In the 1984 novel Neuromancer, author William Gibson described a future in which “implants, nerve-splicing, and micro bionics” could turn people into internet-connected cyborgs.
If you like that idea, you’ll be happy to know that Google is working on it.
The company’s “Project Glass” augmented reality glasses is the first step toward Gibson’s cyborg vision. The glasses project images into one eye, enabling real life (what you see with your actual eyes) to acquire menu items, contextual information, turn-by-turn directions and more. You can take a picture by blinking your eye.
If the idea that augmented reality glasses are a first step toward being assimilated into the Borg, you should know that the head of the project in Google’s “Google X” labs, Babak Parviz, has already developed an electronic contact lens that can display data to the wearer’s eye.
The first step is glasses. The second is contact lenses. And the third is internet-connected eye implants.
Google isn’t the only organization taking these steps. Such technologies will soon become generally available. But will they come from Apple, too?
Adam Kazwell asked the question on Forbes.com: “How Will Apple Respond To Google’s Project Glass?”
In a nutshell, Kazwell says Apple will wait and see how the market responds to Google’s Project Glass and he implies that Apple will follow Google into the cyborgification of mankind.
I think he’s wrong. I think Apple will never cross that line. Here’s why.
Why Apple Has No Interest in the Cyborg Racket
In a way, we’re already cyborgs. Our smart phones, for example, connect us to the Internet, let us offload memories (pictures, to do lists, etc.), augment our human powers of communication. I don’t know about you, but I’ve become completely dependent upon my iPhone, iPad and iMac in order to think, interact with people and generally function as a human being.
But still, I don’t think we’re cyborgs. The devices we use to augment our human abilities are still separate from us. They are objects that we look at and touch. We can turn them off and put them down. We can “unplug.”
I don’t know where the line is, exactly. But I do believe there is a line somewhere between using an information device and becoming one.
Google’s Project Glass is part of a much larger direction of technology that aims to upgrade the human body with digital devices. The quantified self movement hopes to replace the reliance on how you feel with computer output, based on sensor input. Instead of eating until you’re full, walking until you’re tired or sleeping until you’re rested, the quantified self advocates would have sensors lashed to our bodies tell us when to do all these things.
Some cyborg technology is perfectly necessary and life-saving. Pace-makers, for example. We can look forward to a future in which the blind can “see” using implanted or attached sensors.
Certain professions will benefit from augmentations. Special forces soldiers, surgeons and others will have “heads-up displays” to give super-human vision and additional data in real time in the natural field of view.
The question is: What about consumers? Will everyone become augmented-reality cyborgs?
Google says yes. And I think Apple will say no.
Why Cyborg Tech Is Just Like Food Pills
Decades ago, futurists predicted that we’d all be liberated from the drudgery of cooking and the hassles of eating by food pills that could provide all the nutrients we need.
Technology made food pills possible. So where are they?
Obviously, nobody wants them because people like to eat. And people like to cook. People like to go to restaurants. People like food.
The reason people like food is that we are hardwired by evolution to like it. In fact, just about everything we like — ocean views, attractive people, rollercoasters, sex, humor, sunsets, flowers, bacon — is programmed into us at the DNA level.
The things we find repulsive are those things that create cognitive dissonance — they’re too far outside the realm of the world we evolved in. Examples include life-like humanoid robots (our reaction is called the “uncanny valley” — the closer robots get to looking human, the more we hate them), 3D glasses, optical illusions in which a human face has four eyes and so on.
The reason you love your iPad isn’t because the iPad is “good” in some abstract way, but because it’s “right” for human nature. We love the interface because we love touching things, and having those things react the way physical objects might react to touch. The iOS user interface is based on a profound understanding of the human mind.
Our Paleolithic brains have no trouble “believing” that icons and screens and pictures and “albums” are really there. Looking at objects, touching them and having them respond to our touch makes us feel good.
Apple understands this deeply, which is why it has become the world’s most valuable company. Apple bases everything on human nature, and discounts technology for its own sake.
Google, not so much.
Google is founded on and obsessed by engineering and the power of algorithms to the same degree as Apple is with design.
Steve Jobs said Apple is made up of Artists, which was an exaggeration. The truth is that Jobs himself and many of Apple’s leaders were far more influenced by the ideas of art and design than your average Silicon Valley giant.
Contrast that with Google, which isn’t influenced much by artists and designers at all. Yes, they employ such people. But what Google is really good at is improving the world by digitizing it, and applying to the formerly analog world all the benefits of digitization — indexing, searching, data mining and data crunching at scale.
In an ideal Google world, users brains would be directly plugged into Google servers — no user hardware required. And that’s what Project Glass is really all about.
But that’s not what Apple is all about. Apple is in love with objects, preferably “magical” ones.
When augmented reality devices and later cyborg implants become available to consumers, Apple will “respond” by providing preferable alternatives.
Apple will go in the other direction. While Project Glass type devices want to take consumers in the direction of technology that you can’t touch, Apple will make devices that you love to touch. They’ll use design, better materials, amazing haptics and incredible graphics and touchy-feeling user interfaces that will thrill your brain’s hardwiring.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Project Glass in particular and cyborg products in general will exist as consumer products. I just think they’ll exist on the fringes, and will excite only a certain type of person (mostly tech-minded young males).
The mainstream consumer market will continue to enjoy devices that don’t try to plug us into the Matrix, but instead let us be regular humans, but with awesome toys. That’s Apple’s way of doing things..