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2008 November 6 - 12:00 am

FROM THE VAULTS OF CCW: Digital Paradise: Implications for Higher Education and Humanity

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By Chris Allbritton

BOSTON   Even here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a campus well known for nerd hijinx, these three young men in the school's media lab look pretty weird.

Leonard Foner resembles a collision between an oversized kid and a Nintendo machine. A chunky eyepiece, apparently scavenged from a camcorder, protrudes from his left eye, supported by Terminator like sunglasses. A black vest girdled with circuits and computer hardware wraps his upper body, and a hard drive nestles in the small of his back.

His buddy, Thad Starner, looks less menacing. He sports clear plastic safety goggles and carries his computer in a shoulder bag.

The third researcher, Brad Rhodes, looks too jolly to be scary. His kinky hair is trying to escape from under a cap which has an eyepiece dangling from its brim. He clutches a small keypad in his left hand, and his fingers twitch furiously as he takes notes on a miniature computer.

The trio belong to a group of grad students who have dubbed themselves the ’borg. They are researching “wearables"   personal, very per¬sonal, computers small enough to fit into eyeglasses and hip pouches but powerful enough to access the world's information.

This technology looks clunky and a little intimidating today, but get ready. It promises to shrink, streamline and grow more and more inconspicuous.

The MIT researchers envision a digital paradise — instant translation among the world's tongues, the ability to monitor or even affect events anywhere in the world, a constant connection to global conversations in cyberspace.

 But by transcending the limits that nature imposed on our all too-human flesh, researchers at MIT and elsewhere find themselves poking at the edges of fundamental questions.

The answers may change forever what it means to be human.

From Prague to Hollywood

Powerful stuff, eh?

Grand cool visions of a Silicon Age. Twenty fourth century kind of stuff. But is it science or science fiction? The root of the question lies in both.

The term cyborg, for cybernetic organism, was proposed in the 1960s as a solution to the harsh environment of space. It would be much easier, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline believed, to adapt astronauts' bodies to protect them from the vacuum.

Breathing in space is cumbersome, they wrote. "One proposed solution in the not too distant future is relatively simple: Don't breathe!" But the idea of artificial humans goes back farther.

Back at least to the Middle Ages when the Golem a clay creature brought to life by Jewish mysticism, defended the ghetto in Prague. And back to 1818, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

 It took Hollywood to bring cyborgs into their own as modern bugaboos. First there was RoboCop, then Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. Then the chilling Borg Collective on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a rakish collection of villains and flawed heroes respectively gunning or pining for humanity.

In real life, "cyborg" can be applied to anyone with a body enhancing add on. Do you have a titanium alloy knee joint, a myoelectric arm, a pacemaker, breast implants, contact lenses, a polio vaccination? Technically, you're a cyborg.

So perhaps the 'borg at MIT are onto something. Perhaps their explorations using chunky, clunky electronics are a natural consequence of the increasingly common merging of technology and flesh. As the Borg Collective announces: "Your life, as it has been, is over… Prepare to be assimilated."

That's the joke of the 'borg name   a double pun on cyborg and Star Trek. And they've taken the image of the fictional characters to heart.

From Fictional to Wearable

In small pouches, they carry their processing chips, hard drives, wireless modems and batteries. They often have a miniature video monitor — sort of like a camcorder viewscreen — affixed to modified eyeglasses or suspended from a hat brim. Instead of a keyboard or a mouse, a handheld keypad allows them to enter data almost as fast as someone can talk.

The wearable software can remind them of appointments, let them take notes and surf the Internet.

But the potential is much greater. While the handheld electronic organizers of today can help schedule your life, those of the future may help you live it.

Soon, says 'borg Brad Rhodes, the wearables will be able to recognize speech and faces. And soft¬ware he is developing called a “remembrance agent," will watch over you 24 7, supplying you with the information you need in any given situation.

