Professor Steve Mann photographed wearing the EyeTap digital eye glass in Toronto Monday Dec. 22, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)
Why man melding with machine is a good thing
The world's first 'cyborg,' Steve Mann, says always being connected to others can make people see the world in a different — and better — light
Last Updated November 23, 2007
By Peter Nowak, CBC News
As mobile devices become more and more advanced with an ever-expanding number of features, people's reliance on them has also increased. Computer power is migrating quickly to the palm of a person's hand, and people are suddenly finding themselves always connected to the internet — and each other.
For Steve Mann, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and renowned as the world's first cyborg, always being connected has been a way of life for nearly 30 years. Having invented numerous "wearable computers" and other wireless technologies, as well as the phenomenon of mobile blogging — or "glogging" — Mann discussed how mobility is making people more cyborg-like with CBCNews.ca.
"It allows people to share their own viewpoints and to document things and see better."— Steve Mann
You're hooked to every kind of wireless technology imaginable, right?
I have a number of inventions that use wireless communications. Among these inventions is included the electric seeing aide or the electric eyeglasses, which use wireless communications, as well as other cyborg glogging technologies that use wireless communication.
Are you generally using these to connect to the internet or to other people?
The use varies. In our Seeing-Eye-People project, the idea was to assist the visually impaired by having people being able to see each others' point of view, share visual viewpoints and use the electric eyeglasses to allow somebody else to help provide visual advice remotely, and that sort of thing.
You've been wearing computers for nearly 30 years. How has constantly being connected, especially to the internet, changed your life?
In many ways there is some connectivity provided that creates a sense of community that extends beyond just the people in the immediate vicinity to include people networked over these computer networks. The sense of community has grown over the years and expanded in a number of different ways that has helped create an online presence. We now have a community of over 20,000 cyborgs connected together wirelessly. It allows people to share their own viewpoints and to document things and see better and also just to document every-day life from a variety of viewpoints, things as simple as capturing beautiful moments that you might want to remember to even providing evidence, for example as the victim of a hit and run.
How does the glogger community differ from traditional online community?
The cyborg glogging phenomenon predates web logging. It provides some of the similar concepts, it's just that it's with you everywhere you go rather than when you're just at home and sit down and open up a computer. Instead, it's with you all the time on a more constant basis.
We think of this as a form of "sousveillance," which is the opposite of surveillance. Surveillance is architecture-mounted cameras and things that are mounted on buildings, as is desktop computing. When you bring it onto people, or this notion of "sousveillance" or human-centred computing, kind of reverses that.
When you have something to say, then, do you send it out to the community as a video or audio file?
All of these are possible and commonly used. You can also say something serendipitously — you can live your life and someone can remotely comment serendipitously. If you're having trouble finding your way or getting lost, you might serendipitously connect to others who know their way or can see better. Or you might find friends or relatives in the area who can provide some help. As a seeing aide or as a personal safety device, it has some practical applications.
Many people also enjoy the fun of just being connected in their community.
Is it distracting to always be hooked up?
It depends on whether it's relevant or irrelevant. Billboards on the roadside are distracting when they're irrelevant but road signs are not, so that's the kind of difference you have to think about.
And do you learn to filter out what's irrelevant?
You learn to program your system to provide relevant data. Eyeglasses that help you see better and navigate better and avoid getting lost certainly provide help if you have maps, for example, that are overlaid on top of the real world. It does clarify things and makes seeing better. If the eyeglasses work well, they improve your eyesight.
Is this something you advocate for everybody?
I think it makes sense. More and more people are doing it. Thirty years ago when I was working on these ideas, people thought I was kind of crazy, but there's enough people doing it now that have found it useful.
"Thirty years ago when I was working on these ideas, people thought I was kind of crazy, but there's enough people doing it now that have found it useful."— Steve Mann
What are the big differences between the cellphone, which has come a long way in the past 20 years, and your cyborg technology?
Cyborg glogging can be used on cellphones too if you go to the site glogger.mobi, where you can download the glogger program that records your life. You just hang the cellphone around your neck and it records your life and takes pictures.
I proposed this idea many, many years ago of the eyeglass version as well as the neck-worn version and other companies like Microsoft and Nokia and Hewlett Packard are starting to do this as well. There's a lot of industry interest in the idea of cyborg glogging.
But are cellphones getting to the point where they are catching up to what you are doing, or are they still far behind?
Some people have described the [wearable computer] electric seeing aide as just a wearable camera phone. The functionality is similar.
What's the advantage of the device being wearable over handheld?
If you have it worn, whether it's eyeglasses or just hanging around your neck or in your pocket facing outward where the camera can see what's happening, you can run a lot of the programs we've written. They'll run on a lot of camera phones as well. These programs provide things like a personal safety device, as one example, like a black box flight recorder on an aircraft that works for people. It documents your life so that if there's a problem, you can go back or other people can come to your aid, so if you fall down or something, maybe other people could see that and intervene. So there's some value in having this thing be free running as a personal safety device.
As mobile devices and computers develop, are we becoming more cyborg-like?
Yes, I talk about that a lot in my book Cyborg.
In the book there's this notion that people are becoming connected with these kinds of technologies as a general routine way of living.
You've mentioned some of the individual benefits to mobility, but what are some of the larger benefits to society as a whole?
The benefits to the country as a whole [revolve] around personal safety, connectivity, a sense of community and interaction. Our cyborg community, for example, has similar values of other collective behaviours, like web logging, Wikipedia, Linux. All of these things can be brought into the realm of every-day existence wherever you may be.
What are some of the barriers keeping us from being more mobile? Is it technology or social attitudes?
The technology is quite well developed so I'd say it's mostly social attitudes. For example, I was involved in an accident recently and I was trying to take pictures of the accident scene on a public street and there was a film crew filming nearby and somebody said, "You're not allowed to take pictures because there's a film crew." So you've got this effect that if you hold something in your hand it sometimes creates a confrontational situation, whereas if it's worn and just documenting the accident scene then it doesn't create the same confrontation. That's something that needs to be worked into the social dynamic.
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