The Six Million Dollar Man May Be Closer To Reality Than You Think

By PSFK Labs, iQ Content Partner @PSFK February 6, 2014

In The Future of Wearable Tech, iQ by Intel and PSFK Labs explore the evolving form and function of our Internet-connected devices. This series, based on a recent report, looks at the rise of wearable technologies and their impact on consumer lifestyles.

Sure, in the 1970’s he cost 6 million dollars, but we’ve come a long way since Steve Austin sparked mainstream imagination with his bionic eyes, arms and legs. The notion of putting technologies into our bodies is becoming more common today, and in many cases it’s more affordable than ever before.

In fact, last year an English TV production company convinced Swiss psychologist Bertold Meyer to team up with robotocists from around the world to build a completely bionic man for just about $1 million.  For all you inflation calculators out there, that means that the cost of melding man and machine has dropped by more than 97%.

Despite the advent of wearable technologies, the thought of humans becoming part machine remains in the realm of science fiction. But we might be farther along in this process than you’d expect, especially after digging deeper into the concept that many are calling “Augmented Sensory Perception,” where technology is not just biometrically attuned to humans but also embedded in their bodies.

Since the 1980s, Steven Mann, often referred to as the father of wearable computing, has been tinkering with the concept of cyborgs and the idea of “humanistic intelligence.” The theory goes that by including humans in the feedback loop of the computational process, the technology and the individual become inextricably intertwined.  You can see this idea emerging at the fringes of wearable technology, where developers are viewing the limits of human ability as a starting place. This is entry point could lead to devices that extend our own physical capacities.

Sight, long correctable through the use of glasses or contact lenses, is now being fixed by cameras that translate and transmit the visual world to failing eyes via electronic signals. Hearing aids represent technological advancement of the ear trumpets of the 1600’s.

But today, a new wave of wearable technologies like modified eye-glasses are not only correcting vision, they are capturing and applying sound waves directly to the temporal bone and restoring hearing with clarity and convenience well beyond conventional aids.

Biohackers, grinders and transhumanists have long advocated for technology to carry us beyond our “normal” selves to something bionic and post-human.  Their voices (and tinkering) are penetrating mainstream wearable technology as the ability to capture and process vast amounts of data, such as sound frequencies and light waves, can now fit discretely on person’s body.

Stephen Balaban, Co-Founder of Lambda Labs asks, “If you’re going to put a machine in the loop that’s co-processing what you’re seeing, what does the machine do that you can’t do?” The result, he said, is that the technology will add a sixth or seventh sense for people to use.

Cameras can pick up on a range of light far beyond what “normal” people can see, so devices that translate a camera’s input directly to the human CPU give users new access to the electromagnetic spectrum like infrared and ultraviolet light. Implanted magnets represent a next-step in hearing, adding the potential for echolocation (think of bats) to augment failing eyesight at the same time.  And we’ve only just skimming the surface on the potential of bionic arms and legs.

What if the concept of a super-strong exoskeleton merged with technology-embedded clothing could give humans the ability to strengthen and buffer tired or injured muscles?  Such marriage of tech and human function might maintain or even increase performance while speeding the healing process.

This trend in wearable technology represents a full integration of physical with digital and the possibility for side-by-side evolution, one feeding the other.  Once on or inside the body, the potential to leverage devices and their computational power to augment physical abilities starts to make the Six Million Dollar Man look like chump change.


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