Of Cybernetic Hate Crimes

Google Glass_CalaLast week, a bar in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass. The pub declared on their Facebook page that if anyone wanted to order a pint, they had better remove their $1500 pair of augmented reality display glasses beforehand. Citing the glasses potential to film or take pictures and post them on the internet, the bar owner unflinchingly declared that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

This is the second case of what some are dubbing a new wave of “Cybernetic hate crimes”. The first took place back in July 2012 when Steve Mann, a Canadian university professor known as the “father of wearable computing”, was physically assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, France. In this case, three employees took exception with his wearable computer and tried to physically remove it, an impossibility since it is permanent screwed into his head, and then three him out of the restaurant.

steve-mann1Taken together, these two incidents highlight a possible trend which could become commonplace as the technology grows in use. In some ways, this is a reflection of the fears critics have raised about the ways in which these new technologies could be abused. However, there are those who worry that these kinds of fears are likely to lead to people banning these devices and becoming intolerant to those who use them.

By targeting people who employ augmented reality, bionic eyes, or wearable computers, we are effectively stigmatizing a practice which may become the norm in the not too distant future. But Google responded to the incident with optimism and released a statement that cited shifting attitudes over time:

It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.

smartphonesYes, one can remember without much effort how similar worries were raised about smartphones and camera phones not that long ago, and their use has become so widespread that virtually all doubts about how they might be abused and what effect they would have on social norms have gone quiet. Still, doubts remain that with the availability of technologies that make it easier to monitor people, society is becoming more and more invasive.

But to this, Mann, responds by raising what he had always hoped portable computing would result in. Back in the 1970’s when he first began working on the concept for his EyeTap, he believed that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. In a world permeated by security cameras and a sensory-sphere dominated by corporate memes, he foresaw these devices a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.

EyeTapThis was all in keeping with Mann’s vision of a future where wearable cameras and portable computers could allow for what he calls sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats. How ironic that his own invention allowed him to do just that when he himself was assaulted!

And in the current day and age, this vision may be even more important and relevant, given the rise in surveillance and repressive measures brought on in the wake of the “War on Terror”. As Mann himself has written:

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

Raises a whole bunch of questions, doesn’t it? As the issue of dwindling privacy becomes more and more of an issue, and where most people respond to such concerns by dredging up dystopian scenarios, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is a form of technology that rests firmly in our hands, the consumers, not those of an overbearing government.

google_glass_banBut then again, that doesn’t exactly ease the fears of a privacy invasion much, does it? Whether it is a few functionaries and bureaucrats monitoring us for the sake of detecting criminal behavior or acts of “sedition”, or a legion of cyberbullies and gawking masses scrutinizing our every move, being filmed and photographed against our will and having it posted is still pretty creepy.

But does that necessitate banning the use of this technology outright? Are we within our rights, as a society, to deny service to people sporting AR glasses, or to physically threaten them if they are unable or unwilling to remove them? And is this something that will only get better, or worse, with time?

Sources: IO9, (2), news.cnet.com, eecg.toronto.edu

The Future is Here: The Apple iWatch!

iWatchLeave it to Apple to once again define the curve of technological innovation. Known as the iWatch, this new design for a smartwatch is expected to make some serious waves and spawn all kinds of imitations. In addition to keeping time, it will boast a number of new and existing abilities that will essentially make it a wrist-mounted computer. As a result, there are many who claim this device is a response to Google’s Project Glass, since it signals that Apple is also looking to stake a big claim to the portable computing revolution.

According to Bruce Tognazzini, a principal with the Nielsen Norman Group and former Apple employee who specializes in human-computer interaction, an Apple iWatch is likely to have a serious impact on our lives. In addition to some familiar old features that were created for the iPhone, Apple has filed numerous patents and made plans to incorporate several new options for this one device. For example:

  • The iWatch will apparently make use of wireless charging, something Apple holds the patent for
  • Voice interaction through Siri, removing the need for a complicated control interface
  • Networking with your iPhone, iPod and other devices
  • Health monitor, including pedometer, bp monitor, calorie tracker, sleep tracker, etc.
  • NFC chip for personal, mobile banking
  • The phone acts as an ID chip, eliminating the need for passwords and security questions

Wearable ComputerSo in essence, the phone combines all kinds of features and apps that have been making the rounds in recent years. From mobile phones to PDAs, tablets and even fitness bands, this watch will combine them into one package while still giving the user the ability to network with them. This ensures that a person has a full range of control and can keep track of their other devices when they’re not on their person.

