August 15, 2003

The Future Ain't, Part 2

The second segment of my old ramblings. The prose is kind of overwrought, but IANAW so what do you expect?

Extending the Senses
gb 9/27/94

What is the relationship between perception and reality? The human sensory spectrum is rich; the phenomena of the world’s workings are yet richer. If life is complex and multi-textured as experienced through the five senses, what exists beyond the boundaries? The electromagnetic spectrum is mostly beyond our ken. The realms of the extremely small and the extremely large are out of reach. Our perspective of time is a point in the present; our lifetimes are too short to absorb the vastness of the universe. Even the complexity of our own bodies is perceived only in the vaguest of terms. Technology may be seen as a means to extend human perception, opening us to a more complete understanding of ourselves and the context of our surroundings.

We humans create tools to help us transcend the limits of our senses, but the telescopes and oscilloscopes and other-scopes, the models and abstractions and mathematical constructs and the associated paraphernalia of computation and measurement and discovery, all are the province of the very few, the trained specialists. As the tools become digital and succumb to the inexorable logic of integration and connectedness, this will change. From the laboratory, the hospital ward and the factory floor, the direction is outward: to the office building, the vineyard, the living room, the wrist.

The extension of the senses may occur in many dimensions, motivated by a variety of desires. We may imagine the amplification of existing modalities in fairly linear ways -- greater dynamic range and spectral response in vision, better selectivity and spatial resolution in hearing, finer granularity in the sense of touch, identification of chemical compounds as part of the sense of smell. We may further imagine a lowering of the barriers of time and space, and integration over them -- chronovision and teletouch are not words in our lexicon, but the ability to perceive and understand phenomena at a distance or over periods of time is likely to be broadly useful. The capability to ‘zoom’ in and out in space and time may provide a powerful means of gaining perspective. We may conceive of synesthetic combinations, where the power of human visual processing is brought to bear on auditory, olfactory or tactile phenomena. Finally, we may envision entirely new senses to perceive complex or abstract dimensions, e.g., the behavior of a financial market or a social system.

The objects of extended perception will be natural and human-constructed, in combinations of varying degree. They will include large scale entities such as hydrological systems, communication networks, agricultural lands and disease transmission patterns; also human scale entities such as automobiles, buildings and bodies; likewise small scale entities such as circuits, molecules and viruses. Extended perception of such entities will lead to greater understanding of and control over their structure, their behavior and their impacts on individuals and societies.

The technologies of perception will be distributed. Very small structures based on electronic, optical, micromechanical and biochemical principles will enable webs of interconnected sensors embedded in the fabric of systems. These sensory webs will feed vast streams into interconnected utilities of information, combining with abstract information forms and interpersonal communication in a unified context. In this way, measurements in the physical domain will become a pervasive and inseparable aspect of our knowledge about the world.

The technologies of perception will be personal. Developments in the physical sciences combined with extraordinary resources of computing and communication made commonplace, will enable synthetic sensory ‘display’ appliances that complement and augment the capabilities of the individual. In much the same way that eyeglasses enhance sight, such appliances might be considered to enhance insight by providing views of the world inaccessible to people with their standard-issue senses.

Posted by Gene at August 15, 2003 04:33 PM | TrackBack
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