Photo: File
Photo: File

Becoming an augmented human

By Opinion Time of article published Apr 28, 2021

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Professor Louis Fourie

When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone to the world in January 2007, he stated that it would “revolutionise” the world. And it did! The arrival of the smartphone made computers mobile and brought them in close proximity t us.

With its easy-to-use touch interface, the smartphone became an indispensable extension of ourselves.

Constant paradigm shifts and innovation has brought the computer since the nineteenth century closer to us. Huge computers occupying hundreds of square metres were scaled down to a personal computer and eventually a small and powerful smartphone in our hands.

For many years our contact with computers were mediated via a keyboard, mouse and complicated menus.

Now every action is immediate and physical, accessing apps directly via our fingers and touch screens.

But in the last few years with a focus shifting to wearable technology the computer has come even closer to humans. From the palm of hand to ever- present technology on our wrist and in our ears, technology is more closely integrated with our everyday lives.

Since 2017 the smartphone market has been declining and some experts believe that smartphones as we know them will be dead in five years.

Computer interfaces are changing in a more meaningful way with gesture, body language, and emotion tracking software. Previously we had to speak the language of computers and had to learn how to interact with them.

But now computers are starting to speak the language of people and understand us better than ever.

Similarly, display technology is moving from screens to glasses and contact lenses and becoming embedded into our environment.

In future seamless interactions with our everyday lives will more and more incorporate augmented intelligence in the form of powerful algorithms, machine learning and data science.

Artificial intelligence equips computers with visual and spatial skills and assists human beings with the recognition of objects and people.

Emotional and preferential intelligence systems carefully register all our sentiments and choices and recommend actions based on the situation and our preferences. In fact, we already see some of this technology in the algorithms that recommend products, songs, books and movies based on our behaviour and choices of the past.

We see this technology also being used by the South Korean car company Kia and their Real-time Emotion Adaptive Driving (READ) system that is intended to reduce drivers’ stress levels by providing optimal interior settings for the driver in real-time based on the constant monitoring of their emotions through their heart rate, electrodermal activity and facial expressions.

However, the small screens of our smartphones limit the immersive experience. Technology thus moved away from the smartphone to integrate more closely with our lives through mixed-reality headsets and AR glasses.

Suddenly humans were not looking into the interface but stepping into it.

However, a new era has arrived – one that will take our relationship and seamless interaction with computers even further than extended reality (XR) technology.

The newest shift in human augmentation still closer to our bodies is advocated by self-identified transhumanists (people with the aim of supporting human enhancement and quality of life through technology).

Due to major advances in biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology humankind may be on the verge of a revolution that will augment the obsolescent technology of the human body.

Without doubt computers and augmented intelligence will in future enhance human existence in many ways. Algorithms and machine learning will help us to make decisions faster and more effectively.

The smart support, suggestions and decisions of AI will be combined with the intuitive presentation and interaction of AR and beyond.

There is a good chance that in a few years we will stop carrying our phones with us. It will rather be embedded in our clothing, lenses, or brain interfaces to allow us to interface with a world where the boundaries between digital and physical are disappearing.

The future will entail a society with augmented intelligence where we will be able to access information at an incredible speed, thus acting quicker and with less friction.

But when technology starts merging with the human body, who will know the future? As technology increasingly becomes an indispensable and integrated part of our human bodies,

We will have to consider how augmentation will change our behaviour, especially if programmed (biased) algorithms determine what we know and decide.

A distorted reality to a privileged few may have serious political consequences. Human augmentation may exacerbate the divide between the rich and poor and the paradigms of North and South, West and East.

Soon the enhanced may see the unenhanced as subhuman or a permanent underclass.

But despite the concerns, as we come to the end of the smart phone era, the future of technology in the augmentation of humans seems promising with much potential.

Prof Louis C H Fourie is a Technology Strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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