Sunday, 22 February 2009

Human Augmentation

As I arrived at church this morning, the priest was having a chat with an elderly lady and her adult daughter and son-in-law. "I'm so sorry to hear about your husband" said our priest. "Why? What's happened to him?" replied the elderly lady, smiling but looking slightly puzzled.

The daughter looked sad and pained. "We have told her that he died last week, Father, but she just can't hold on to it".

When the priest announced at the start of Mass that it was dedicated to her husband who passed away recently, I saw the look of upset and surprise on her face, with just a twinge of "this is something I know already, I think" buried in there somewhere.

How incredibly sad.

A few weeks ago in Davos, I attended a session on Human Augmentation. It was probably the most interesting session I attended, looking at how technologies can directly augment human ability, physically and mentally. I am also aware of research projects into areas such as "memories for life" that augment memory by capturing and storing everything you do. I find this a fascinating area of research and it really makes you think.

For example at the Human augmentation session, one of the speakers had two false legs, below the knee, which he revealed halfway through his talk after striding confidently around the stage. He joked (I think) how he was sorrry for the other folk on the panel who only had normal human limbs because as time passes and technology advances his legs keep getting better and better whereas theirs just get weaker and weaker.

Another chap spoke about mapping the human brain and eventually being able to manipulate the neurons and pathways to augment intelligence. You want an IQ of 168? No problem, Sir!

(oh, by the way, it appears that lots of the funding in the USA for this type of research is coming from Military and Defence pockets. Watch out for technologically enhanced, super intelligent GI's coming to a battlefield near you!).

Memory is an interesting aspect of this type of augmentation. It is interesting what all this digital storage is doing to our memories. Capturing, storing and making instantly accessible things that would have faded into the deep recesess of our memories in days gone by. Imagine if every time you blinked a snapshot of that moment in time was stored for later retrieval. Is that good, bad, scary, exciting? I don't know yet but I sense that we are moving in that direction.

Just think of those of you that Twitter away constantly. I know folk who tweet 10-15 times a day, every single day. What they have just done, what they have seen, eaten, felt, thought. Imagine if they keep that up and have that available to explore in ten years time. Wow!

I am trying right now to recall my earliest memory. When you reach back that far, it's difficult to tell what's a memory and what's a story that you have been told and are just replaying. However I feel as if I remember being a baby, sitting on a sofa (or at least high up) watching a group of other babies and children playing. I also feel as if I remember being pleased or even happy. I am told that I was a few months old when that all took place. Do I remember or not? I can't tell.

What makes it feel like a memory though is the element of "feeling" that I attach to this situation or event. And as I reflect on other events tucked away in my memory banks, it is the feelings that make a memory special. The feelings of joy, of pain, of fear, of laughing so much that I truely understood the phrase "split his sides laughing". Those are my real memories. The "facts" are secondary.

Over the next decade and more we will see huge leaps forwards in our ability to record everything we do, every place we visit, every word we utter, every image we see. But will we capture the emotions that went with the moment?


Jasper Orlando said...

It really is fascinating to hear all these goings on from Davos. Is there any particular augmentation you'd like Tom? I've always wanted a tail. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...


Look at this work by the Foresight team for a different view of the area.


Andy Gueritz said...

I think that there is probably some very good evolutionary reason why we have not (so far) evolved to have total memories of everything. Unless the digital amanuenses have the talent of a binary-Boswell to pick out the good stuff from the dross and drivel, we will all end up looking like candidates for cyber-versions of Kim & Aggie. Clutter just grinds you down; de-junking rules!

Nicholas Davis said...


I was at the session too, and thought it was one of the most interesting at this year's meeting.

On the brain augmentation side, William Duggan's argument for how innovation works through "strategic intuition" suggests that breakthrough ideas operate through disparate data stored in "intelligent memory" - I wonder if, should we systematically improve our memories (perhaps by tweeting reminders of important information!), we could better be able to find new solutions to current challenges. Of course, I agree with Andy that there's a noise/signal problem inherent in that, but that just means that alongside improved memory we'll need improved filters.

Perhaps see you at Davos next year!