Filed under augmented reality

Mind to Machine Transfer Has Gone Mainstream. My Article in The Globe and Mail Asks: Why?

I wrote this piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper.  You can read it in its entirety here. As is always the case in these debates, people will generally focus on the technology and the likelihood. That’s to be expected, of course. But since there is little or no chance that we will see mind-to-machine transfer in the next 100 years, in a way the secondary question is far more fascinating: Why is the mainstream so eager to promote and advance this idea? The comments attached to the Globe piece so far focus, as expected, on the issue of whether or not it can be done. We need to change that conversation so that we are more aware of how the dialogue and rhetoric around these utopian technological ideas are permeating society.


From the beginning of the Globe piece:

The most remarkable thing about Ray Kurzweil is not that he is convinced that he will never have to die. It’s that his ideas have gone mainstream.

He has just released a new book, the modestly titled, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Meanwhile, over the past six years, the 64-year-old American futurist and inventor has been on the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of a feature-length documentary. Forbes magazine dubbed him “the ultimate thinking machine.” He has 19 honorary doctorates and commands speaking fees of as much as $50,000.

All this stature stems primarily from his conviction that by 2040 we will be able to transfer our minds to machines.

As the promotional text proclaimed on his 2006 book The Singularity Is Near, “Our intelligence will become increasingly non-biological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today.” This will give birth to the Singularity – a time of total transformation in which we will merge with our computers, cast off our bodies, extend our lives indefinitely and have near-infinite intelligence at our disposal. (Mr. Kurzweil didn’t invent the idea, but he certainly popularized it.)

I reach Mr. Kurzweil at his home in Massachusetts and ask him if the predictions he first made in 2006 are still accurate. “We’re very much on that course,” he tells me. “We are right on the curve.” The curve is a graph showing, as he explains it to me, “the law of accelerating returns, the exponential growth of every form of information technology.”

Google Glasses: We Are Going Cyborg for Better or Worse

Reports in the Toronto Star and CNET of cyborg Steve Mann having his wearable computer apparatus ripped off in a Paris McDonald’s have led various bloggers to conclude that Using Google Glasses Will Get You Ass Kicked At McDonalds. In fact, the reaction Mann experienced was an anomaly.

Woman wearing Google Glasses

Our overall social reaction to tech developments like Google Glasses, subject of widespread mainstream reportage and speculation, is more like this account published on the MIT Technology Review and titled You Will Want Google Glasses. In the piece, the author concludes, after hanging around and lobbing questions at Thad Starner, a technical lead for the Google Glasses project who “has been wearing various kinds of augmented-reality goggles full time since the early 1990s”, that “wearable computers seem certain to conquer the world. It simply will be better to have a machine that’s hooked onto your body than one that responds to it relatively slowly and clumsily.”

Connecting Steve Mann’s Paris fastfood experience to the Western world’s desire to integrate technology directly into our physiology is a mistake. We want the glasses and we want them now. We will wear and use the glasses. Why? Not because of how clumsy it is to have to use a smart phone. Not because of all the cool things the glasses will supposedly let us do, as depicted in the Google promo video below.

We will wear the glasses because we have become conditioned to desire the ongoing integration of our lives with our tech. Quite simply, it has become a social imperative that we be as plugged into the grid as possible. This means that not only must we be constantly connected, others must see us be constantly connected. Glasses offering wearable computing and augmented reality fit that bill perfectly. They are the inevitable evolution of what have been told and sold for several decades.

Are the Google Glasses and other wearable technologies good or evil? It’s a stupid question. With these technologies we will be able to further integrate our flesh lives with our cyber/online lives. For better or worse.

As for Steve Mann, well, I am the co-author of Steve Mann’s book, and so I am able to say with authority that Mann is a far cry from the gorgeous models/plugged-in hipsters depicted wearing Google Glass prototypes. Not that he deserves to be attacked. He doesn’t. But quite simply, Mann’s overall demeanor sometimes freaks people out. He’s a very weird looking-and-seeming dude, and his experience does not in any way represent a looming backlash against early adopters of Google Glasses.