Apple also indicated that with this portable computer watch, people could take part in helping to correct faulty maps and other programs that require on the spot information, allowing for a degree of crowd-sourcing which has previously been difficult or impossible to provide. And since it’s all done through a device you strap on your wrist, it will be more ergonomic and portable than a PDA or smartphone.

Paper-Thin-Pamphlet-Smartphone-Concept-2And with other companies working on their own smartwatches, namely Cookoo, Pebble, and even Google, this could be the end of the smartphone as we know it! But in the course of making technological progress, some inventions become evolutionary dead ends, much like over-specialized creatures. I’m sure Steve Jobs would approve, even if the iPhone was one of his many, many babies!

The Birth of an Idea: The Computer Coat!

optical_computer1I’ve been thinking… which is not something novel for me, it just so happens that my thoughts have been a bit more focused lately. Specifically, I have an idea for an invention: something futuristic, practical, that could very well be part of our collective, computing future. With all the developments in the field of personal computing lately, and I my ongoing efforts to keep track of them, I hoped I might eventually come up with an idea of my own.

Consider, the growth in smartphones and personal digital assistants. In the last few years, we’ve seen companies produce working prototypes for paper-thin, flexible, and durable electronics. Then consider the growth in projection touchscreens, portable computing, and augmented reality. Could it be that there’s some middle ground here for something that incorporates all of the above?

Pranav Mistry 5Ever since I saw Pranav Mistry’s demonstration of a wearable computer that could interface with others, project its screen onto any surface, and be operated through simple gestures from the user, I’ve been looking for a way to work this into fiction. But in the years since Mistry talked to TED.com and showed off his “Sixth Sense Technology”, the possibilities have grown and been refined.

papertab-touchAnd then something happened. While at school, I noticed one of the kids wearing a jacket that had a hole near the lapel with a headphones icon above it. The little tunnel worked into the coat was designed to keep the chord to your iPod or phone safe and tucked away, and it got me thinking! Wires running through a coat, inset electrical gear, all the advancements made in the last few years. Who thinks about this kind of stuff, anyway? Who cares, it was the birth of an idea!

headphonesFor example, its no longer necessary to carry computer components that are big and bulky on your person. With thin, flexible electronics, much like the new Papertab, all the components one would need could be thin enough and flexible enough to be worked into the inlay of a coat. These could include the CPU, a wireless router, and a hard drive.

Paper-thin zinc batteries, also under development, could be worked into the coast as well, with a power cord connected to them so they could be jacked into a socket and recharged. And since they too are paper-thin, they could be expected to move and shift with the coat, along with all the other electronics, without fear of breakage or malfunction.

flexbatteryAnd of course, there would be the screen itself, via a small camera and projector in the collar, which could be placed and interfaced with on any flat surface. Or, forget the projector entirely and just connect the whole thing to a set of glasses. Google’s doing a good job on those, as is DARPA with their development of AR contact lenses. Either one will do in a pinch, and could be wirelessly or wired to the coat itself.

google_glass1Addendum: Shortly after publishing this, I realized that a power cord is totally unnecessary! Thanks to two key technologies, it could be possible to recharge the batteries using a combination of flexible graphene solar panels and some M13 peizoelectric virus packs. The former could be attached to the back, where they would be wired to the coats power system, and the M13 packs could be placed in the arms, where the user’s movement would be harnessed to generate electricity. Total self-sufficiency, baby!

powerbuttonAnd then how about a wrist segment where some basic controls, such as the power switch and a little screen are? This little screen could act as a prompt, telling you you have emails, texts, tweets, and updates available for download. Oh, and lets not forget a USB port, where you can plug in an external hard drive, flash drive, or just hook up to another computer.

So that’s my idea, in a nutshell. I plan to work it into my fiction at the first available opportunity, as I consider it an idea that hasn’t been proposed yet, not without freaky nanotech being involved! Look for it, and in the meantime, check out the video of Pranav Mistry on TED talks back in 2010 when he first proposed 6th Sense Tech. Oh, and just in case, you heard about the Computer Coat here first, patent pending!

