The Future of Making Sense of the World
Hug shirts, smellphones, virtual tastes, bionic eyes and hearing aids doing translations – just a few keywords showing how technology will take human perception to a higher level in the future. Innovative healthcare solutions will go way beyond improving our senses when we experience problems, they will augment our capabilities and open new horizons for humanity. Let’s jump into the pool of details.
How humans perceive the sensory cacophony called the world
Car. Flower. Smartphone. Leaf. Shadow. Ponytail. Red Sweater. Monitor. Water. Coffee. Beeps. Sidney Bechet tunes. Bicycle. Laugh. Light breeze. Holiday memories. Strawberry muffins. Running noses. Candy Crush. Smoked cheese. Sips and sneezes. Our body and brain are bombarded with gazillions of sensations through our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and skin in every second resulting in a never-ending concert of thoughts and feelings. According to neuroscientists, the brain receives vastly more sensory information per second than it can process, so it has to filter things out and organize the remaining sensations into patterns and categories. This filtering and classifying process is what we call perception. Experts say that it is not a passive, receptive, but an active process of constructing reality, a conversation between the senses and the cortex that balances new information from the outside world with predictions from the interior world of our brain.
In spite of its complexity, not much thought is given to the process of perception in our daily lives – except when people experience problems. Near-sighted persons will reach for glasses to improve their vision. Hearing aids are lined up in combat against hearing problems, and antibiotics or decongestants try to cure conditions such as anosmia or loss of smell. Even scientists underappreciated sensing when back in the 1950s, they estimated that within a decade computers could become “sensing machines” responding meaningfully to objects, sounds or aromas. It hasn’t happened yet – although we are getting closer to it day by day through innovation. And with the advancement of technology, not only our understanding about sensing is getting enriched or the healing of perception issues becomes possible, but we can also prepare for the augmentation of perfectly healthy human bodies in the (near) future.
What humanity wished for will come true – with technologies
The idea to improve our abilities beyond the humanly possible limit has solid roots in the imagination of mankind. From ancient tales to 21st-century comic books, stories tell us the yearning for supernatural hearing, microscopic or X-ray vision or exerting power over others with only a touch of your finger. Just look at the modern Hercules, Superman: beyond superhuman strength, speed and stamina, he has heat vision, superhuman hearing and smell, microscopic, telescopic, X-ray and thermal vision.
However, cautionary tales often warned about the possible consequences of stepping over boundaries. For example, King Midas asked the Greek God of wine and revelry, Dionysus, to make him able to turn everything he touches into gold. However, he realized in horror that he couldn’t pick up food or drinks, hug his loved ones anymore as they will all transform into the precious metal. Although the moral of the story is the punishment of greed, it is thought-provoking that his “golden touch” was counterbalanced by the loss of his abilities to taste food or smell the roses. As if superhuman skills had to be compensated elsewhere since they upset the laws of nature and overstep the boundaries of what it means to be human.
Nevertheless, the advancement of technologies challenges these boundaries. In the future, they will not only help improve our impaired abilities: vision, hearing, smell or taste; they will augment our healthy bodies to make us stronger, faster or more sensitive to the environment. Real superhumans could appear in masses revolutionizing the ways we perceive the world around us.
Cyborgs and job prospects
Becoming a cyborg, thus combining mechanic and organic body parts might be the rule and not the exception in the future – and people might actively seek out opportunities to improve themselves. Take the example of Neil Harbisson, an artist born with achromatopsia or extreme colorblindness meaning he could only see in black-and-white. At first, he received his specialized electronic eye, his “eyeborg” to be able to render perceived colors as sounds on the musical scale. He is capable of experiencing colors beyond the scope of normal human perception: Amy Winehouse is red and pink, while ringtones are green.
And what if that’s only the beginning? What if technology could aid humans to have a better hearing than bats? What if we could filter out the smell of urban decay and only experience pleasant odors? Or what if implants will let us see microscopic objects or special features, such as the heat map of an abandoned terrain?