Example: You recognize someone but can't remember his or her name. Your wearable analyzes the face and scans a database of people you've met. The machine makes a match and displays the dossier on a tiny screen hanging in front of your eye or maybe whispers through tiny speakers in your ears. Now you know the person's name, occupation and any e mail correspondence you may have had.

While you talk, your wearable parses the chit chat, tapping into global databases via a wireless modern for data relevant to your conversation. As you talk about how hot it's been lately, the agent sifts through newspaper clippings feeding you the latest news on, say, global warming.

"Let's head to Union Square," you propose, and the computer gives, you directions, even pointing you to a coffee shop that serves excellent pastries.

Over cappuccino and cannoli, you talk about impressionist paintings, Japanese filmmaking, the backlash against existentialism and that weird Spice Girls fad a few years back — all thanks to data pulled up by your wearable. It gives you limitless memory and access to almost all knowledge.

Data without end. Amen.

From Here to Eternity

Wearables may be only an interim step. As disk drives and computer chips shrink and streamline, the next step may be to implant tiny computer parts under the skin or behind the ears.

The electrical energy in you body could supply the power. Fillings in your teeth could be the antennae for your Internet connection, which could pump the data to a heads up display built into your eyeglasses.

"The line between human and computer at some point will be¬come completely blurred," pre¬dicted Alvin Toffler in his 1981 book The Third Wave.

That kind of technology, admittedly, is years away. But the implications are troubling. Hacking the body to install a computer that becomes part of you, that grants instant access to the sum of human knowledge....well, it sounds almost godlike.

"Godlike implies infinite comprehension," says MIT's Foner. "I don't think we're getting there."

Besides, says Kent Richter, a philosophy professor at the College or DuPage in Glen Ellyn, III., access  to all that information at your fingertips is great but it's important to keep things in perspective.

"Let's not let the technology revolution allow us to confuse information with wisdom, "he says.” “Having information isn't the same as knowing what to do with it, what kind of person to be, how to love, how to live."

He adds that you still can learn important lessons when knowledge the old fashioned way.

"I've always wanted to learn Japanese, and it would be great if I could have a chip so that I would know the language," he says. "But there’s more to Japanese than just knowing it.

 "There's a certain character that comes along with having been the person that learned it, with all of the effort and dedication that it requires,” Richter says.

But theoretically, if we could insert a chip that would provide us with an infinite amount of data, what would be left for institutions of learning?

"This whole revolution is going to have a dramatic impact on how we do business in education," says Dale Campbell of the Community Colleges Future's Assembly, an independent educational think tank. "But it won't necessarily do away with our role.”

Campbell relates the example of how compact discs deliver high quality sound to consumers — many of whom used to go to community theatres to get such sound quality — for less than half the price.

"But community theatres are still around," he argues. “The task at hand will be determining how to make community colleges supplemental, enhancers to the technology.”

He adds that institutions of learning will always have a leg up on the technology revolution.

“Learning and independent thought, which have been the hallmark of education, are things that we will probably never be able to put on a chip, and so I’m not scared that our role will vanish," he says. "In fact, I'm excited about the whole thing."

However, Hans Moravec can't wait. He's the director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and in his 1988 book, "Mind Children," he suggested that in just 50 years, people would be downloading their minds into infinitely better robot bodies.

Imagine Homosapiens version 2.0, the post-biological human.

“I have faith in these computers," he writes. "You're going to be more intelligent, you'll be able to do much more, understand much more, go more places, not die — all those things.”

At MIT and Carnegie Mellon, and throughout America, from Stanford in California to Columbia in New York, researchers are investigating everything from genetic engineering to advanced robotics. Companies such as Microsoft and Apple are at work looking for ways to insinuate more computer technology into our lives.

And while the students at MIT work on programming their external computer, researchers around the world are busy learning the language of our internal one.

