), which is published on November 4. Reserve your copy for Pounds 12.99 (including p&p) from The THES Bookshop, Freepost (SWB7 12) Patchway, Bristol BS32 022, or telephone 01454 741 7.

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