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Disturbed by Superhuman?

“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is a well-known Olympics motto. The noble goal speaks volumes of the eternal human desire for self-improvement. It’s not just athletes who share that goal. We all aspire to be better — smarter and more efficient — in the way we study, work and play.  

The big question in my mind lately, though, is how much of this advancement toward “superhuman” abilities enabled by biological, chemical, electrical and mechanical means will be deemed socially legitimate and psychologically healthy.

On one hand, technologists foresee a future when humans and machines will converge into “technological singularity.” On the other hand, many of us worry that someday we will be controlled by machines, not the other way around.

What got me thinking of this was the following sentence I found, while developing an AR story, in the introduction page of AugmentedReality.org’s AR Glass Report.

The author of the report wrote:

When your glass-wearing classmates, playmates, workmates, or your peers in any field perform better than you — can you afford not to wear?

I have no doubt that having additional data (information) superimposed on my AR glasses would give me a leg up over those without glasses.

In the era of “smart” glasses, we’ll gather the necessary data, pronto, literally right in front of our eyes.

We’ll no longer have to worry about not remembering names at a party (because the Glass can tell us who they are). School exams would become obsolete, because all the answers will be mounted on our noses.  You could argue this is a good thing. No more memorizing the alphabet or French verb conjugation. Instead, we’ll be free to focus on “thinking” and “analyzing.”

Perhaps. But does being able to “look it up” instantly make us smarter? I have some doubts.

I remember how the world initially responded to the possibility of Oscar Pistorius participating in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The debate was not about Pistorius, but about the potential that carbon-fiber sprinting prostheses that might one day help an amputee exceed normal human performance on the track.

The world also knows about a program by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in which super soldiers are being developed.

For example, soldiers carrying full battle gear (100 pounds or more) could run miles without exhaustion. Super soldiers would be equipped with components, motors and springs integrated into body armor, augmenting the work performed by the muscles in the legs.

In short, we seem to have a pathway to enhancing performance. That’s a good thing.

But here’s the paradox. We celebrate when technology helps the disabled get better. I’d love to see my wheelchair-bound mother walk again. But some of us find it disquieting when the perfectly capable turn themselves superhuman via drugs, genetic alteration, electronics implants, or even via wearable devices.

When Google said earlier this month that it would stop selling the current version of Google Glass to consumers, some of us wrote obituaries for the head-worn device. Promoters of Glass called it premature. An article in PC World said:

But make no mistake: Glass isn’t going away—not without more of a fight. While it’s struggled to find support among consumers, some businesses have been highly receptive to the electronic eyewear, and the next iterations of Glass might suit them even better.  

I get the usefulness of AR glasses for industrial applications. Certainly, corporations can benefit by making their workers more efficient (and probably cutting their pay).

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EETimes.

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