Eavesdropping Media

The Cyborgs Are Among Us

Technology that merges the human body with digital devices has been a long-time coming – pace-makers have been widely available since the 80s. But in the last few years, we have seen an explosion of applications of technical integration into the body. The speed of these developments is breathtaking. And unlike the previously closed electronic implants, we are now seeing artificial prosthetic limbs equipped with electronic systems able to recognize and respond to neural impulses being connected directly to the brain, muscles, and neurons of amputees.

This means that the amputee’s brain eventually creates specific neural paths to control the new pieces of technology. These devices are literally influencing the make-up of the human brain.

Thought-controlled prosthetics

mind-prosthetic-7Last fall, it was announced that Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden had developed a thought-controlled prosthetic arm. This robotic limb taps into the user’s nerves and muscles through implanted sensors. This allows the amputee to really have full control of the arm.

In December, a woman paralyzed from the neck down, working with doctors from University of Pittsburg, learned to feed herself with the help of a robotic arm hooked up directly to her brain. She did not have to think about how exactly one uses an arm, but rather had a more general thought like “pick up that piece of fruit” and “move there” and the machine-brain interface that researchers had developed would translate this into actions that that the robotic arm would understand. You can watch a report about it below:

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland just recently developed of a prototype prosthetic hand that is controlled by the brain of the user. This prototype also provides sensory feedback from the fingers, palm, and wrists, so the user does not just control the limb, but can feel what it touches.

Why stop there?

On some level, this is all incredible. You give people who have lost a limb a fully functional replacement. And it doesn’t stop with limbs; researchers have already created integrated replacement eyes for the blind and cochlear implants for the deaf. These are also connected up directly to the brain. These are truly great human achievements and no doubt will make the lives of many people much better.

But why stop at replacing a body part when you could potentially upgrade it. Many of the experimental prosthetics arms are already designed with the ability to spin 360 degrees, bend backwards, stretch longer than biological human arms can. The prosthetic eyes we have developed can already see infrared light.

And why wouldn’t we make our replacement body parts stronger? More nimble? More sensitive than our original biological parts.

I suppose all the senses could be augmented. We could enhance our noses to specific and previously undetectable molecules, our ears to hear previously imperceptible frequencies, our eyes to see through things or truly see in the dark. It almost seems like some of us will soon have superpowers.

AUGMENTED_BODYAnd what about human intelligence? Imagine the benefit of actually being able to access vast stores of information without using your phone or laptop. Imagine you just needed to think of the topic and you could get all the relevant info. Or all mathematical computation could be accomplished as fast a computer. And what about connecting our brains with others. They have recently connected 2 mouse brains and had them perform tasks. I can imagine this will be possible eventually for humans as well. Imagine what collaboration would look like through connected brains.

The potential for all this is huge. And a lot of research is already going on in all of these directions.

Who will drive this?

We can imagine the possibilities all we want, but usually the development of tech or research is determined by the combined interests of various stakeholders.

While the original motivation for integrating tech and the body is primarily medical, medical motivation ends at the point that an individual is relieved of pain or disadvantage due to a medical condition. Medical research funding alone won’t push humans to create augmented limbs.

What groups of stakeholders will determine the direction in which we alter ourselves is still to be determined. However, I think it is safe to assume 2 groups – the military and the consumer tech sector – will be involved.

bionicmanI think it is pretty easy to see how the military could potentially see some benefit in augmented body parts. The iron man suit is already out there, but what about the bionic soldier.

The private sector could also get on board in many ways. Why stop at Google glass? Why not implant the tech right in your brain.

In theory, governmental laws and regulations within the medical profession are supposed to address these issues. Speaking with a contact of mine at the European Patent Office, I understood that there are a number of guidelines that patent applicants must adhere to. Inventions in the field of electronic prosthetics must have truly medical purposes to be awarded a patent, at least in europe.

However, as many of us realize, the military or private commercial entities often fund research in these possibly beneficial areas despite any ethical concerns or potential long term impacts on the health of society.

For now governmental laws and regulations within the medical professsion will probably only delay this. And it seems inevitable that we will see these technologies on the market in the future.

To alter ourselves: the possible implications

And then I guess the question becomes, what is the impact of all this?

I wish we had more time to think about all of this. We still don’t understand what we are actually signing up for when we start letting tech into our bodies. The development of these technologies is often coming from the field of medicine and has at its core genuinely positive intention, allowing paraplegics to walk again, to help people with shut-in syndrome to communicate, allowing the blind to see.

