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The evolution of human to whatever Interfaces X

An Argus II implant on the retina. The implant picks up the light rays entering the eye and convert them into electrical stimulation of the optical nerve, skipping the retinal cells no longer responsive to light. This establishes a direct connection to the brain. Image credit: Cleveland Clinic

Sense augmentation

Our senses have evolved to capture certain parts of our ambient and evolution has been biased by the ambient we have been living in. As an example, our retina is more sensitive to green (plenty of green around in places where we started our human journey). Our sight can convert a tiny range of the electromagnetic spectrum (the one between 380 and 740 nm). We do not perceive infrared (snakes do) nor ultraviolet (bees do). However, we have technology that can sense a very broad range of the electromagnetic spectrum (broader than any living thing) and we could use that technology to extend our senses, as we already do with infrared goggle (detecting longer wavelength) or night goggle (increasing the sensitivity). Rather than using goggles we could have seamless contact lenses to capture the desired range of wavelengths and convert them into visible ones. There have been, and there are, several researches to create electronic contact lenses that can serve as seamless interaces, the last one announced is the one from Google (watch the clip).

Likewise, a computer could highjack one (or more) of our sense to communicate with the brain. Of course, this is exactly what computers do by creating images, sounds, haptic forces that are picked up by our senses. This, however, may be done in a seamless way with more advanced technology (that is the point here), like using electronic contact lenses, ear implants, fingertips implants.

This communication, however, is limited by the capability of our senses to process the signal.

Neural pathways highjack

A work around to this limitation would be to use implants that connects directly with the nervous pathways, something that we do today to overcome a sensorial disability. As an example, retinal implants are restoring a (minimal) sight to hundreds of people with retinitis pigmentosa today. The implant skips the retina and directly connects to the optic nerve. Similarly, there are many cochlear implants restoring hearing to people with a broken tympanum.

The implant procedures are still cumbersome and the technology is far from perfect. In the future, we can rest assured that technology will get better to the point that it can be used not just to restore a lost function but to complement existing functions, augmenting them. One of the potential augmentation is to provide a seamless interface to a computer and to the ambient.

We are nowhere near to that, my estimate is that it will take at least two decades of technology evolution but the constant drive to create technology overcoming disability on the one hand, and using technology in niches (including the big one of military application) where it can provide a strong competitive advantage,  will make this happen.

For sure, it looks much more feasible to highjack a neural pathway then to have implants in the brain. These latter will continue to evolve but I doubt they will be used as “interfaces”, rather as way of affecting the whole (or a whole area of the) brain to condition macro phenomena, like he insurgence of an epileptic attack, increasing memory retention, counteracting Parkinson tremor and so on.

An intermediate step is already taking place, through the use of augmented (and virtual/mixed) reality technology, a topic being addressed in the FDC Digital Reality Initiative. Notice that today AR/VR/XR are basically forms of linearly-advanced interfaces but once the technology will support a truly seamless interaction (through some form of non-intrusive wearable or implants) then our communications with the ambient will change radically. In the next and last post of this series I am going to look at that.

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 Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. 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.