The quest for (super)human enhancement

This year Titan Arm won the International Design Competition award, led by entrepreneur James Dyson. The project, constructed by students at Pennsylvania University, unveiled a new and advanced exoskeleton, increasing upper-body strength by 40 pounds- and what is more, mechanical engineers have stated this is nothing compared to what it will be able to handle in the near future.

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As we all know, along with the manufacturing of new technological gadgets come the inconceivable prices to make it happen. However, what I find surprising about Titan Arm is the cost. The equipment took £1,200 to build- £60,000 less than it takes to make current exoskeleton designs! And how? Well of course through 3D printing. Furthermore, just hearing of the combination of two new technologies is enough evidence to demonstrate that the rate of development is not going to stop anytime soon. Mr Dyson has said: “Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling.”

Now here is a technological gadget I truly cannot fault; the applications are manifold, and with particular reference to employees and supervisors – for two reasons;
1) Over a third of injuries in the workplace are caused by manual handling– and so undoubtedly, Titan Arm, will provide much safety in the workplace.
2) The UK loses £6 billion in annual losses owing to manual handling injuries- and once again, with Titan Arm, this number would be significantly reduced.

Evidently, there is no reason why Titan Arm should not be infiltrated into all workplaces- however; this brings me on to the most important issue of all: society’s incessant search for the latest human augmentation project. I will be discussing how the use of technology is locking us into a system where – with the help of the media – we are perpetually changing the way we consider ourselves as human beings, and searching for constant improvement.

Everyone wants to be Superman

Williams states “There are cases where social influence can be traced – where, say inventions are responses to perceived issues. In other cases, inventive attention focuses on a particular technical issue because it is strategic for an expanding technological system.”
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This brings me to another technical lock-in that has, unarguably, played a significant role for decades; the media. Superheroes continue to play a traditional role in the media, for instance movies such as Iron Man and Captain America- and this seems to be mirrored by a real world trend in scientific research for improvements in human augmentation, with the creation of a man-like suit (also known as the Hardiman project) in the 1960s. Combined, the two powerful institutions are making us closer to encompassing those superhero qualities.

Controlling innovation

The team behind Titan Arm (who have admitted to be ‘Iron Man fanatics’) have stated they intend to restrict certain areas of their research in order to “help the everyman- rather than creating a superman.” Yet, they seem to have no idea the ideas they have unleashed in other researcher’s minds.
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Elsewhere the search for superhuman gadgets is steadily increasing. British innovation charity, Nesta, focus much of their research on bionics and prosthetics, with specific attention to furthering cognitive enhancement. The following video of Simon Schultz, the Director of the Neural-Coding Laboratory at Imperial College London made me think. How far we have advanced in the technological world- and most importantly, what are their future boundaries?

What implications would human gadgets have on individuals, globally?

Better by design?

A great concern revolves around the role of human enhancement in transforming how we understand ourselves. What does it mean to be human in today’s technologically advanced world? Perhaps we should step outside the box, and consider – for just one moment – the longer term consequences of altering human nature and capacity. The enhancement of human bodies beyond their ‘natural states’ ultimately suggests the need for new ways to understand ourselves and the role we play in society.

It is obvious the applications for the Titan Arm are manifold; and without a doubt, it will bring much improvement to various individuals in work fields. Professor of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Miah states ‘we need a new set of ethical principles for an era of human enhancement’; and with this thought, come the positives and the negatives. Would it be possible in future to expect physical advancements that keep us adolescent fit even in our golden age?

Though I approach all these technologies with caution, I do acknowledge we are fortunate to witness and be a part of new technological advancements. As C P Snow once said, “technology is a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.” We must proceed with caution with changing the human state; we know technological augmentation is possible, but is it morally acceptable?

– Shivani

NB: If you are interested in human enhancement, check out ‘Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension’ by Paul Miller & James Wilsdon- it is a fantastic read!

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Don’t know what you’ll be doing in 48 hours? Don’t worry, I do.