Transhumans by 2030?

transhumanismThe issue of transhumanism, the rise of a new type of humanity characterized by man-machine interface and augmented intelligence, is being debated quite fervently in some circles right now. But it seems that groups other than Futurists and speculative fiction writers are joining the discussion. Recently, the National Intelligence Council, a US policy think-tank, released a 140 page report that outlined major trends and technological developments we should expect in the next 20 years.

The report, entitled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds”, predicted several trends which are likely to come true in the near future. Amongst them is the end of U.S. global dominance, the rising power of individuals against states, a growing middle class that will increasingly challenge governments, and ongoing shortages in water, food and energy. However, predictions were also made concerning a future where humans have been significantly modified by various technologies, what is often referred to as the dawn of the Transhuman Era.

how-nanotechnology-could-reengineer-usIntrinsic to this new era is the invention of implants, prosthetics, and powered exoskeletons which will become regular fixtures of human life. These will go beyond merely correcting for physical disabilities or injury, to the point where average humans are enhanced and become more productive. 2030 is key year here, because it is by this point that the authors predict that prosthetics will exceed organics, and people will begin getting them installed in order to augment themselves.

In addition, life extension therapies and medical advances which will be used predominantly by the elderly will become a means for otherwise healthy people to prolong their lives and maintain health and vitality for longer periods of time. Brain implants are expected to become a reality as well, ostensibly to allow people to have brain-controlled prosthetics, but also for the sake of enhanced memory and augmented thinking.

bionic_handAnd of course, bionics are an important factor in all this. Already, researchers have achieved breakthroughs with bionic limbs, but retinal attachments, artificial eyes, and even fully-functioning organs are expected before 2030. On top of that, improvements in drugs, such as neuropharmaceuticals – drugs that enhance memory, attention, speed of thought – and implants which assist in their delivery are expected to be making the rounds.

google_glassesFinally, there is the matter of virtual and augmented reality systems, which are already becoming a reality thanks to things like Project Glass and recent innovations in PDAs. As the report notes: “Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations. Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator.”

However, the big issue, according to the report, is cost and security. Most of these technologies will be not affordable to all people, especially for the first few years of their existence. This could result in a two-tiered society where the well-to-do live longer, healthier and have a competitive advantage over “organics”, people of lesser means who are identifiable by their lack of enhancements. Also, developers will need to be on their guard against hackers who might attempt to subvert or infect these devices with tailor-made viruses.

Naturally, the importance of maintaining uniform scientific progress was stressed, and the need for a regulatory framework is certainly needed. What the CSER recently recommended is certainly worth keeping in mind here, which was to ensure that some kind of regulatory framework be put in place before all of this becomes a reality. What’s more, public education is certainly necessary, so that the current and next generation of human beings knows what to expect and how to go about making informed choices therein.

To see the full report and learn more about the NIC, follow the link below:

National Intelligence Council: Who We Are

Source: IO9.com

The Future Is Here: Oakley Airwave Goggles!

Remember Project Glass, the Google glasses that featured a heads-up-display and the option for augmented reality? Yeah, that was quite the big ticket news item for fans of cyberpunk and people who felt smartphones were becoming a little passe. Well, it seems that the world of sporting goods doesn’t want to be left out of the loop either!

They are known as the Oakley Airwave goggles, a set of eye wear that allows skiers to to consult stats on a heads-up-display while they are on the sloped. Amongst the information that skiers can project into their field of view are such stats as distance, temperature, speed and altitude. In addition, the goggles have a wireless connection feature which will keep the user apprised of their incoming calls and text messages. No word yet if emails will be included, but one thing at a time I guess 😉

I can remember my father telling me that you could tell if a person was important based on whether or not they carried a cell phone. According to him, unimportant people carried cell phones to look important; whereas important people didn’t need them because people waited on them. Having one only meant that you were on call wherever you were. And I don’t know about you, but the slopes is one place I don’t want to be reached! That’s why I go there in the first place!

