Adam Ozimek reminded me of his old post on brain-computer interfaces, in which he argues that in the future virtually everyone will have one. Adam reasons that such interfaces will augment our intellectual capabilities so much that only a few extreme luddites will turn them down. If I were in a different mood, I would probably agree with him; it is a good post. However, I’m not in that mood (go ahead, psychoanalyze me), so I will make the opposing argument.
It is a basic trope of science fiction that as human technology advances, humans will begin to meld with their machines. Maybe we won’t be RoboCop exactly, but we’ll have significant physical modification to extend our capabilities. Transhumanists say that at some point in the not-too-distant future we might even be posthuman.
I’m not a luddite; I am a relative optimist, for instance, about radical life extension, and I am certain that brain-computer interfaces will be widely used to help the disabled, if we don’t have the technology to fix their disabilities directly. But when I think about a world of increasing wealth, I don’t think of one where everyone is part computer. I basically think about vacations. What do I like to do when I’m on vacation? I like to eat good food, see and try new things, lay in the sun, be creative, have good conversations with friends, have plenty of sex, read books, and generally unwind.
What do these things have in common? With the exception of reading books, which to me is an awful lot like conversation, they are all things our distant ancestors enjoyed as well. Is this so surprising? We are all paleolithic animals; 12,000 years ago our ancestors invented farming, but humans have barely evolved since then. Human evolution is happening at a rapid rate, but 12,000 years just isn’t very long in evolutionary time.
Jared Diamond has famously argued that farming was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” There is good evidence from modern forager societies that our forager ancestors had much more time to engage in these primal vacation activities than our early farmer ancestors did. As much as we want to be productive and get wealthy, and maybe this is me projecting a little, we also want to use our wealth to be more paleolithic in a sense. We don’t want to totally revert to a forager lifestyle—which we could do! Rather, we want to take the advantages of modern civilization, technologies that make us healthier, more productive, and more comfortable, and combine them with the things that make us feel more primally human.
What do I not like to do when I am on vacation? Near the top of my list, at least if I am doing it right, is “be notified that I have email.” This is why I am skeptical of widespread adoption of permanent brain-computer interfaces with augmented reality capabilities. As we get wealthier, we will accept fewer interruptions in our lives. It’s also part of why I think Google’s Project Glass will be a failure.
The kinds of technologies that will make the biggest difference in our lives in the future will be the ones we don’t notice directly. Energy breakthroughs will be important, as will advances in materials science. As I wrote above, I am somewhat bullish on curing aging, but we won’t think about how we feel 25 unless we stop and reflect on it; we’ll just keep living and feel great. Many current technologies will evolve in more ambient directions. Our houses will just know what temperature they should be; the user interface will gradually disappear and the technology will get out of the way.
The bottom line is that a simple heuristic to think about technology in a wealthier world is just to ask, “would I want to use this if I were on a great vacation?” I don’t think that the kind of direct-to-brain augmented reality technology that Adam envisions passes that test.