Human exoskeletons March 25, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed
You should watch this fascinating TED talk by Eythor Bender of Berkeley Bionics. He briefly discusses the notion of human exoskeletons, that is, a mechanical or robotic superstructure worn by a human being. The point of the exoskeleton is to either:
- Enable people who disabled in some way to overcome their disability or
- Enhance the abilities of normal humans.
Mr. Bender (no relation to Bender the robot I believe) demonstrates an exoskeleton called eLEGS that permits Amanda Boxtel to walk after 19 years confined to a wheelchair. In the latter category, Russ Angold demonstrates HULC, an exoskeleton designed to enhance the endurance and cargo capacity of a foot soldier.
(Image courtesy of Daren Reehl via Wikimedia Commons.)
These designs represent the astonishing progress made in research on human augmentation made in recent years. They will be a tremendous boon to people who are disabled or otherwise designed out of the amenities and opportunities afforded to normal people in society. Of course, they will also create a tension in what is considered normal, as people explore their use for human enhancement (outside of the military). For what purposes would you want an exoskeleton?
I would like one, at least to help me survive the coming robot apocalypse.
Does your gear do some of your thinking for you? December 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed
A little piece from NPR highlights how social media sites like Facebook can distract people from work, thus making them less productive:
Nielsen, the media research firm, calculated that one in every 4 1/2 minutes online is spent on blogs and social networking sites.
So, Fred Stutzman, a software developer, created an application to combat all of this time wasting. It’s called Anti-Social.
Enable Anti-Social and it’s impossible to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and any other site you specify — without rebooting your computer.
Whether the app is really effective remains to be seen.
(Image courtesy of Kimkha via Wikimedia Commons.)
The Anti-Social app relates to a previous thread on human augmentation. Human beings have always been dependent on technology for survival. What is remarkable about apps like Anti-Social is the extent to which computerized gadgets are becoming integrated into our mental functioning. The point of Anti-Social, after all, is to outsource an individual’s attention-allocation mechanism to his or her gear. We rely more and more on Facebook to tell us what information is notable, and then on things such as Anti-Social to avoid becoming too engrossed in Facebook activity.
But Anti-Social seems rather crude: It shuts down Facebook access entirely. Mark Zuckerberg would probably say that it needs to get “social.” So, how about a filter app that uses inputs from your friends to figure out which updates and posts to ignore?
Anyway, the notion of cognitive prostheses with such power over your mind raises an interesting metaphysical issue: Can these prostheses actually become part of your mind? Would you say that your mind is contained entirely in your head? Or does it extend outwards, into your body or even into your gear? The view that your mind, perhaps just the unconscious part, is not limited to your noggin is known as embodied cognition or externalism. Have a look at Andy Clark’s recent piece in the New York Times on this perspective of the mind-body relation. If your mind really can extend into external stuff, especially computerized stuff, then you can radically alter the character and content of your mind by installing new apps like Anti-Social. Changing your mind has never been easier!
Information addiction April 27, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
I have made a number of past blog entries about how technology can be more than just a tool. In short, some technologies do not merely increase the size of the human tool box, they change the tool users as well.
We all know by now that information technology is more than just a tool in this sense. More confirmation, if it was necessary, comes from a recent study at the University of Maryland. Students were asked to forgo their IT for a day and then blog about it. Naturally, many found the attempt to be difficult, causing feelings of anxiety and boredom. They saw themselves as being like drug addicts trying to quit cold turkey. Some even turned to drugs for relief:
“My short attention span prevented me from accomplishing much, so I stared at the wall for a little bit,” one participant wrote. “After doing some push-ups, I decided to take a few Dramamine and go to sleep to put me out of my misery.”
I am reminded of the treatment of the Ring of Power in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy: The Lord of the Rings. In those flicks, Jackson treats possession of the One Ring as like a drug addiction (although addiction to what was never clear to me). Anyway, at the finale, the Ring is cast into the fire of Mount Doom and the world relieved of its malevolent presence.
Now, instead of the One Ring, imagine that Frodo is fated to carry an iPhone to Cupertino. Instead of departing, Frodo smokes himself into a stupor on Longbottom Leaf until the urge goes away. Less cinematic but more realistic, perhaps.
Well, we have become dependent on tools before. North Americans could hardly live as they do without their cars, for example. Yet, while cars function somewhat like super leg augmentations, IT is unique (so far) because it functions somewhat like a super brain augmentation. Thus, it changes the behavior of the organ that makes humans most different from other creatures. For that reason, perhaps, the effects of IT seem at once the most awesome and the most scary of any technology yet.
Shoes and human augmentation March 4, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Fastcompany just posted an article about the Mercurial Superfly Vapor II football boot. Sports shoe research continues apace!
I don’t know enough about shoe technology to comment on this design, but it does raise again issues of human augmentation and sports. Is it really a good idea to inject more high-tech gear into sports? To what extent is excellence in sport a physical and not a technological achievement? Think of the high-tech downhill ski suits used at the Olympic games this year.
During these games, I could not avoid being impressed by the number of athletes who persevered to compete in spite of injuries. For example, the number of knee surgeries performed on top shelf skiers, such as Anna Goodman, seems to escalate all the time. We seem to be pushing sports to a point where, soon, only cyborgs will be able to compete!
Of course, athletes have always needed special gear. Some sports are defined by them. Even the ancient Greeks, who competed in the nude in many events, had chariot races that could not occur without horses, chariots, and I don’t know what else. Skiing could not occur without skis and, being a cross-country ski enthusiast myself, I appreciate the doors that special gear can open for anyone wanted to compete or simply enjoy themselves. Still, I wonder if there is anything in the concept of sport that would limit dependence on artifacts.
So, here is a difficult question: How do we know when a piece of gear, a training technique, or a surgical or pharmaceutical intervention is inappropriate for a sport? Is there such a time?