You Experience #5 – Digital Self
Man and technology are merging, in fact converging. First, by processing and storing increasingly personal data, then by bringing technology physically closer to our bodies, and finally by creating things that think together with us. From the wearables and the ‘quantified self’, to the body implants of the trans-humanists — toward the dream of embedded artificial intelligence, the opportunities for business disruption are limitless. Imagine the possibilities when technology starts to augment our human nature and even our very being. What if there is less and less distinction between you and your Digital Self?
Continued miniaturization has made it possible to move from standalone computers to portables, to smartphones, smart glasses, smart watches, smart bands and smart contact lenses. Health and fitness gadgets are measuring the rhythm of our lives, our bodies. They measure to help us be healthy. Where will it stop? Soon, doctors might inject us with a smart chip that continuously measures our blood pressure, chemical contents, oxygen level, and who knows what else, scanning for the very first signs of a disease.
It promises nothing less than a fundamental revolution of the healthcare industry, from responding to emergencies to predicting and possibly even preventing health issues and curing diseases, even before we realize there is something wrong. And equally so, it impacts markets such as Life Insurance.
Whatever ethical discussions are rightfully going on, if it can be done, it will be done. Better health, better senses, better physical performance, or better thoughts — throughout history, we’ve taken every opportunity to achieve these goals through our food, machines, chemicals, and so on. This will continue as we continue leveraging the latest technology of cyber-physical connections that aim to enhance us. Technology becomes an extension of man and — in a certain way — man becomes an extension of technology. Biology and technology become indistinguishable.
Connecting humans directly to the digital realm makes previously hidden data available. The amount, and especially the type of data is changing. From abstract and almost anonymous data to storing our likes and dislikes, our social interactions, our sentiment, and now our impulses and — who knows — our inner thoughts. Digital brain-reading — literally capturing thoughts — is already becoming a reality. Many researchers have made great progress in analyzing brain patterns, enabling brain-to-brain communication to directly read visual nerves to measure the moods and thoughts that were, until recently, hidden. At that point the question becomes relevant what distinction remains between us and our digital selves?
Meanwhile, IT is shifting too. We used to build core applications to store and retrieve data. Nowadays, we focus more and more on our interaction with customers, employees, and partners. And now, we’re enriching it with empathic computing — aiming to create the best interaction, leveraging physical and intellectual context, history, and patterns.
As always, cross-pollination leads to acceleration. For example, better and smaller control systems lead to new applications of robotics that were beyond our reach before. It makes seemingly futuristic things possible: smart replacement limbs for amputees, upright walking robots, and flying drones. We now are starting to see the first truly autonomous robots, swarming around us to clean, deliver packages, or do surveillance.
Replacing a missing hand with a robotic one makes perfect sense. To make it somewhat smart and connect it to nerves or the brain for seamless operation is also logical. To replace an eye and feed visual information into the brain helps people navigate the world. Slowly but surely, we’re learning more and more about the inner workings of our nerves and the brain.
On the hard technology side, we’re getting better at dealing intelligently with data, finding patterns, establishing correlations, and predicting the future. With cognitive systems like IBM Watson and other learning machines, systems that think - or machine intelligence, if you like - seem within reach.
There will be a time when both ends meet: when the technological advance of machine learning plugs directly into the latest understanding of our brain. Then the computer becomes a prosthetic for our brain, seamlessly taking over those functions that it’s better at — augmenting our intelligence. The end goal is not creating smart machines, but making human kind smarter through leverage of machine intelligence.
Thinking ‘things’ have long been the realm of science fiction and doomsday movies; but the reality turns out to be much more mundane. Machine intelligence will show up in increasingly accurate decision support, better recommendations, more natural and frictionless interfaces, and more intuitive, emphatic interactions. Thinking computers will help make sense of the overload of data that is bombarding us all the time by only presenting insights that are relevant to make better choices. Enterprises that see the potential of this marriage between man and machine earlier than others, can achieve greater benefits, allowing them to create disruptive business models that, until recently, were beyond imagination. It may happen first in healthcare, insurance, retail, security, and defense.
In the end, there is no way to predict what happens next. When machines really ‘think’ and become one with us, it will change mankind more than the invention of fire did. There are dreams of uploading our brains to the cloud so that we can live forever. There are dreams of globally connected minds living in harmony. There are dreams of globally tuned supply and demand of 'everything'. There are dreams of mankind expanding into the universe. There are dreams of hope and ambition.