Extensions and interfaces

October 16, 2013

I would like to gather here data and interpretation regarding artificial extensions to human capability (the broadest definition of “technology”): We are witnessing transition from “technology-as-screwdriver” to “technology-as-cognition-extension”? More precisely, exactly how advanced must a technology be, until one cannot realize anymore to be using it?
This abstracts one step beyond A.C.Clarke’s “Third Law”: technology and magic will, at that point, be reduced to commonplace human experience, and therefore become indistinguishable from it.
It’s a rather bold statement, and I’m no starry-eyed singularitarian. Let’s start with a simple analysis by restricting to present-day tangible R&D results, and leave end-of-history predictions to fortune tellers.

Large scale: Behavioral trait clustering
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/03/06/1218772110.abstract
October 29, 2012 : “We show that easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender. The analysis presented is based on a dataset of over 58,000 volunteers who provided their Facebook Likes, detailed demographic profiles, and the results of several psychometric tests. […]”

Personal scale: Distributed training for machine learning
October 11, 2013 : “Qualcomm also envisions alternatives to app stores, which he called “experience stores,” allowing users to download expertise into their consumer products”. Have a look at the original EETimes article.
While neural networks aren’t exactly news, the idea of “sharing” training across devices seems intriguing. I wonder whether this concept is of broader applicability.

Personal scale: Human-computer interfaces
This is where human-machine interaction, on a personal (affordable, household) scale started: computer mice, hypertext introduced in 1968 during Douglas Engelbart’s “mother of all demos” (official title “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect”): http://www.dougengelbart.org/firsts/dougs-1968-demo.html

… and this is (a small selection of) where we are now:

Technical Illusions CastAR, an Augmented Reality “platform” composed of glasses with integrated projector, wand/joystick, backreflective mat (AR) or VR glass add-ons.
Video here
Still raking funds from the Kickstarter community, but apparently it’s going well. I’m a bit concerned about all that hardware one has to deploy, especially the “mat”. Apart from showers, only one application I can think of benefits from mats.

Thalmic Myo.
Video here
This one is an interesting concept: it’s an armband device that integrates accelerometer and bearing sensors with neural readout, so muscular twitching such as finger contraction can be correlated with movement of the limb as a whole, allowing for very expressive interaction. It has been available for pre-order for a few months now and will sell for 149 USD from the beginning of 2014, and I’m seriously considering getting one.

Leap Motion, and extensions thereof, e.g. the DexType “keyboard” software, see below.
Video here
The Leap Motion simply processes optical range information (possibly using “structured light” like the Microsoft Kinect), so a number of artifacts in the gesture recognition are to be “engineered against”. However, offering an open SDK was a winning move, there are tens of application and games in various stages of development being offered on the Leap store.

Possible implications
Adaptive communication: i.e. terminals that are aware of user patterns and sync accordingly, “sync” meaning information display based on remote context (e.g. remote user busy or focused on other). Attention economics brokerage.
Are we heading towards higher-order communication, i.e. in which one won’t communicate with a machine one character at a time but through symbols, sign language, ideograms?
Next level: J.Lanier’s “postsymbolic” communication in cuttlefish; the “body” of a user (intended in an extended sense, i.e. with hardware enhancements) becomes a signaling device in its own right (e.g. flashing, changing shape/”state”, radiating information etc.)

In fact, I think it’s only natural that machine interfaces are to be evolved in order to effectively disappear, the only question is when will this transition occur.

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A few days ago, mid-July, a fish die-off took place in the Venice lagoon [IT].

The authorities [IT] isolated the high oxygen level in water as the culprit, in turn due to an abnormally large seaweed growth (which has been attributed in part to the anomalous climate pattern since the spring: hot and rainy).
It is believed that certain non-indigenous algal varieties, brought to the lagoon on the hulls of cargo ships are thriving in the local ecosystem (yet another game of blame-the-immigrant?).
I meant to educate myself on the details for a while now but never found the time.

Seaweed or not, the environmental shock is propagating up the food chain.
Seagulls are already looking miserable, and very few are flying, some noticed.

From a very utilitarian and human-centric point of view, the locals don’t feed on seagull meat, and Venice as a whole has a rather open food system (most of it is imported, as there is precious little agriculture on a couple of the lagoon islands, certainly not enough to support the whole population) but these facts leave me pondering.

However other species might be relying on the ones presently in danger, as predator-prey systems [EN] are in a feedback relationship (a concept which our customer-supermarket culture has alienated us from).

I certainly hope we are not witnessing the start of a local environmental collapse.
The Venice lagoon is a unique pool of biodiversity, and its extinction would mean yet another shame on humankind’s record.