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Transhumanist Tech For The Public

While I enjoy reading about all the cool new technology coming out of the labs, most people aren’t going to start seeing the real transformations coming down the line (the Singularity, if you like) until lab tech becomes consumer tech. It’s awesome that scientists are controlling rat brains with lights, making robotic lampreys, and that the lifespan of rats is extended in the lab, but until it affects people personally, until they can touch the tech and integrate it with their lives, most people won’t get too excited. Paradoxically, it also seems like tech that gets to the consumer loses some of its impressive nature – it’s already well established by the time we plebes get to play with it. In that vein, I want to highlight some impressive consumer technology that’s already available or well on its way to becoming available.

G-Tec, a medical engineering company out of Austria, has been testing a new brain-control interface, allowing severely disabled and paralyzed people to control their avatars in Second Life. Additionally, users will be able to control a wide variety of computer controlled appliances, including lights, TVs, the thermostat and the phone. The system works by monitoring wavelengths of brain signals, detecting when the user focuses on an icon and “selects” it with their thoughts. There do seem to be some problems still to work out: First, the device looks like a swim cap with a lot of wires attached, and it seems to plug into a computer hub, much like computer components now. Because the cap can only move as far as the wires from the hub, mobility is severely limited. Making the system wireless will fix that problem. Shrinking the device, perhaps even making it implantable, will bring the technology the rest of the way from consumer tech to (what used to seem like) sci-fi.

While brain-control interfaces have a ways to go before they’re fully developed, several diagnostic technologies are already close to ideal. MIT has developed a cell-phone and other smart device (like iPod) technology to detect cataracts in users. What used to require a visit to the ophthalmologist is now detectable through a clip on technology accessory and a downloadable app. While it doesn’t quite make a cell phone a tricorder, it does use existing consumer tech to deliver important health benefits, presumably fairly cheaply. There is an eyepiece attachment that is necessary, and the article didn’t mention anything about cost, but I can’t imagine that an attachment to an iPhone would run more than a couple hundred dollars at the top end. Ideally, it’ll be much cheaper than that. After all, how many people check their cataracts for fun? This seems like a useful mobile medical device, but not something suited particularly well to the home consumer, unless the price point is at the low end of the spectrum: If it’s accurate (and it seems to be) anything more than about $100 would put it firmly in the ‘may as well go to the doctor’ category.

At the extreme of consumer-simplicity technology, a new iOS app from the Health Discovery Corporation called MelApp allows consumers to take a picture of a mole or freckle, add in a few measurements, and it spits out a risk factor for one of the leading causes of cancer, melanoma. Although the app does not claim to be a replacement for diagnosis from a real doctor (almost certainly for legal liability reasons) I’m curious to see how accurate the diagnoses actually are. With most cell phone cameras on new models running in the 4 megapixel+ range, the resolution out to be pretty good, which means if the software itself can recognize the difference between a cancerous growth and a benign growth, many people could potentially be warned of a cancer risk well before they ever visit a doctor. The software seems to compare the user-taken picture to a catalog of images maintained by Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, one of the preeminent cancer institutes in the world. Even better, the technology is cheap: Just download a $1.99 app and use your current iPhone.

Transhumanism, for me, is often about the bleeding edge breakthroughs and the not-here-yet tech that’s coming down the pike. Implants, nanotech self-assemblers, DeGray’s anti-aging research, super-human A.I. – all of that technology is sexy, but still nowhere near widely available. This technology, on the other hand, is miraculous by 10-year-ago standards and still pretty impressive by today’s standards. More importantly, it is available to the public and ready to help people build better lives; and that, really, is what transhumanism is all about. I imagine all the “sexy” technology will be viewed the same way by the time it filters down to the public; after all, by the time memory upgrades are available for the human brain, we’ll be looking at scientists overclocking rat brains in the lab wishing for that. So goes technology.


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