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Augmented Machines and Augmented Humans are converging V

The effect of diet change (increase in meat and decrease in rice consumption) on the stature of the Japanese population in the last 100 years. Notice how students, a minority of the total population in the past, were taller, being on the average from well to do families enjoying a better diet. Image credit: UVM

The goal of augmenting human capabilities has always been there, for as far as we can tell. The control of fire was a tremendous augmentation that had deep consequences on our species. Cooking food opened up new ways of nourishment and made our species more adaptable to hostile environment and even changed the phenotype (we can see this also in modern times, when the change of protein intake, by changing the diet, has made us taller and stronger!).

The invention of tools to harvest and convert forms of energy and make use of it (from water/wind mills to steam and electricity) has multiplied our capabilities as single individual and as a species. Actually, it is important to notice that as our tools have become more complex and required more and more capital and cognitive investment the augmentation has shifted from the individual to a larger and larger community, sometimes becoming the trademark of a region or a Country (industrialised world). This makes a departure from the evolution of other species to the human species where the overlaying of artefacts and infrastructures has changed the phenotype and the extended phenotype of our species, something that, as far as we can tell, has never happened to other species.

More recently, the evolution of hard technologies, that in the past resulted in an augmentation of physical performance, has been flanked by technologies that are augmenting our cognitive performances.

Take, as an everyday example, the smartphone. The phone as such, by providing communication across distance has increased our capabilities, the smartphone today is only marginally used to communicate with other people, most of the time we use the services it provides, including communication with the cyberspace to bring data and information to our fingertips and the variety of apps processing data or its sensing capability (like taking a photo!).

With a smartphone the access to information and knowledge has become unlimited, with a smartphone, through augmented reality apps, there is a seamless overlapping of the cyber world onto the physical world. The smartphone is a crucial component of the digital transformation and it is possibly today the most important tool in the augmentation of our extended phenotype.

This Hyundai wearable robot can help a human worker lift very heavy items. Image credit: Hyundai

Technologies like exoskeletons are augmenting human strength, and relieving us from fatigue. They are now being used in car industry assembly lines, in military area and in healthcare to overcome disabilities.

Wearables like smart contact lenses will be able to create a continuum, through seamless augmented reality, between the physical and the cyber world. Smart goggles are already commercially available but they are not delivering a seamless experience, smart contact lenses are still in the prototyping stage but it seems reasonable to expect their commercial availability within the next ten years.

Implants connected to our sensory termination can expand the range of our capabilities, like seeing in the infrared, hearing higher frequencies and even detecting electromagnetic fields. This is not happening through and extension of our brain capability but by leveraging on the plasticity of the brain, that can accommodate new sensory patterns including them in the existing meaning processing (synesthesia).

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.