What is it to be human? : Digital tools may provide a series of answers

What is it to be human? Fundamental questions such as these are both simple and complex because it is asking for the fundamental answer for an abstract concept. For many, this question conjures up the role of DNA and the millions of years of evolution that make us who we are today, or conversely the role of our environment and culture that shape us as one node of billions of nodes. To professionals who are involved with these debates, both evolution and environment interplay with one another to define what it is to be human.

A recent article from the London Guardian highlighted an exhibition called Superhuman, an exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection which explores devices that humans have created to enhance what we do not like about ourselves as well as enhancing things that we do. This includes external tools that interface with our body like running shoes to enhance our physical attributes. While physical objects that interact with our bodies are important as tools to control our physical interactions, what may be more important are the cognitive tools that are interacting with our minds to control our interactions with people and environments.

On the other side is the work of Professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading that in 1998 implanted a silicon chip transponder in his forearm using a unique identifying signal emitted by the implanted chip. He could operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. He went on with a more sophisticated experiment in 2002 implanting a one hundred electrode array was surgically implanted into the median nerve fibers of his left arm to control an electric wheelchair and an intelligent artificial hand using the neural interface.

If we bring it back to a less evasive, but just as revolutionary transformation is the rapid reliance on digital technologies and the interplay between what Gordon Bell in his book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, proposed a basic premise : What if you could remember everything? He elaborates how his lifelong exploration of remembering the past through the digital documentation of his life created a journey of discovery of what it is to be human. the organic knowledge that is stored in our brains and the use of machine knowledge to store data for later use to augment our organic knowledge that create greater value for decision making. Vernor Vinge in his seminal paper from 1993 called The Coming Technological Singularity:  How to Survive in the Post-Human Era described a middle ground, or an in-between state between the now and the singularity. He called this period intelligence amplification where . . . every time our ability to access  information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence.

We are now benefitting from this intelligence amplification as more and more of our lives are digitally documented and the ability to search, sort and use vast content inventories based on real human experience for everyday tactical needs. We experience this everyday as we interact with our smart phones feeding many databases, either intentionally like Facebook, on unintentionally like using our credit cards and the electronic trails they leave for systems to sort and send back information and offers to us. While intelligence amplification can help jog our past memories with digital connections that documented our interactions with people and places, it can also augment our memory by providing information that we do not know, but builds on what we do know.

From a user experience standpoint, an increasingly digital and mobile environment will affect how we accept new human behaviors and skills that redefine both human behavior and human performance. Our ability to have access to more and more content through the cloud, to have access to all of our social networks experiences through on-demand digital tools that help us access, sort and prioritize our decisions will create a new type of human intelligence. Geolocation and increasing use of sensor technologies further create an environment that presents content that then affects our individual user experience with a situation.

This means that the current emphasis on a fifty year old model of accessing content through browser or software windows, tree-structures, buttons, icons, and using our finger or mice to point to objects and pressing them are becoming substandard forms of interaction. The rise of more sophisticated types of linguistic and visual search, visual recognition technologies, biometrics and gestures are becoming new ways to interact with digital environments. These new UX metaphors are still too new to understand their longer-term ramifications of how we interact with digital systems. However, through gaming and entertainment platforms, these new ways to interact with past and present experiences, and both official and user generated content will create a new intuitive US landscapes to ride the flood of data that will need to be managed in a way that is both meaningful and performance driven.


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5 years ago