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It seems every time I log into Facebook, someone’s ‘check-in’ will be displayed on my newsfeed. This new craze amongst Facebook users appears to be growing rapidly, and I keep asking myself: why? Personally, I’m not a massive fan of displaying that type of information (except for, admittedly, one time: when I attempted to be sardonic and ‘checked in’ to a ‘sofa’ on a Friday night when everybody else seemed to be partying) – and I hope, in this week’s blog, you will see why.

In February, a new software, RIOT, emerged. But not just any old standard software; it is, to put it quite simply, a stalking system, capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from the websites we use today. Earlier this year the Guardian obtained a video created by Raytheon, the creators of this “extreme-scale analytics” software (and notably the world’s 5th giant defence contractor). And in it, they state:

“RIOT is a big data analytics system design we are working on with industry, national labs and commercial partners to help turn massive amounts of data into useable information to help meet our nation’s rapidly changing security needs.”

At first, it sounds pretty good. ‘To help meet our nation’s rapidly changing security needs?’ Well, on the surface at least. But here is a short clip of what RIOT would actually do, with the co-founder Brian showing the steps in order to predict one’s actions:

This software, R.I.O.T (Rapid Information Overlay Technology) relies on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, two other examples. The system has been created in order to allow government agents to access (note: within just a click) your personal activity log, and more alarmingly calculate your future actions based on the said history of your account.

Not to say I do not care, but I don’t find this particularly shocking. Nevertheless, why does no one seem to be concerned? RIOT has not been officially sold to any clients yet, but this is not to say it won’t be sold soon. Once one company purchases it, there will, as always, be a domino effect, and before we know it, each one of our ‘actions’ on a site will be recorded and analysed.

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I don’t know about you, but within seconds of that video, I wasn’t feeling particularly enthused. Brian states ‘So: now we know who Nick is, what he looks like, where he’s going- and now, we may want to predict where he’ll go in the future.’ By the end of analysing the locations, which are summarised in simple pie chart form, we are able to predict that there is a 99.9% chance we will be sure to see him at his local gym, in ‘LOCATION’ at 6am on a Monday morning- and how? Simply through monitoring the different clicks Nick makes on his Smartphone. Facebook now accounts for one in every five minutes spent on smartphones, and one in eight on the web overall. We can’t seem to bring ourselves away from these social networking sites.

Are there any benefits?

Interestingly enough, Raytheon currently has a $100 million counter-terrorism contract with NSA (the US National Security Agency).  Called “Perfect Citizen”, the cyber-security system aims to detect future cyber attacks (and any other type of attack) on U.S. networks, and according to the documents obtained by EPIC, the program has said to be effective.

However, if you haven’t realised by now, RIOT would serve little use in preventing terrorism; I think it would be pretty unlikely for a terrorist to update their status or even ‘check-in’ during any of their activities, don’t you? And quite clearly Raytheon’s motivation here is to turn interest into a steady flow of money.

Can we stop this?

Technology often performs in the way originally intended, but nevertheless, it can lead to unpredictable social consequences. So how can we avoid technologies that we’re not in favour of? Collingridge, author of ‘The Social Control of Technology’ refers to the ‘power problem’, and states once we become entrenched in a technology, we have no control and subsequently resist any form of change. Instead, we search for ‘fixes’ to avoid the end of the technology we have found ourselves obsessed with- and personally, I can completely admit to doing this. And unsurprisingly, attempting to predict the social consequences of a technological innovation before it has even been implanted is not exactly straightforward.

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So after reading this, I hope you think twice before posting such personal information on the internet? As I mentioned earlier, Raytheon hasn’t sold the software to any clients yet, but I think this should just be a reminder to you all that your friends and family may not be the only individuals interested in your latest statuses, tweets and check-ins.

Facebook and Twitter are not going anywhere imminently- only we have the power to control the situation before it controls us.

Thank you for joining me again!

– Shivani

The era of the fully autonomous car

I think it would be fair to say, at some point in our lives, we have gone through a phase (or many!) of wanting the latest technological gadget. When it comes to technological innovation, I’m split. As obsessed as I admittedly get, I have always held some level of cynicism about where all these new innovations will take us in the future. Perhaps it’s because of the way I have been brought up; whilst I laugh at the gadgets my Father was fanatical about when he was my age, I am completely aware, in 20 years time, my children will be doing just the same.

