It’s so very seductive. Although I brace myself and keep moving, I’m caught in the beam—it’s watching me, calling me. I don’t know how to resist; I don’t know if I want to resist. It mirrors my smile. Then it’s too late—I lose myself in its promise of a better life, a longer life, a more powerful and fortunate life than I’ve ever dreamed of.
Has technology ever been this captivating? Has it ever known me so well? The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the Las Vegas Convention Center was brimming with devices that want my body and maybe even my soul. Natural user interface—and all it implies—was at the throbbing digital heart of the exposition. Every body part, it seems, has a new gadget.
I fit myself with ear buds that adjust to my individual hearing needs, allow 3D video displays to decode the light bouncing off my retina, and suffer a digital microscope to peer down my throat while a group of Taiwanese, dressed in suits, clutch their iPads and take notes. The experience leaves me fascinated by my innards, but embarrassed by their public display: do I really want others to view the intimate curves in my epiglottis?
At the next booth, my body temperature is in demand. I learn that my powerful body heat can trigger the thermostats in the houses of tomorrow—my very presence can kick on the furnace or the air conditioning. Another booth seeks my body weight: I mount one of the new generation of fitness scales which calculates my body fat and caloric needs, and promises to spy on me via my smart phone to keep me on track. Don’t eat that chocolate-chip ice cream! Further on, Leonardo wants to put a bird in my hand instead of a mouse so that I can gesture with a precision comparable to keystrokes.
But it’s my face that is in real demand. Like many tech companies at CES, Samsung has invested heavily in facial recognition software. That way, its TV can load the program I want to see as soon as I walk into the room. That’s power—but I’m not sure whose. Haier goes one step further: it just needs my brain to control the TV set… well, sorta. The clunky headgear, complete with an ear-lobe pincher, really didn’t work properly. But it’s only a matter of time.
For the stalwarts who made the 15-mile trek through the cutting-edge tech exposition at the Las Vegas Convention Center, there is no doubt—our collective transition into the post-human world is continuing apace. As futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted, we are approaching the Singularity, the point at which the carbon-based life forms that hold sway on the planet will yield to the cyborgs of tomorrow. When part biological, part synthetic beings become mainstream, concepts such as “evolution” will quaintly evoke the first 4.5 million years on the planet.
But exactly how humanity will cross the threshold into the Singularity—and how the Singularity will play out—is subject to debate among the cognoscenti and, eventually, the public. One thing appears certain: if I live long enough, I’ll be more machine than human.
Microsoft’s faux-couture display seemed to epitomize the accelerating trend. Next to a dining room table touchscreen stood a shapely mannequin in a strapless ball gown outfitted with sensors stitched into the fabric like strange, over-sized sequins. As a concept piece, it made the point that our clothes are becoming smart—but that’s just an opener. Microsoft also owns the rights to Skinput, a technology that uses vibrations on the skin to turn, say, my arm into a keyboard.
Following the Siren’s song down the robotics aisle, I wonder about the intrinsic value of being human as I stare into the face of a digital pet seal. Maybe because as a scholar and a writer I’m committed, appropriately, to the Humanities, I believe that the value of human beings is much more than the ability to reason—it’s the ability to Feel, writ large. Reasoning without feeling is considered a pathology. Creativity without feeling is uninspired. Intimacy without feeling is lifeless.
At Innvo Labs, I hold a baby dinosaur in my arms who snuggles and coos like a human infant. And even though I feel awkward clutching an expensive robotic toy to my chest—much less one modeled on an Apatosaurus—I don’t want to put it down either. Its skin amazes me, and its wiggles, and all those cute baby noises it makes.
For a second, it almost fooled me.
Photo of butterfly wing captured on-site at CES by Leovic Mercado of Big C-Dino Lite Microscopes