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Super-humans? The Rise of Augmentation Technologies

Meta-category — Augmentation: Technologies that directly assist human effort and activities. By Jona Nalder, with Chris Hills and Rhys Cassidy

‘Augmentation’, or the rise of technology which assists humans to do more than they could naturally achieve, has been integral to humanity’s journey through all historical epochs. The Agricultural revolution circa 10,000 BCE allowed the first farmers to provide food in quantities far beyond what hunters or gatherers had been capable of. The discovery of metallurgy for creating bronze and iron gave workers and warriors strength and abilities much greater than natural tools like wood and bone. Likewise, the invention of the steam engine made the Industrial revolution of the 1700’s possible as previous levels of horse and animal power were exceeded many times over. From the 1800’s, the combustion engine and electricity only increased this trend of technology extending the amount of physical assistance available.

The invention of the microchip in the 1960’s was also a development that significantly assisted human effort and activities but in the mental rather than physical realm. In this way it is more similar to inventions like the abacus or sextants which augmented what the human brain was capable of calculating. It also marked the beginning of the digital age which has led to the array of other modern technologies that can be grouped under Augmentation, as well as those in Automation meta-category overviewed in part 3.

One of the best current examples of Augmentation technologies that assist human efforts is accessibility technology. Christopher Hills [1]is a young man with no use of his limbs. Yet, using Switch Control, an accessibility feature built into Apple Macs, he has taught himself to be a certified Final Cut Pro Editor, runs his own ‘Switched-On Media’ [2] business and even advises Astronauts [3] — all with only the tap of a switch with his head. Companies and designers who have invested in creating such accessibility options are now finding that designing for those with extra needs has also meant that their tools become more useful for augmenting the activities of everyone. In fact Australia now plays host to a dedicated startup accelerator, [4] due to the fact that interest in this sector is now so high.

Augmentation can also include developments such as wearable tech, virtual and augmented Reality headsets, tele-work tools, exo-skeletons, bio-tech and implants, and genome-editing. Augmented reality, for example, provides another layer of visual information on top of the real world that users can then interact with through a mobile phone or tablet screen or special headset. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg with this technology in games like Pokemon Go and apps developed for the Daqri Smart Helmet and Microsoft HoloLens. Like other augmentation technologies, AR has the potential to impact every industry.

Even the smartphone in our pockets we now take for granted can be said to makes us ‘super-human’. Its ability to instantly record events, send and receive over vast distances, store what was previously a life-times worth of books and music and more has made it almost a ‘phantom limb’ or extension of ourselves to the point where according to a Time Magazine survey across 8 countries, 68% of people sleep with smartphones by their bedside [5]. It’s possible that many won’t even flinch as bio-tech enables such capabilities to live within our bodies soon.

Such profound and unprecedented extensions and changes to human abilities is one of the reason why Jona Nalder has created these meta-categories like Augmentation as discussion starters that a wide enough group of decision makers and global citizens can understand and use to begin adapting rather than just reacting as the huge transition that tech is bringing across all categories accelerates.







Intro to FUTURE-U: The ‘Overview Effect’

Future-U manifesto part1

Going into space is something that humans have dreamt of and written about for centuries. And, thanks to factors like engineering ingenuity and the way newly miniaturised transistors could help calculate the required orbital mechanics, this dream was finally achieved by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Since Gagarin, programs like Apollo, Mir, Space Shuttles, the International Space Station and Tiangong have seen 0.000076% of people alive leave Earth. These approx. 550 women and men have been formally studied for changes that their time in space have caused such as the effect of low gravity on muscles and bone density — but one of the most fascinating impacts of being in orbit has been how it changes astronauts mindsets and world-views. This phenomenon, dubbed the ‘Overview Effect’ by Frank White in 1985, refers to the effect that viewing our planet and sole home from the distance of orbit has had on those who have witnessed it. View the official documentary here.

More recently, Astronaut Chris Hadfield, author of ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ and poster of this prolific series of Twitter images from space has added to the reports of previous generations:

“We live on this little bit of cooled crust, and this little sliver of air, and we think it’s guaranteed. We think we’re invincible right, and we think the whole universe is here to serve us. And we’re like bacteria in a corner, just found a little niche that’ll support our life” — Chris Hadfield, 2013, JRE.

So, if we were looking down at our pale blue dot home right now, what would we see? It’s probable that with just such a big-picture perspective, we would see a planet undergoing massive transitions in technology, work, and society, the effects of which are showing in increased social and political instability particularly as many jobs that have been mainstays since the previous Industrial revolution of the 1800’s begin to disappear. The technologies involved in this transition are many, but the majority can be roughly organised into three meta or overall categories of Automation, Augmentation and Expansion. These categories will be covered in detail in ‘Intro to FUTURE-U’ parts 2–5, but overall refer to:

Automation: A.I., bots, Machine Learning, driverless cars, internet of things, robotics. Augmentation: VR, AR, mixed reality, tele-work & play, exo-skeletons, bio-tech, genome-editing, implants. Expansion: low-cost renewable energy, reduction of Earth-limits, Space mining and factories, off-earth living.

Many across the globe are of course aware of these developments and their effects and symptoms, but are not putting all the pieces together in an ‘Overview Effect’ -enough of a way that could allows us to think beyond today to plan for a successful future where soon many humans may be seeing Earth not just from near-space, but from Mars and beyond.

QUESTION: If we were mission control and could build an organisation to lead the next phase of work and education into a thriving future, what would it look like? is designed to answer just this question. Look out for more articles laying out the what, how and why in coming weeks.