Transhumanist Design at CHI 2015

Introduction

This is a short article about two interesting technologies presented at CHI 2015 in Seoul Korea which I think exemplify transhumanist design principles. While transhumanism is commonly known as philosophical idea, social movement, and most recently a political movement, it can also rightly be viewed as a strategy for design, which is to say, transhumanism is a way of thinking about design and designing things.

What sets transhumanist design apart from previous ideas about design is first the requirement that we are designing something that is intended to enhance and extend life. But also, inherent in the transhumanist approach to design is the notion that the user themselves can be designed. While user centered design and mainstream industrial design focus around the design and creation of useful objects, transhumanist designers consider the design of systems which augment, manipulate or even deeply alter the functions of the users themselves. In general we consider both the design of an object or system and the re-design or enhancement of the user and we consider both at once, presuming a man-machine symbiosis.

While the boundary between what constitutes a true alteration of the user versus simply adding yet another “device” like a mobile phone is blurry, I will suggest that transhumanist designs focus on changing the functionality of the human body, sensory systems and mind, and these designs often work within an individual or egocentric frame of reference, and may go so far as to include direct control and permanent alteration of the user including direct manipulation of biological function and also behavior.

Conventional design treats the user’s sensory systems as passive receivers while user actions are considered to be unpredictable. However transhumanist design allows us to consider enhancing or extending the human sensory channels as well as deciding what information to present to these extended senses.

Consider the recently announced Apple Watch which is a very standard mainstream design approach and compare it to the DARPA sponsored effort to develop a “cortical modem”, a device capable of directly reading and writing to the visual cortex. In transhumanist designs, the technologies can take active control over the user themselves not only “reading” but “writing” to their biological systems.

 

Affordance++

Affordance++ is a novel technology and product concept which has recently been developed by user interaction researcher and designer Pedro Lopes (plopes.org) that nicely demonstrates the idea of transhumanism as a strategy for design, and Pedro’s paper documenting it won the best paper award at CHI 2015!

In Affordance++ the goal is to create smart interactive objects, items that “extending the affordance of objects by allowing them to communicate dynamic use, such as (1) motion (e.g., spray can shakes when touched), (2) multi-step processes (e.g., spray can sprays only after shaking), and (3) behaviors that change over time (e.g., empty spray can does not allow spraying anymore).”

However, Affordance++ does not work by adding devices, systems, or technologies to the objects but rather by augmenting the user.

Lopes explains on his site, “Conceptually there are many ways of implementing affordance++, generally by applying sensors and actuators to the user’s body, such as the arm.” In his award winning paper, he chooses one particular implementation which is to actuate users by “controlling their arm poses using electrical muscle stimulation”. That is, users wear a device on their arm that controls the user’s muscles electronically, turning them into an electronically controllable puppet or marionette. Another approach might be the use of an exoskeleton or similar device.

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The Affordance++ device can be used to implement smart objects that show the user how to use them, notify the user of unsafe or improper uses, and allow the use of unusual and novel objects without any training.

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Cyclops

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Cyclops is a single-piece wearable device that sees its user’s body postures through an ego-centric view of the user that is obtained through a fisheye lens at the center of the user’s body.

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While wearing the Cyclops device the users body posture and gestures are recorded via the fisheye lens. For example the Cyclops can count sit ups for you.

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The limitations of Cyclops arise from the fisheye lens distortion and limited field-of-view. Cyclops fails when it cannot “see” the motion of the body, such as in baseball pitching. This problem, however, can be solved by using another Cyclops that is worn on the back of the user. In general, we can imagine users wearing multiple cameras and this data might also be integrated with measurements from other sensors such as EMG.

 

Perform Skills Without Learning Them or Learn By Doing

Imagine adding an augmented or virtual reality display to the mix. You now have a system where the user can perform skills they don’t know how to do themselves, such as boxing or martial arts, repairing complex devices, and so on, with their movements being guided or controlled by Affordance++.

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While active control over the user’s muscles does enable them to perform a skill without knowing how to do it themselves, it also enables “learning by doing” where a physical skill could be learned very rapidly by literally repeating the motions. This is after all the exact reason for the extensive practice of specific movements and skills required to learn things like martial arts or dancing.

One can also imagine this device as a very useful sort of enhancement for someone suffering from any progressively worsening disease that limited their ability to move or perform skilled actions.

 

Designing Out Pain

Transhumanist design not only suggests some specific approaches to solving problems, it also presents some ideas about what types of problems are important to solve. Specifically we seek to develop systems and designs that enhance and extend human life. A more careful definition and explanation is however beyond the scope of this short article.

As an example, consider the human phenomenon of pain. Pain is an unpleasant fact of life we are told. But what is it for? Nominally pain is a signal that something is wrong or that the body has been damaged. However we often receive minor yet quite painful injuries which have no real bearing on survival or fitness, for example picking up a cup of too hot coffee or the notorious papercut. But note also that pain is a signal about an event in the past. It doesn’t help you avoid the burn or papercut.

We can imagine a system that observes and knows the user’s body position as well as having various knowledge about the environment. Using Affordance++, the user can receive a warning and avoid injury. In using novel or unfamiliar tools, this could avoid many new user injuries. In cases where grievous injury or death is possible, for example operating dangerous heavy machines, such a system could save your life by literally preventing you from being stupid. Beyond this, such a system could enhance the safety of human robot cooperation and co-working environments.

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Risks

It goes without saying that a technology which allows a machine to control a human could have risks. Ramez Naam in his excellent book Nexus outlined the potential as a sort of nanotechnological drug called DWITY for “do what I tell you”. The television program Dollhouse also covered this idea. In short, one can imagine using this sort of technology to take control over another person and make them do something that they otherwise wouldn’t want to do. Someone could commit murder or become the ultimate remote control assassin. The device could even prevent the user from taking it off.

While there might also be other more realistic risks such as muscle or ligament damage, this is the one that brings the headlines. But presently this is mostly just hype. Current technologies just give a tactile signal, they can’t really control you like a puppet, and you could just rip the device off.

 

Want to know more?

Read more about Affordance++ prototype and details about the user study findings in the CHI 2015 paper (ACM Digital Library, or here).

You can find the source here. Affordance++ uses a web editor developed by Patrik Jonell that allows you to record gestures by drawing the amplitude curves for the EMS machine, calibrate different users, etc. This assumes you are running similar hardware as the one prototype which is a custom EMS unit, so you will have to build your own device. Check CHI paper for details.

The CHI 2015 paper on Cyclops can be found here.

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