Still, it’s a cool concept as far as hands free communication and networking are concerned. Coupled with Project Glass and other such products, this new wave of devices is paving the way for a future in which cell phones are obsolete. I imagine Apple and Blackberry are going to have something to say about this, or possibly an even more revolutionary product in mind. Only time will tell…

Check out this video of the goggles in action:

Source: news.cnet.com

The Future Is Here: The EyeTap

There has been some rather interesting and revolutionary technology being released lately, and a good deal of it involves the human eye. First, there was the Google Glasses, then there were the VR contact lenses, and now the new EyeTap! This new technology, which is consistent with the whole 6th sense computing trend, uses the human eye as an actual display and camera… after a fashion.

Used in conjunction with a portable computer, the EyeTap combines the latest in display technology and Augmented Reality which allows for computer mediated interaction with their environment. This consists of the device taking in images of the surrounding area, and with the assistance of the computer, augment, diminish, or otherwise alter a user’s visual perception of what they see.

In addition, plans for the EyeTap include computer-generated displays so the user can also interface with the computer and do work while their AFK (Away From Keyboard, according to The Big Bang Theory). The figure below depicts the basic structure of the device and how it works.

Ambient light is taken in by the device just as a normal eye is, but are then reflected by the Diverter. These rays are then collected by a sensor (typically a CCD camera) while the computer processes the data. At this point, the Aremac display device (“camera” spelt backwards) redisplays the image as rays of light. These rays reflect again off the diverter, and are then collinear with the rays of light from the scene. The light which the viewer perceives is what is referred to as “Virtual Light”, which can either be altered or show the same image as before.

While the technology is still very much under development, it represents a major step forward in terms of personal computing, augmented reality, and virtual interfacing. And if this sort of technology can be permanently implanted to the human eye, it will also be a major leap for cybernetics.

Once again, Gibson must be getting royalties! His fourth novel, the first of the Bridge Trilogy, was named Virtual Light and featured a type of display glasses that relied on this very technology in order to project display images in the user’s visual field. Damn that man always seems to be on top of things!

And just for fun, here’s a clip from the recent Futurama episode featuring the new eyePhone. Hilarious, if I do so myself!

 

 

The Future of Computing

digital_sentienceLook what you started, Nicolla 😉 After talking, at length, about the history of computing a few days ago, I got to thinking about the one aspect of the whole issue that I happened to leave out. Namely, the future of computing, with all the cool developments that we are likely to see in the next few decades or centuries.

Much of that came up in the course of my research, but unfortunately, after thirteen or so examples about the history of computing, I was far too tired and burnt to get into the future of it as well. And so, I carry on today, with a brief (I promise!) list of developments that we are likely to see before the century is out… give or take. Here they are:

Chemical Computer:
Here we have a rather novel idea for the future of hardware. Otherwise known as a reaction-diffusion or “gooware” computer, this concept calls for the creation of a semi-solid chemical “soup” where data is represented by varying concentrations of chemicals and computations are performed by naturally occurring chemical reactions.

Based on the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a chemical experiment which demonstrated that wave phenomena can indeed take place in chemical reactions, contradicting the theory of thermodynamics which states that entropy will only increase in a closed system. By contrast, the BZ experiments showed that cyclic effects can take place without breaking the laws of nature.

Amongst theoretical models, it remains a top contender for future use for the simple reason that it is far less limiting that current microprocessors. Whereas the latter only allows the flow of data in one direction at a time, a chemical computer theoretically allows for the movement of data in all directions, all dimensions, both away and against each other.

For obvious reasons, the concept is still very much in the experimental stage and no working models have been proposed at this time.

DNA Computing:
Yet another example of an unconventional computer design, one which uses biochemistry and molecular biology, rather than silicon-based hardware, in order to conduct computations. Originally proposed by Leonard Adleman of the University of Southern Calfornia in 1994, Adleman was able to demonstrate how DNA could be used to conduct multiple calculations at once.

Much like chemical computing, the potential here is to be able to build a machine that is not restricted as conventional machines are. In addition to being able to compute in multiple dimensions and directions, the DNA basis of the machine means it could be merged with other organic technology, possibly even a fully-organic AI (a la the 12 Cylon models).

While progress in this area remains modest thus far, Turing complete models have been constructed, the most notable of which is the model crated by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel in 2002. Here, researchers unveiled a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips which would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancer in a cell and releasing anti-cancer drugs.

