I recently reposted an article I wrote a couple of years back about the concept of Biobotics: biologically-based automated machines. At the time of writing, I was thinking a lot about the denial of metal and electronics as the only building blocks for the robotic world. The concept made perfect sense; so many of our mechanical systems were designed with biomimicry in mind that the transition to controlling biology with electrical impulses really wasn’t so far fetched.
And when I stumbled upon a recent project by the Future Interfaces Group at CMU called Skintrack, my mind went for a wander once again. SkinTrack is a system that allows the user to essentially treat their entire hand and arm as one big touchscreen. The basic gist of the system is that it emits a high frequency electrical pulse that, when picked up by a worn sensor, correlates the phase difference detected along different positions on the arm.
If that took a turn for the overly technical for a moment, then let’s take a turn towards the overly frightening: the broader implications of a system like this is that your flesh is rapidly becoming little more than a conductor that could serve as yet another device in the massive IoT ecosystem. When most people talk about IoT, we immediately jump to manufactured objects – cars, wearables, buildings, etc. However, this fascinating but eerie little experiment at CMU reminds us that human beings can be just another “Thing.”
Even wearables belittle the potential of this movement, as they merely sense and augment around the periphery the human body. Instead, consider the body as just another collection of objects to be connected, sensed, and actuated. As opposed to wearing an EKG, imagine if your heart were augmented to constantly transmit it’s own heart rate, using tiny micro currents to power onboard sensors and transmitters. Instead of running complex big data calculations on our most powerful servers, imagine uploading data to be processed in dormant parts of your brain. Think about pushing a single spot on your skin and sending your whole body into autopilot; much like we breathe through the regulation of our autonomic system, we could walk, work, and eat with no mental focus, allowing our minds to drift into whatever corner of the world we please.
Though ideas like this are admittedly a bit off-putting, it is through the exploration of topics such as this that we uncover bold new opportunities. While controversial, when we stop treating the body as sacred and begin to realize that it could simply be another component in the technological ecosystem we are developing, we view ourselves and our interplay with technology through a completely different lens. I’m not advocating for the wholesale democratization of human life, however, I’ll always be the first in line to play with some twisted new thought exercises.
After all, if you don’t give yourself permission to think along the full spectrum of life’s possibilities – good and bad – how do you ever expect to think of anything new at all?