Wouldn’t that be incredibly useful for future security guards? Wouldn’t garbage collectors be better off without smelling rotten leftovers? Imagine if policemen truly had superhearing. They could arrive at crime scenes much sooner and could catch offenders on the spot with a higher likelihood. What if the practice of the often controversial eyewitness testimony would be replaced by an implant playing back past scenes similarly to how protagonists did in the Entire History of You episode in Black Mirror. Body augmentation could prove to be incredibly useful in the job market – people with improved vision, hearing, smell, taste or touch could carry out their tasks more efficiently or eliminate unpleasant parts of their job. But that’s just one aspect of body augmentation. A perhaps more important perspective is that the tool-kit of humans for perception will get expanded, and many people would find new tools for experiencing self-expression and freedom. Now, let’s see how far technology could push our five senses in the future.
1) From fall detection to translation: the future of hearing aids
Current hearing care technologies mainly signify hearing aids supporting the hearing impaired or the entirely deaf. In the last ten years, they went through an enormous transformation: from basic digital devices hearing aids became multifunctional medical instruments – and it will only intensify in the future. Right now, they have access to the Internet, they are fit for iPhones and scan the whole sound environment 100 times every second and reduce noise before delivering it. This year, Starkey Hearing Technologies will introduce a hearing aid on the market which will be able to measure physical activity and detect falls. Starkey is also working on advanced sensors, such as heart rate, as a first step towards pushing hearing aids towards the health and wellness terrain.
Further down the line, hearing aids might be able to connect to the world wide web without the need for a smartphone. That would make it possible to turn the medical device into a translation machine: imagine the little bug in your ear helping you buy baklava in an Istanbul market or speak to the Korean sales representative of your company. Besides, due to the constant aim of sustainability in resource use, companies developing hearing aids might come up with devices only using body heat or kinetic power generation.
2) Photographic vision, CRISPR and bionic eyes
The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness in 2015 estimated that 36 million people are blind, and 217 million people suffer from moderate or severe distance vision impairment, thus digital health has a lot to do for lessening plenty of suffering which comes from not being able to see the world clearly. Plenty of existing technologies are aiming to achieve that, and a plethora of others will come. For example, The California-based firm, Second Sight, the German company, Retina Implant AG, and French venture, Pixium Vision, develops implantable visual prosthetics, so-called “bionic eyes” to restore vision to patients who are blind as a result of the rare condition of retinitis pigmentosa. Peek Vision, a UK-based company developed Peek Retina, a portable ophthalmoscope that enables you to view and capture retinal images on your smartphone wherever you are.
Parallel to innovations for improving vision, lately, many ideas and experiments surfaced for augmenting the eye. Can you imagine that you zoom with your bionic eye, browse and search online, even take photos that no one else could see? What if you could do that through your digital contact lenses? Today, it sounds like science fiction: the translucid layer on your eye transmitting unique information about your body to an outside device. Yet, it might be a reality someday. For example, Google teamed up with Novartis, to produce digital, multi-sensor contact lenses which are designed to be able to measure blood sugar levels – although there is no word about the actual product lately.
Further down the road, CRISPR and other gene therapies have a great chance to become a conventional treatment method for specific eye conditions in the future. Early October 2017, the FDA’s advisory panel approved a gene therapy called Luxturna, which targets a rare disease called Leber congenital amaurosis. Moreover, they could also develop into means for improving vision in the long run by not only replacing faulty genes with healthy ones but even with those containing superior genetic information. Nevertheless, in that case, the issue of genetic engineering and a swarm of ethical problems arise. Will we have CRISPR instead of laser therapy for healing short-sightedness?
3) Smellphones and scenting perfumes online
Several companies are experimenting with producing and transmitting scents and odors through digital means. In the future, we will be able to smell perfume online before we buy it or use devices that can tell us how bad our body odor is. In 2016, Germany-based beauty products company Nivea launched the ‘nose’ application able to say when a man smells terrible.