But as these technologies then move into the commercial realm, I worry that the associated intentions start to become fuzzier. The more integrated the technology is with our brains, the more chance that we start change the definition of what it means to be human and how we would relate to one another. And due to the likelyhood that these technologies won’t come cheap it could create huge rifs between the rich and the poor.

Or what about the security of these devices. Could they be hacked as suggested in this older post?

And who knows, this might all be for the best.

But I just don’t believe that we know enough about our own nature and the systems that govern us to guarantee this.

Either way, it looks like the cyborg age really is upon us. Let’s just try our best not to become Borg, cool?

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Superheroine Influence pt.2

To continue on the theme of the earlier post about my favorite female superheroes, here are a few more superheroines I have loved over the years.

Sailor Moon

“I am Sailor Moon, champion of justice! On behalf of the moon, I will right wrongs and triumph over evil, and that means you!”

1983357-sailor20moon_superSailor Moon, the Japanese Anime tv show based on a manga, aired in North America in the mid nineties. The story centers around a character named Serena, who lives a superficial but relatively normal life until the day she meets a talking cat named Luna who tells her she has a sacred duty as defender of the moon crystal to fight evil as Sailor Moon. Unlike Jem or She-ra (as highlighted in my previous post), Sailor Moon is the reluctant heroine, who does not initially want to take the responsibility thrust upon her by her destiny. Of course, like pretty much all superheros, she eventually warms up to it.

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Queen Beryl of the Negaverse

Every episode Sailor Moon, with the help of the other Sailor Scouts and their cat guides Luna, Artemis, and Diana, defeats the bad guys from the Negaverse. While the female empowerment aspect of the show is sometimes flawed – Serena is constantly obsessing over her crush Darian and more than once his superhero alter ego Tuxedo Mask must comes to the rescue all the sailor scouts by throwing a single rose at the bad guy (!?) – the show remains at its root the story of a diverse group of girls fighting together for the greater good.

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Sailor Scouts

It again provided an example of a female superhero surrounded by powerful allies, a theme that still resonates with me today. And I recently learned that Sailor Moon actually comes from a long line of magical-girl anime from Japan. An earlier form of this is Princess Knight (1953).

While the show is full of awkward dubbing and at times confused plot lines, the campiness and the ridiculous character names make it incredibly charming. What’s more, the original manga is actually quite expansive and has some cool canonical elements that gives these stories an edge. So basically, I liked Sailor Moon a lot!

sailor moon wandIn fact, I liked it so much that at 14 I dressed up as Sailor moon for halloween. I made a costume by hand, glueing star and moon shapes on a piece of cardboard to make her broach. I even borrowed my 8 year old sister’s official plastic toy Sailor Moon Crescent Moon Wand (tripling my dork factor!). In full sailor gear, I walked around a Montreal neighborhood, trick-or-treating while sometimes breaking out the Sailor Moon catchphrase “I will right wrongs and triumph over evil, and that means you!“. Awesome!

Xena Warrior Princess

“In a time of ancient Gods, Warlords, and Kings, A land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world.”

XEna

As a pre-teen, I loved reading stories of ancient mythology and greek history. So the first time I saw Xena, I was psyched. I thought I had found a historic tv show with a tough female lead. But as anyone who has seen the show knows, Xena is to history what McDonalds is to health food. It is a ridiculous mash-up of historic characters and mythological ones, real events and pure fiction. The show defies all logic, and sometimes the rules of storytelling, for the sake of silly episodic television. It absolutely throws historic accuracy out the window. Throughout the 6 seasons on the air, Xena (played by Lucy Lawless) encounters Hercules, the Amazons, Boewulf, King Jason, the Greek gods Aphrodite & Ares, the Norse gods Loki & Thor, and Julius Ceasar. Its really just silly.

But Xena was not made to educate, it was made to entertain. Which is clear by the trashy attention-getting tactics the shows creators employed week to week: beautiful women with very little clothing, cartoon-like action scenes, buff guys in leather pants, slapstick humor, stereotypical characters, simplistic story lines with simplistic conflict resolution and, far too often, rubber chicken-style sound effects. And yet it became a cult classic.

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Gabrielle and Xena (and Argo)

Part of this success was due to the lesbian subtext between Xena and Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). While not explicitly stated (but so very often hinted at), Xena and Gabrielle were lovers. They were also best friends who together travelled around ancient greece helping the helpless and righting wrongs. This was one of the first times in tv history that a show depicted this type of love between women and as a result attracted a huge cult following.