The human genome project aims to map all 80,000 human genes in DNA by 2005. Once that's done, the nation of “human” may change radically. As we take command of our evolutionary destiny, not only will we deconstruct the human software, we will be able to reconstruct it. Whether we use silicon or DNA, future humans might be crafted by technology.

Which is just fine as “we’re not really biological creatures anymore," say Moravec. "Most of what we pass on to our children is culture libraries.”

He points out that the thousands of genes on human DNA only add up to two billion bits of data, “and most hard drives have 10 times that today.”

Alan Marcus, a professor of history at Iowa State University in Ames, echoes the view of genes as small units of “code," computer jargon for computer commands.

Our genes program us to react in certain ways, as they were small computer programs. And if so, why not plug new genes into an organism in a different order and get something entirely new?

Why not program life like a computer? If you could do that, would there be any difference between the two?

"Once you've reduced living matter to bits, if you will, and once you think about programming living things just as you would program nonliving things, then that division doesn't exist anymore," says Marcus.

Elliot D. Cohen oversees the International Journal of Applied Philosophy at Indian River Community College in Florida. He says that we've been warned about this merging of humanity and technology before.

"Marx argued that human beings were becoming appendices to assembly lines, and we can apply the same idea to this leg of the technology revolution," he says. "We're becoming slaves to the technology. The distinction between the creator and the created seems to be vanishing."

Humanity’s Crossroads?

All of which means we may be standing at a crossroads. Whether we use biotechnology or circuit boards, the new human — almost from birth — could be crafted by technology on a scale not yet seen.

Look for artificial organs, gene therapy, even low level eugenics. A sea change in the definition of "human" may be upon us. MIT's 'borg are only tweaking the dictionary.

Since the 1600s, when French philosopher Rene Descartes concluded that "I doubt, therefore I think: I think, therefore I am," being human meant being an immaterial mind trapped in a very material body. This Renaissance split humanity into thought and matter. It is this split that seems to be behind much of the thinking of humans as complex machines.

 Today, people commonly donate semen, ova and plasma for cash, deeds that would have been blasphemy 500 years ago. We carry organ donor cards in our wallets.

When we're able to replace parts of our bodies at will, or to reprogram our genes, is it any wonder we don't know what to make of our bodies? Should we just remake them since the physical human is doomed to fail anyway?

"Why should a healthy mind die just because the body is not healthy?" asks filmmaker David Cronenberg in Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century.  "There just seems to be something wrong with that."

Cronenberg has directed some of the most horrifying films about the clash of body and technology, such as "The Fly" and "Crash." His simple query may be at the root of the 'borg.

"This is ultimately the refusal to accept finitude and the fear of death," says Don Ihde a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "We don't want to be mortal."

And like avoiding death, some things are impossible, he says.

"Most 'cyborg' stuff of the present is a makeshift prevention, not an improvement over the human body," he says in an interview via e mail. "Were a prosthetic arm shown to be stronger — able to crush steel cups would you choose to have yours amputated and have one? I doubt it."

The desire to transcend the body, to shuffle off this mortal coil, is as old as faith. And like the faith that billions place in God for ultimate resurrection in heaven, today's cyber utopians place faith in technology as a force that can resurrect them as new forms — leather clad, angels soaring on hydraulic wings. Still, for everything that technology and computers can do for us, there is something that can be done to us. With the reduction of the body to component parts, will we see less value placed on those who can't or won't be "upgraded?"

For every utopia where invisible technology serves our every need, could there be slums dominated by roving bands of cyberthugs harvesting human organs?

“For every vision of digital heaven," warns Arthur Kroker, author of the book Hacking the Future, "there is an equal image of digital hell."

So instead of the bright and shiny future promised by the 'borg and other futurists, perhaps we should instead listen to Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto.
She counseled us to create a society that neither demonizes technology nor surrenders to digital flights of fancy.

"Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies," she writes, then adds, "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess."

Staff writer Jamilah Evelyn contributed  to this report.






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