The Fourth Industrial Revolution in which we find ourselves has been characterised by the rise of ubiquitous data, artificial intelligence and wide-scale automation. The innovations that are emerging are seeing the line between robot and human blur and encouraging human dependence on technology more than ever. Building on the digital revolution, this fourth phase of industrialisation has seen mobile internet, the proliferation of smaller and more powerful sensors, nanotechnology and learning algorithms bring the physical and digital worlds together.
The Quantified Self movement epitomises this, referring to the movement of people monitoring and tracking themselves through biotechnology. Rather than being limited to the interests of athletes and health specialists, gadgets like the Fitbit are increasingly being used by people measuring their biometrics. Individuals are able to use a gadget which acts as an extension of the self, enabling the constant monitoring of heart rate, steps and REM cycles. Users almost compete with themselves as they hit their daily 10 000 steps and 8 hours of sleep. Quantifying these various aspects of the human body and allowing people access to their own data means that health and optimal performance is in the hands of the everyday individual… or rather, on the wrist.
It is a prime example of the changing role of technology, with individuals centring their habits and behaviours on the data that their technology is providing them, or the instructions their technology is giving them. Where once technology was a servant, its relationship with the human now is much more interconnected. As it is being worn as an extension of the body, this changing relationship is even more obvious.
Augmented reality has been up and coming for years, but recent developments are granting it a similar role to gadgets like the Fitbit in its relationship to people. We have heard about the use of augmented reality during COVID as individuals were equipped to do hands-on work in remote locations, across industries such as medicine and engineering. Some online shopping stores are now also using the technology to allow the customer to visualise themselves better in the size, fit and style of certain clothing. Developments at Facebook are looking to empower the use of augmented reality for the individual in everyday life.
Both Facebook and Apple have announced they are working on AR glasses. Facebook stated that theirs will be used together with wristbands designed to sense hand and finger movements, allowing for better engagement with the augmented world. Glasses with technological abilities are already in existence from companies like Snap Inc selling sunglasses with camera functions.
Where people once engaged with the virtual world through an external screen, developments like this bring the virtual world right to our eyes, and signal the emergence of a level of technological involvement never seen before. Similar to the Fitbit, AR glasses bring human and technology into the same space, as technology can be used as an extension of the body and modify the individual’s perception of reality.
Realistically speaking, these technologies are similar to that of the smartphone, which already grants the individual capacities and information through instant accessible internet and data. However, while each of these appear quite tame, there is technology coming that will act not only as an extension of the human body but as a part of the human.
Scientists recently were successful in wirelessly connecting a human brain to a computer using innovative technology from BrainGate. Brain signals are detected by a small transmitter on the motor cortex, allowing a computer to receive these signals and act accordingly. Typing speeds, movements and actions on the computer were all done remotely with neurons and brain signals as the commanders and a transmitter receiving messages as quickly as a hand could. Participants who were paralysed from the neck down were able to operate computers free of any physically connecting devices.
Similarly, at the American Chemical Society Fall 2020 expo, scientists presented a bio-synthetic material that they had discovered that could be the crucial tool in uniting the human brain with artificial intelligence. A polymer referred to as Pedot is already used in electronic displays, but these scientists discovered that it had the correct properties to be connected to human brain without creating scarring or disrupting the flow of signals. It can also be used to sense disorders in the body and attach other kinds of materials to the brain.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink is already close to completing a product that will connect the human brain to a computer. The future of products like this include capacities like full access to data and the direct streaming of music to the human brain.
This is perhaps where our fears of being overtaken by robots appear closer to reality than ever. This would mean not only being externally monitored by technology, but having it become part of our own body and essentially becoming walking technology or as the scientists referred to it, ‘cyborgs’ – part human, part robot.
While technological innovation will continue to progress as long as there is progress to be made, innovations like this mark a new era in the capacities and powers of technology. It remains to be seen whether these will be used as a force for good, as much of the Quantified Self movement has been, or for something else. While our science fiction books and films about robots present such innovation as dystopian and dangerous, our society’s pursuit of it continues and it remains almost impossible to predict how people will react.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Morris, B 2021, ‘How Fitbit, Whoop and Other Gadgets Are Measuring Brain Activity, Glucose and Sleep’, Wall Street Journal, 12 April.
 Needleman, S E. & Horwitz, J 2021, ‘Facebook, Apple and Niantic Bet People Are Ready for Augmented-Reality Glasses’, Wall Street Journal, 6 April.
 Cuthbertson, A 2021, ‘Scientists connect human brain to computer wirelessly for first time ever’, The Independent, 2 April.
 Cuthbertson, A 2020, ‘Groundbreaking new material ‘could allow artificial intelligence to merge with the human brain’’, The Independent, 17 August.