But I think the attraction to these characters was also due in large part to the independence and freedom they exhibited. The story follows Xena and Gabrielle as they roam through the villages of ancient greece. During the day, they help people solve problems or fight the gods, by night they make camp where they are and sleep on the ground in the woods. They don’t follow the traditional roles assigned to women (neither historic nor contemporary) and have no one to impress but each other.

xena_landscapeThe fact that the entire show was shot in New Zealand also helped to give the show some absolutely breathtaking backgrounds.

For me, the show was appealing because it offered a live-action heroine with godlike superpowers. Xena is striking and tough, confident and powerful. And she gets to throw a cool disc weapon thing around and do full 360 fighting flips at least once an episode. Oh and don’t forget her battle cry “Ayiyiyiyiyiyi”.

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Xena and Callisto

Xena Warrior Princess is different from the previously mentioned superheros in that she is a reformed hero. Xena begins her story as a violent warlord, pillaging and hurting innocent bystanders in her way. At the beginning of the show, with the help of Gabrielle, she reforms and decides to change her ways. She fights the good fight for the remainder of the show, but always is haunted by her guilty past. The character of Calisto is this guilt embodied (Xena killed Calisto’s family in a raid during her warlord days) and their rivalry is one of the most exciting in the show.

While the show made good use of T&A and wouldn’t really be considered 100% empowering to women, there is something refreshing about the confidence Xena instills in the audience. Plus 90s tv is so wholesome when you compare it to contemporary gore/porn fests like Sparticus:Blood and Sand (which coincidentally also stars Lucy Lawless) or Game of Thrones.

Xena is another powerful female leader, but unlike the previous 3 examples, she has the qualities of a real-life leader. She is not a victim of fate nor was she simply granted her authority. She is a woman who has claimed her own power, one who tries to use it responsibly and understands the impact her actions will have on the people she cares about. Lucy Lawless’ stature and the way she plays this character with such directness and toughness, brought Xena to life and made her seem almost plausible. This image still inspires me today.

Next up: The best female superhero ever, the one that I still adore today: Buffy. And some other contemporary greats. 

Resolutions, then and now.

Last year, I wrote out my New Year’s Resolutions on this very blog. Here is a quote from that post:

“I would like to accomplish 3 concrete things: program an app, develop a project around a webseries, co-create a food & photo project.”

So with 2012 now firmly behind us, how did I do?

1. “co-create a food & photo project” Well my partner and I started and have been consistently updating a food/photography blog. We have had a few recipes picked up by a few bigger blogs, and have a solid following. Food Photo Project: check.

2. “develop a project around webseries”. As mentioned in the previous post, I made that webseries. 8 Episodes and a cast of 7. Blog, website, twitter, fb page, vimeo and youtube channels. A true labor of love. It was a great experience, and I got the chance to work with some interesting people. Webseries: done.

3. “program an app” Okay, this one is a little more tricky. I began the year by attending coding workshops and searching for a technical partner to develop said app. But it did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. After a few frustrating months, I decided to focus my attention more onto producing the webseries. However, this fall I got the chance to build an interactive video website for a documentary. I got a team together and we are set to be finished at the end of january. I almost made it to completing this resolution, so lets give me a partial score. Program an app: 70% ;)

Bonus points: I crowdfunded the webseries successfully and raised 5 grand!

This year, I did pretty well. While I didn’t get everything I had wanted done in time (damn app), working toward these goals was fun. I guess they also helped me to figured out just a little bit more clearly where I want to go next.

Newyearspic

So what does 2013 hold?

Despite what the picture above suggests, my resolutions do not consist of “tasty cocktails”, “gingerbeer” or “beef pie”!

Rather in 2013, I want to again set out 3 clear goals to work towards. I would like to finally establish a company around the work I have been doing over the last year. I would like to update and expand on the food blog, possibly including some video work. And to add a new challenge to the mix, I would like to play music on a stage in front of a small audience and record one original song.

Time to get cracking…

Last year’s year: 2012

So it being Jan. 4th, I figured I should weigh in on last year’s happenings asap. Especially since this will all soon become irrelevant as we move on to the next big thing: 2013 and the upcoming [insert ancient culture here] apocalypse.

