Post-Anthropomorphic Sensorial Computing

I sense, therefore I am



 Evolution of Computing

For decades, evolution of computing has been framed in terms of increase in processor performance, random access memory, and storage capacity. Millions of instructions per second has been a primary criterion for comparison. Moore’s Law successfully predicted the doubling of this performance indicator every eighteen months and, when processor vendors approached the physical limits of this growth, multi-core architectures were introduced, so that what could no longer be achieved with vertical scalability, could theoretically be obtained through horizontal scalability. The reason for this obsession with computing power was that a lot of interesting problems which admit of an algorithmic solution could not be efficiently treated with then-current technology. Nowadays, we have reached a point where further advances can only be pursued if software architecture allows for a high degree of parallelism. However, further increases in the number of cores per CPU will not automatically translate in improved performance, unless computer programs are designed to run intensive computations in separate threads which can be executed on different cores. But even software architecture has its own limits. Such limits are imposed by mathematics: parallelisation cannot be pushed beyond defined thresholds[2]. The good news is that with current technology, we can probably already solve most of all that mathematical complexity allows. Computer programs can interpret human voice more than decently. Human face recognition is a reality. 3D virtual reality is there to see. And the list could go on indefinitely. So what is the next evolutionary step on the horizon? There has been a lot of talk around mobile, big data, internet of things, wearables, and social. Is this all?

Emergence of a new Trend?

Social networks would not be so successful if mobile devices were not a reality. Try see people on a commuter train every day. They are hooked on their social networks accessed with a smart phone. If online access were limited to desktop internet surfing in the evening, interaction would drop dramatically. Big data became a hot topic with the explosion of computing devices feeding databases and analytical systems with an unprecedented amount of data, structured and unstructured. If social and IoT were not that ubiquitous, big data would probably not be the same hot topic that we all know. The point is that these trends are closely intertwined and dependencies among them exist, which can reinforce or inhibit certain evolutionary paths. The central contention of this essay is that IoT, mobile and wearables are giving rise to a new shift, which cannot be reduced to the joint use of these trends alone. I will call this new trend “Post-Anthropomorphic Sensorial Computing” (PASC).

Post-Anthropomorphic Sensorial Computing

First attempts to augment computing machinery with sensorial capabilities were inspired by the human body. Computers were made too “see”, “hear”, and “speak”. Then came robots, which can also move in 3D. Some even believed (or believe), that computers could one day be made to think. This of course reflects a very poor idea of mentation, because everyone who has had a normal interaction with other human beings knows all too well that rational thinking is only a small, yet critical, part of psychological processes of a healthy human being. I contend that the debate whether or not machines can be made to think like a human being is moot. The interesting point is that machines are increasingly endowed with a number of sensors which allow them to read the environment in ways which complement human senses. This is made possible by IoT, wearables, and mobile, but not only that. Try think when, after using a maps application on a tablet, one tries using the same application on a laptop, only to find out that the laptop does not know its current position, which has to be patiently typed the old way. Tablets which were once seen as the poor replacement for more powerful computing devices, can now do things which these very devices cannot do, no matter how powerful their processors are. These wonders are made possible by sensors. A GPS sensor does only make sense on a mobile device. A camera can very well be put on a desktop/laptop, but all it will shoot is the bodily features of the person in front of it. Still something, but nothing compared to what I can picture or film with my iPhone. Try use a password management application on a tablet. The master password can be as user friendly as a fingerprint. Touch the fingerprint sensor and you can access the secure vault without the pain of entering improbable combinations of characters. Thanks God. I would not like to type again and again passwords when I will be in my seventies.  It would make for an unsurmountable barrier. Now try do the same on a desktop. It looks like a step one-hundred years back on the time machine. It is clear that it is sensors which will create value add in ubiquitous computing. But now that the utopian dream of replicating humans with automatons has shown its pathetic metaphysical overlook, it is time to think about Post-Anthropomorphic Sensorial Computing. This new wave of computing artefacts will be enriched with thermometers, infra-red cameras, multi-axis motion sensors, radioactivity sensors, earthquake detection sensors, accelerometers, and so on and so forth. They will complement human senses in ways that would not have been possible if we had kept focusing on artificial intelligence alone. Imagine having a wearable ultrasonic sound location system, the equivalent of a pocketable bat, which can aid the blind move safely in an unknown environment. Imagine having radioactivity sensors and PH sensors in the Oceans, in order to measure the effects of climate change and natural disasters in real time. One day, closer than one may think, we will be able to “feel” if our loved relative or friend is having a hard time, and prevent the worst to happen thousands of kilometres away, maybe only with a good-old reassuring phone call. Because PASC is not about creating fancy gadgets, it is about extending human faculties smoothly, with a human-centric viewpoint. For PASC to succeed, existing disciplines will have to further advance. For example, emergence of PASC will pose new challenges for big data. IoT will become a lot more than a community of refrigerators with an Ethernet card. The boundary between IoT and mobile will blur. PASC is about renouncing the mad scientist dream of replicating mentation on a silicon chip, and finding ways to expand and complement humankind‘s sensorial power with a new generation of ubiquitous, energy efficient, sensorially enriched computing artefacts. The challenge of PASC will be to find ways to translate this wealth of sensorial data in useful information for a human being. In their current evolutionary stage, humans are still endowed with five senses, plus other interesting abilities, like balance. Extending the reach of their biological sensorial endowment will necessarily require the ability to make this extension relevant to them, and usable. Let us consider the interesting experiment of Google Glasses. They have not been very successful so far, but I think this is mostly because they came too early. Secondly, they fell victim to Google’s religious allegiance to the myth of technology. Adding tweets sent by somebody located nearby to the visual perception of a human being is not extending her sensorial capability in the PASC sense. It is only creating a scarcely relevant, probably useless, distraction to vision proper. It’s about adding noise, not signal. PASC instead, is about adding signal. Let us imagine risk evaluation in the PASC age. The risk of buying shares will not only be assessed against the market, the portfolio of the buyer, and other classical criteria. It will also be assessed based on the psychological condition of the buyer. With wearables like Apple Watch or a future evolution of it, it will be possible to determine if a purchase is done lucidly, or as a surrogate compensation for a loss or a feeling of unfulfillment or, maybe worse, fuelled by sudden euphoria.

As a recap, the below sketches some relations between PASC and other existing trends, trying to highlight the dependencies and provide grounds for defending the worth of labelling this new computing trend. I am convinced that, independent of the success of this PASC concept, useful extension of human sensorial endowment, rather than imitation of human mental processes, is the way forward. There is a bright future ahead, made of achievable advances, which can make the life of people, healthy or otherwise, a lot more fulfilling.




[2] See, for example, Amdahl’s Law: