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Posted: February 25, 2011

Embracing our inner cyborg: Part 1

Information is like a drug

Thomas Frey

It recently occurred to me that I was pulling my iPhone out of my pocket several times an hour to check information.

Over the past few months I‘ve become very self-conscious about the addictive nature of information and the OCD-like mannerisms that follow, and this constant checking-in is only one of several habit-changers I've noticed that accompany smartphones. Information is like a drug that we naturally crave. Whether it's the rumor mills of the past where gossip flew from one person to the next or today's smartphones, we all have an insatiable need to know.

While many feel we need to curb the excessive nature of this addiction, I tend to fall into the other camp, wanting to improve the flow of data to the point where it is far more pervasive, yet at the same time, seamless and invisible.

But that's where it gets crazy, because as smartphones evolve, they become an integral part of who we are. They become the digital nerve center for our physical existence.
Science fiction writers have long warned us of the dangers of half-human, half-machine cyborgs. Yet, as we invite this piece of networked intelligence into our lives, we begin to see this integration of humans and machines in a whole new light. Let me explain.

Exploding Marketplace

According to industry projections, the number of mobile broadband subscribers, which was 600 million at the end of 2010, is expected to almost double in 2011 to a billion and climb to five billion in 2016. Mobile network capacity will need to increase 20 to 25 times to handle the growing load.

The Chinese telecom company, Huawei, is predicting their traffic levels will rise 500 times by 2020.

Even with these dramatic numbers making their way into industry reports, as you read through the remainder of this article you will begin to understand why even these predictions are far too low.

Personal Area Networks

In the mid-1990s, IBM researcher Thomas Zimmerman began exploring the idea of Personal Area Networks, or PAN technologies, which used the natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit digital information.

Since then the concept has evolved into wireless personal area networks, or WPAN, made possible with wireless network technologies such as IrDA, Bluetooth, UWB, Z-Wave and ZigBee.
Adding wireless to the equation, any two WPAN-linked devices within several meters of each other can communicate as if connected by a cable. Smartphone capabilities can then be dramatically enhanced with the simple addition of sensors, cameras, and other peripheral devices.

Evolving the Smartphone

Today's smartphones exist as self-contained communication tools, but that will begin to change as a wide assortment of peripheral devices enters the marketplace. Here are a few examples:

• The Sony Ericsson LiveView is a small display screen that can be worn as a watch or piece of jewelry and communicates wirelessly with your smartphone. It eliminates the need to constantly pull out your phone as information can be accessed with a simple glance of the wrist. Rumor has it that Apple will soon turn their Nanos into a similar interactive slave device for the iPhone.

• Mobisante, a company based in Redmond, Wash., has recently introduced an ultrasound probe as a smartphone peripheral device. The current prototype connects to a Toshiba TG01 smartphone, but plans are in place to connect to others.

• Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania are developing silicon-and-silk implantable devices which sit under the skin like a tattoo. Already implanted into mice, these tattoos will carry micro-LEDs, turning your skin into an interactive screen. Your skin will appear normal until the display is turned on, but once on, keyboards and other interactive controls will appear on your arm.

These type of innovations are just scratching the surface of what will be possible as every new wireless device creates a tremendous new opportunity for app developers to expand on the original intent.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Tom -- what interests me the most is how rapidly some of the visions of the Sci-Fi greats, such as Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, are becoming reality. In 3001, The Final Odyssey, Clarke predicted that everyone would have a neural net implanted on their skulls with wires to their brains. This, and much more, seems to be a reality a millennium early. Exciting and heady stuff! If we can keep from devolving to the Dark Ages and not blow ourselves up, the future looks fun! By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 02 26
I look forward -- with both excitement and trepidation -- to the point where our electronic devices communicate directly with our nervous systems. This could eliminate the need to 'look at' or 'listen to' our digital assistants, with a direct pipe to and from our consciousness. It sounds farfetched to many, but strides are being made to this end by researchers all over the globe. We already have prosthetics that move under neural impulse, digital hearing aids connected directly to auditory nerves, brainwave-activated cursors on a computer screen, and even toys that move according to signals picked up from transducers in a headband. Heady stuff. By Nunya Bidnez on 2011 02 25

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