For I Have Met the Super-Men and They Are Us

I’ve been wearing an Android or Apple Watch for a few months now and I’ve come to one conclusion. While you don’t want to buy these quite yet, when the good version comes out in a few years we will all become superheroes.

Despite the individual product differences all wearables are about the same big idea: bringing the human nervous system closer and closer to computer processing. Virtual assistants such as Google Now, Siri, Cortana and whatever Amazon’s thing is called, constantly monitor both your digital and real world environments looking for patterns. In return they provide you, the human, with contextually relevant information. What you need when you need it. Virtually all of this can be delivered through cloud processing so the actual interface can shrink progressively from a phone to a watch and eventually smart glasses or a discrete earbud.

Wearable sensor features, like sleep and heart tracking, are just extra data to be funneled into the cloud brain of your choosing (well, your phone vendor’s choosing).  Haptic feedback completes the loop, bringing the processed information back to your physical body.  After a few cranks of Moore’s Law the cloud and wearables become an integrated information sandwich, with humans as the tasty meat in the middle.  What will we be like when this happens? What existing examples can we look at? I think the best place to look is an unexpected place: comic books.

With the exception of Superman,  every super hero is just a normal person given some extraordinary ability. For the X-Men it’s a mutant power. Spiderman can sense danger and stick to walls. Ironman has his flying suit. For Bruce Wayne it’s a gigantic bank account. A decade from now some people will live with computer enhancement computer enhancement. What will we call these people? Cyborgs or perhaps superheroes?

Let me give you a few examples.

With progressively cheap sensors and haptic feedback, anything that a computer can measure can be turned into an additional human sense. This TED talk shows a man who can feel live information through the skin on his back. In 2004 Udo Wachter built a belt that constantly vibrated in the direction of north. The wearers developed an intuitive sense of which direction. And that was ten years ago. Today this stuff is easy to build. Recently I made a smart bracelet that vibrates whenever I point my hand north. Think about that! I could be dropped off in the woods and never get lost (until my batteries ran out) with a hand built prototype using less than $100 of mail ordered components. I built my own superpower.

Imagine this taken to the next level. What if you could feel equations or hear radar? What if you could literally see the music around you.  Take the Daredevil, for example. He is blind but can sense motion around him. This could be done in a crude form today with Kinect sensors and haptic feedback on your torso. You could literally feel an attacker approaching you. Spideysense!

Tony Stark's Ironman suit is mostly possible. Even jetpack flying could be done under computer control today with modern sensors. The only unrealistic part is an intense power source that lasts longer than 30 seconds. We simply don’t have the energy density to make it work. Still, I hate the idea that superheroes are impossible due to lack of batteries so i’m sure we’ll figure it out in the next 20 years or so. Super capacitors or graphene sponges will probably do the trick, assuming we don’t get an arc reactor first.

More interesting than the wearables themselves is the effect on humanity. Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have expressed reservations about creating Artificial General Intelligence that would supersede or even exterminate humans.

I think this is unlikely. Not because it couldn’t happen, but because of the huge social changes that will precede the AGI. We are far closer to building cybernetic super humans than an AI that could take over the world. One human with the right tools can be as productive as 20 unassisted men at almost anything.  Massive unemployment is far more likely than Skynet.

This really isn’t new, though.  Man has always made new tools. From using an axe to touch typing our malleable neurological systems can easily make use of new things as if they were natural parts of our body. In a sense, all tools are natural.  We have the innate ability to not only design new tools, but integrate them into our sense of self.

Humans have always been driven to improve productivity through tools. Sensors and haptics will simply take this to the next level.  A man with a sewing machine can out produce ten men sewing by hand. The tractor made food cheap. The modern kitchen gave us time savings. Facebook took it back again. Overall these are fundamentally good changes, even if they have bad effects of replacing human labor with technology. The challenge is always how to deal with these effects, not to try to avoid them.

This is why I think the risk of an Artificial General Intelligence singularity are completely overblown. Not that it won’t happen, but that The Singularity (when the the future becomes impossible to see through the technological change event horizon) will happen before we get AGI. Rather the Singularity will come when cyborg tools make 99% of today’s labor redundant. We will either have to deal with a world of mass unemployment or quickly invent new things for most of us puny humans to do.

When the change comes what will happen? A new world war? World peace? A complete generation of humans face tweeting into the Matrix. I don’t know, but no matter what happens it will be a global economic and social shift that is impossible to predict, transforming humanity into something new.  Long before the AGI gets here we may already be gone, replaced by homo-cyberneticus.

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Posted June 17th, 2015

Tagged: watch future