Dealing With the Mysterious Sensation of Bodily Reconfiguration

Posted by Patrick Millard | Mon Sep 29th 2008 4:17 p.m.

Dealing With the Mysterious Sensation of Bodily Reconfiguration

Altering the body to withstand environmental conditions, aging, or bodily shortcomings is an understandable step to make. While these changes to the body are indeed a positive step towards an evolutionary improvement, they come with a certain uncanny sensation.

When we think of putting computer chips, GPS locators, or prosthetic organs and body parts into our bodies, we react squeamishly. This is similar to the unsettling feeling when watching open heart or brain surgery; we’re simply not adjusted to closely viewing what the inside of our bodies look like. We also get this feeling from the introduction of foreign materials into the body. Finding it a bit unnerving to be headed into an appointment for the purpose of embedding a device would be a valid response to have, as it is a change from the constant that we have been historically programmed to find comfortable.

The uncanny valley, developed by Masahiro Mori (fig. 7), depicts the moment at which these unnerving feelings and awkward sensations occur. We can make note that the less familiarity we have with the object, the more uncanny it will be to us. Interestingly enough, the graph here shows that we are more familiar with the industrial and humanoid robot than the corpse or zombie figure already, despite having been aware of death and the idea of life after death for centuries. The uncanny valley seems to reach its peak not when we are introduced to the purely mechanic form of moving automata such as the robot or computer-based artificial intelligence, but rather when the technological alteration comes directly in contact with the human body itself. Thus we see the prosthetic hand in the same vicinity as a corpse or a zombie.

As familiarity goes up on such implants and modes of living in the post-human world, this notion of the uncanny and the squeamish reaction that comes from such subject matter then will dissipate into everyday acceptance. It will no longer seem out of place to see individuals walking down the street with telecommunications accessible directly from the limbs. Enhanced muscular ability for athletes to compete at levels steroids could never reach, or Blue Tooth connections being transmitted wirelessly from our very clothing in order to start a car or even communicate with others without using speech.

These possibilities are already in the research and development stages. Researchers in California have developed an artificial muscle that has the ability to heal itself as well as produce electricity. This new muscular technology was recently written about in Discovery News:

The research, parts of which are already being used in Japan to generate electricity from ocean waves, could be used to make walking robots, develop better prosthetics, or even charge your iPod.

“We’ve made an artificial muscle that, when you apply electricity to it, it expands” more than 200 percent, said Qibing Pei, a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and study author. “The motion and energy is a lot like human muscles.”

Artificial muscles have been around for years but have essentially hamstrung themselves. Some artificial muscles get so big they tear, developing uneven film thickness and random particles that cause muscle failure.

The researchers used flexible, ever-more ubiquitous carbon nanotubes as electrodes instead of other films, often metal-based, that fail after repeated use.

If an area of the carbon nanotube fails, the region around it seals itself by becoming non-conductive and prevents the fault from spreading to other areas.

“During long-term tests with the new device the actual material experiences a number of events but still worked,” said Pei.

By “events” Pei actually means they stabbed the artificial muscle with pins. Any other artificial muscle would have failed, but their model kept operating.

The self-healing muscle is also energy efficient.

“It conserves about 70 percent of the energy you put into it,” said Pei.

As the material contracts after an expansion the rearranging of the carbon nanotubes generates a small electric current that can be captured and used to power another expansion or stored in a battery.

Scientists in Japan charge batteries from ocean waves using the same idea. Other scientists have speculated that the artificial muscle could be used to capture wind energy.

“The way he’s put these carbon nanotubes together is really quite innovative,” said Kwang Kim, a material scientist at the University of Reno who was not involved in the research. “Some people want to use this to charge their batteries.”

The research appeared in the January issue of Advanced Materials.

Artists are also working with technology in ways that help predict how these changes will occur. The possibilities for globalized communication, closely knit society, and the breaking down of personal barriers may be the result of wearable media.

Steve Mann is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and has been wearing a computer since the 1970s (fig. 8). Mann’s use of wearables has enabled him to expand his communications, customize his vision for personal use, and develop more interpersonal relationships with media sharing communities. Because Mann has been living with external media attached to his body for so long, and through the continual upgrades he has seen made possible since the 80s, he has been described by many as the world’s first cyborg. In 1998 Mann said of his wearables:

Wearable computing facilitates a new form of human-computer interaction comprising of a small body-worn computer (e.g. user-programmable device) that is always on and always ready and accessible. In this regard, the new computational framework differs from that of handheld devices, laptop computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The ‘always ready’ capability leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer, characterized by long-term adaptation through constancy of user-interface.

One of the new equipment concepts that Mann uses in his interface is the vitrionic contact lens. This technology takes in the field of vision and light through an eyepiece and interprets it via a processor before it is re-projected from the glasses onto the lens of the eye. Light is processed to Mann’s specifications and then resynthesized it as virtual light to be seen by his eye. One key element to the vitrionic lenses is that they provide a depth of field like that of a camera. This allows for the eye to forego focusing in on one specific object in the field of vision. It also allows for someone who wears prescription glasses to be able to wear the vitrionic glasses instead and see just as well.

With the depth of field set so that all information is in focus, the viewer can now add information into their field of vision at the same depth as subject matter in the scene. Options of what information is projected into your vision at this point are limitless. Mann, like ASIMO, also uses a wearable face recognizer, which inserts a virtual name tag, and a video orbit tracker, which allows him to add layers on top of objects in the field of vision or to delete them completely. Mann finds the orbit tracker particularly useful:

…with billboards and other visual detritus that invades our personal space. I refer to this as “real world spam” and it can be deleted from your vision field if you need to make room for other material. If you are driving to your friends house you might see messages on these billboards that become directions on how to get there - customized messages, that only you see.

Or we can have customized messages that a small community sees - shared messages. Like leaving a message for my wife on the front of a shop, saying “I was here, check out this special.” So that message can replace spam.

Mann calls these tactics packet filters, filters that are defined in the user interface and that can be modified by the wearer to fit his or her specific needs and desires.

These images may also be shared with other people via the Internet. For instance, a person at the store picking out a birthday card for his father in-law and unsure of which to choose would be able to share his field of vision via computer with his wife at home. She would then be able to draw a circle around her choice, and this would appear in the man’s vitrionic lenses. The ability to share one’s vision with anyone extends the possibilities for interaction. When asked if this is a form of collective consciousness Mann replied:

Well, from time to time I’ve recognized people I’ve never met before, because somebody on my Web site looking out through my eye sends me a message saying, “Please say hello to this person standing in front of you, who is an old high school buddy of mine.” So this touches on the whole notion of a collective consciousness.

Figure 7: A diagram showing the region coined by Masahiro Mori as the uncanny valley.

Figure 8: Steve Mann has been experimenting for decades with wearables and making them more comfortable for everyday use.

*excerpt from Formatting Gaia: A Comprehensive Outline of the Photographic Work
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