Nanocomputers:
In keeping with the tradition of making computers smaller and smaller, scientists have proposed that the next generation of computers should measure only a few nanometers in size. That’s 1×10-9 meters for those who mathematically inclined. As part of the growing field of nanotechnology, the application is still largely theoretical and dependent on further advancements. Nevertheless, the process is a highly feasible one with many potential benefits.

Here, as with many of these other concepts, the plan is simple. By further miniaturizing the components, a computer could be shrunk to the size of a chip and implanted anywhere on a human body (i.e. “Wetware” or silicate implants). This will ensure maximum portability, and coupled with a wireless interface device (see Google Glasses or VR Contact Lenses) could be accessed at any time in any place.

Optical Computers:
Compared to the previous two examples, this proposed computer is quite straightforward, even if it radically advanced. While today’s computer rely on the movement of electrons in and out of transistors to do logic, an optical computer relies on the movement of photons.

The immediate advantage of this is clear; given that photons are much faster than electrons, computers equipped with optical components would be able to process information of significantly greater speeds. In addition, researchers contend that this can be done with less energy, making optical computing a potential green technology.

Currently, creating optical computers is just a matter of replacing electronic components with optical ones, which requires an optical transistor, which are composed of non-linear crystals. Such materials exist and experiments are already underway. However, there remains controversy as to whether the proposed benefits will pay off, or be comparable to other technologies (such as semiconductors). Only time will tell…

Quantum Computers:
And last, and perhaps most revolutionary of all, is the concept of quantum computing – a device which will rely on the use of quantum mechanical phenomena to performs operations. Unlike digital computers, which require that data to be encoded into binary digits (aka. bits), quantum computation utilizes quantum properties to represent data and perform calculations.

The field of quantum computing was first introduced by Richard Feynman in 1982 and represented the latest advancements in field theory. Much like chemical and DNA-based computer designs, the theoretical quantum computer also has the ability to conduct multiple computations at the same time, mainly because it would have the ability to be in more than one state simultaneously.

The concept remains highly theoretical, but a number of experiments have been conducted in which quantum computational operations were executed on a very small number of qubits (quantum bits). Both practical and theoretical research continues, and many national government and military funding agencies support quantum computing research to develop quantum computers for both civilian and national security purposes, such as cryptanalysis.

Wearable Computers:
Last, and most feasible, is the wearable computer, which has already been developed for commercial use. Essentially, these are a class of miniature electronic devices that are worn on the bearer’s person, either under or on top of clothing. A popular version of this concept is the wrist mounted option, where the computer is worn like a watch.

The purposes and advantages of this type of computer are obvious, especially where applications that require more complex computational support than hardware coded logics can provide. Another advantage is the constant interactions between user and computer, as it is augmented into all other functions of the user’s daily life. In many ways, it acts as a prosthesis, being an extension of the users mind and body.

Pretty cool, huh? And to think that these and possibly other concepts could be feasible within our own lifetimes. Given the current rate of progress in all thing’s high-tech, we could be looking at fully-integrated computer implants, biological computers and AI’s with biomechanical brains. Wouldn’t that be both amazing and potentially frightening!

The Future is Here!: VR Contact Lenses

Not long ago, it was Google who introduced eye pieces that could project augmented reality into a person’s visual field. Known as Google Glasses, they sure seemed futuristic, didn’t they? And yet, it seems someone else has gone a step farther. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (aka. DARPA) own researchers, based in Washington’s Innovega iOptiks.

The concept calls for contact lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without the need for bulky apparatus. One of the obvious advantages of this is the ability to get around easily while interacting with virtual images. But in addition, they also will help a person focus on both near and distant objects.

Developed as part of DARPA’s “Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras” (SCENICC) program, the objective was to create a device that could enhance a soldier’s vision, allow them to access information, while still being highly ergonomic and portable. But of course, the line between military and civilian applications is always a fine one, with inventions trickling down to the street all the time. Very soon, these could be making their way onto the shelves of the Apple store. I can see it now… the new eyePhone!

No word yet as to how these things are powered, like if they have some kind of battery. Where would that go? Are these things solar powered? Unclear at this time. Regardless, as someone who is near-sighted, a big fan of cyberpunk, and damn eager to try out some augmented reality, I’ll be looking to get me some as soon as they’re available!