Now, when it comes to driverless cars, I’m not quite yet persuaded.

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of being driven in a car, with no driver, somewhat unnerving. And despite the regulatory obstacles and scepticism from the public, driverless cars (or, robot cars) are fast becoming a craze amongst the auto industry- and they are doing everything they possibly can to show us why. These recently projected vehicles function through a combination of sensors and cameras; and most significantly, they are claimed to be safer and more efficient than today’s transport. At first, I couldn’t quite come to terms with the idea. My reaction was indeed somewhat similar to Jeremy Clarkson’s:

This seems to be the first problem with autonomous cars. I asked my friends what they thought, and the first response I received was, “I actually like driving my car! Innovation?! Technology is just making us lazy and unsociable.” Though this may seem somewhat extreme to some, I have to say, I completely agree.

‘Take the human out of the equation and our roads will be a lot safer’

Most of the reasoning behind installing these technologically driven cars seems to lie with 1) the fact the number of accidents will be significantly reduced; and 2) these will be easily accessible to all individuals, including the blind. Though I am not as enthusiastic as I perhaps should be, the benefits are undeniably impressive.

‘Cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car – the loose nut behind the steering wheel – could soon be eradicated’

Road accidents: 2012 statistics

  • There were a total of 195,723 casualties of all severities in road accidents
  • 1,754 people were killed.
  • 23,039 were seriously injured.

If, and only IF, Google are correct in stating driving autonomous cars will be much safer, then I see no reason for anyone from the public to object. However, it is within this line of enquiry that worries me the most, and you will see why towards the end of this article.

Needless to say, one advantage certainly stands out which I cannot dismiss, and that is the ease of use by the blind. Driverless cars give blind people the chance to ‘drive’ to wherever they want, whilst complying to road safety and regulation rules. The video below is worth a watch; Steve Mahan, a blind man, shows the level of simplicity when he ‘drives’ the Google car- and the joy on his face is all one needs to be persuaded.

‘Take the human out of the equation and our roads will be a lot safer’

From reading various articles online, this quote seemed to surface a lot:

‘As a safety measure, a back-up driver will ride along during tests who can take over in case of emergency’

Though the objective of this sentence is to create some level of ease, the first thing I felt was apprehension. In case of an emergency? Well then, what would happen in the case of an emergency and there was no back up driver? Or if the individual in the car was indeed blind? There are countless harmful outcomes that have the potential to happen, owing to the possibilty of not having been examined in the tests before. Technology can get completely out of our control- and in this case, where there isn’t even a driver, accidents have occurred. Interestingly enough, I came across an article today, reporting a driverless car accident that happened in Southern Australia.

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Most notably, there is little conclusive data on the news pages reporting this accident- leading me to raise the issue that when it is just technology at fault, who exactly can we question in order to find the source of the problem?

Fear of the unknown

Scientific and technology institutions are self governing- but when it comes to autonomous cars, we are the customers. There seems to be very little attention to the social implications of driverless cars. What about taxi drivers, coach drivers or even cyclists? Would all car service jobs then be eliminated? I would like to ask: if the driverless cars were to proceed as planned, what does this mean for humans as the autonomous beings? We must take into consideration the possibility of unintended consequences. If driverless cars are to be on the roads by 2020, then perhaps civilisation itself will no longer need humans to partake in other daily activities. Envisage a world where there are cars, but not one human behind the wheel.  And now, though this may seem irrational, imagine putting this change into slightly different contexts. Let me ask you, if you were told 10 years ago, that in 20 years time, there will be cars without drivers, would you have believed me? …No? I didn’t think so.

Though the concept was first introduced by Google three years ago, it is now starting to be universally recognised as the ‘future car.’ And whether we like it or not, regulators are moving, with ease, towards the production of it.

Although I have been rather sceptical of this new technological motor that is soon to enter our lives, I would like to raise the issue it is not the motor itself I am so against, it is more the rate at which technological innovation is proceeding. We cannot predict our future- and though we may try, we truly cannot say whether something out of the norm will or won’t happen.

Thank you for reading my blog!

– Shivani

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