Here is what mattered in 2012:

3d printed bunny

3D Printers officially enter the home. Makerbot is showcased at CES 2012 and tons of “Make your own 3D Printer” kits flood Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Obviously, we are still a ways away from the replicator I envision. But what we can already see, that this tech is going to be crazy disruptive. Why buy some crappy little plastic bunny made in china when you can print one in your own home?

Webseries explosion. Every one and their dog made a webseries this year. Hell, I made one too! And despite the deluge of series, I was able to find a bunch that I totally feel in love with. You can see the initial list here. I would add The Bar Series and The Slope to my list of favs.

HTML5 is cool. I guess this isn’t a specifically 2012 phenomenon. Its a language that has been in development for ages, and has been out there for a least a couple of years. However this year, many browsers updated to support html5 elements, and we really started to get to see the potential of the language. It is set to be completed by 2014, so the next few years we should be seeing more and more of these pages. My favorite examples are Agent 8 BallJess & Russ wedding proposalAngry Birds Space site and Cloudsovercuba.com

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Joss Whedon sells out, but I don’t care. The Avengers was the first 3D movie I ever saw. I realize I was a little slow checking out the whole 3d movie thing, but I was simply waiting for something worthwhile to come along. Well Joss, you made something worthwhile. Sure its got all the trappings of a bloated superhero blockbuster. But it melds entertainment with intelligence, which is no small feat. Plus the Black Widow kicked ass. See my full post about it!

Crowdfunding takes it up a notch. The passing of the JOBS act in America in April encouraged the launch of hundreds of new crowdfunding/crowd-investment platforms, and thousands of crowdfunding campaigns. While not all countries have been so fast to address the changing fundraising and investment landscape provided by crowdfunding sites, the JOBS act has at least made the whole world take notice. This year everyone tried crowdfunding, including me, to varying degrees of success. While it has its critics, it is an interesting experiment all the same. Looking forward to watching this space!

Syria experiences a civil disaster. Assad becomes a murderous leader bent on killing his own people in the most terrifying ways possible. Current estimates place the death toll above 60000 people killed. I guess that he feels his own life is on the line and so he will throw anything he’s got to stay in power, but his actions have fortified his status as a thoroughly “Bad Guy” and has made his redemption in world political circles quite impossible. Assad’s future looks dim. But the damage he does to syria as power is pulled from him is unforgivable.

Obama is back (and the worst of the crazy anti-women, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-immigrant far right Republican candidates were officially given a thumbs down by the majority of the American people). I am happy to say that our American cousins have not gone completely off the reservation. Well not just yet…

oilsandsCanada’s Environmental record goes from bad to worse. Harper must go! So early in the year when the Americans balked at the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, Canada turned around and immediately offered the Canadian oil sands – one of the dirtiest of dirty oil – to China, together with a deal they could hardly refuse. It entitled a foreign country to plunder canadian resources, destroy the surrounding nature, and if canada’s environmental laws or regulation interrupts the activities of these Chinese interests, they would have the right to sue Canada. Seems like a good deal for canadians’ no? Oh and Harper’s muzzling of government scientists, preventing them from speaking to any press about their findings regarding climate change, was all over the international news this year. Well that is just the icing on evil cake, wouldn’t you say?

Facebook stock = epic fail. The hype leading up to FBs IPO only added to the glorious shadenfreude we all felt when the stock plummeted after being released. Big name investors opting out early in the game, including Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and board member, made the stock look even weaker. Even Zuckerberg admits he is disappointed. According to some estimates, it should actually go as low as 8 bucks. Do we feel bad? Absolutely not! Facebook has made a business mining its users’ personal data. Let it burn!

instagram-logo-promo_610x458Instabillion: Facebook buys instagram for a billion. While this is every tech geeks fantasy, it is kinda scary how fast and how big that deal came to be. And there is something terribly sad about the fact that all those photos you took of your favorite meals, your kids first steps, your trip to Spain or your friends’ wedding are now legally under their new and improved Facebook-inspired “Privacy Agreement”, which is subject to change and will inevitably mean that one day the company will completely own your content. Its coming folks, don’t kid yourself. Google is basically cut from the same cloth, so watch your data folks and find alternatives now!!

Obviously the world is bigger than these 10 stories. Other major stories of the year: apocalypses that didn’t happen, Pinterest explosion, Egyptian election, Hurricane Sandy, Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Greek debt crisis intensifying, Psy breaking records (why oh why??), Justin Bieber not disappearing (again why oh why??), something about olympics (yawn), SOPA protests, record meltdown of arctic ice.

Say what you will, we definitely live in interesting times.