On the other end of the spectrum, we might be able to wake up for pleasant smells coming from our smartphones: the rich aroma of coffee or some fresh bacon, anyone? The demand would be definitely high. Although it was a mockup, Kraft Food’s Oscar Mayer brand’s Internet bacon campaign with thousands of free bacon-scented iPhone plugin giveaways was a colossal hit four years ago. The idea of merchandizing pleasant odors might lead to celebrities selling their natural scent for a greater pleasure of their fans. Imagine a pinch of Jennifer Lawrence or Ryan Gosling on the market… And what if you could even send perfumes through your phone? Through the Sentee plugin, people could forward bouquets of flowers in a text message.
Moreover, smells and scents could also march into schools. In 2003, psychologist Mark Moss, at Northumbria University, carried out a range of cognitive tests on subjects who were exposed either to lavender or rosemary aromas. Moss found that those who were smelling lavender performed significantly worse in working memory tests, and had impaired reaction times for both memory and attention-based tasks, compared to controls. Although more research is needed for establishing substantial evidence, nevertheless, how subversive would it be if teachers tried to motivate kids with perfumes instead of yelling at them?
4) Hug shirt and artificial skin
If building digital devices which are able to emit scents is a challenge, then what about the development of surfaces sensing and reacting to human touch. But it seems that researchers already have some mind-boggling innovations there, too.
A device called Hug Shirt allows people to send hugs over distance – just like a text message. It can feel the strength, duration, and location of the touch, skin warmth, and the heart rate of the sender. The actuators then recreate the same touch sensation on the shirt worn by the distant beloved. Although we still cannot decide whether the Kiss Transmission device is real or just a joke, a 2011 video shows how a French kiss can be sent wirelessly to loved ones. Alternatively, the developer says that celebrity kisses could be purchased and shared by users.
Moreover, a group of scientists at Stanford University developed a whisper-thin new pressure sensor, which could be a step toward creating artificial skin that is able to actually feel. Later, that particular “skin” could be added to artificial limbs that may allow a person with a prosthetic hand to actually feel a handshake. Imagine how incredible it would be for people living with limb-loss to experience the sense of touching again!
5) Digital flavor profiling and a virtual taste
Current technologies suggest that the future of taste represents mainly two directions: providing individual and personalized taste catalogs and re-creating tastes in the virtual space. The former, the so-called digital flavor profiling technologies empower consumers as well as producers, providing us a greater voice in the development of food products.
As flavor may be experienced differently by different people, it’s only expected that the aroma becomes something more individualized. Sensory panels that most companies currently use to taste-test products are unrepresentative of general market preference. And here comes artificial intelligence for the rescue. For example, Gastrograph uses AI and predictive models to identify how different demographics and regions experience and enjoy different flavor profiles. FlavorWiki, too, is developing a flavor-mapping technology that quantifies individual taste perception and preference.
On the other end of the spectrum, researchers at the University of Main are experimenting with electric taste simulation – using electronic tools to fool the tongue into experiencing tastes that aren’t there. Just like in the Matrix – the brain senses that you are eating steak, but in reality that might just be a carrot. The Virtual Cocktail – or Vocktail – and the Vocktail Bar itself also utilizes the human weakness that it is easy to play tricks on the brain. Fortunately, they are not using it in the way the Agents in the Matrix did, but they let anyone enjoy the party without having a massive hangover the day after and with maintaining one’s ability to drive home. A win-win situation without a doubt.
All innovations listed here might seem science fiction as technologies will lend people the power of superheroes – augmented vision, better hearing, extraordinary gadgets for smelling, touching or tasting. However, these instruments already exist and they will be present on the market in a couple of years – some of them already are. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought of extending our abilities and nurture the idea of becoming superheroes of the future.
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