Enhanced humans: in five years, wearable tech and implant technology will be the new normal

Combining technology with the human body has been a mainstay of science fiction stories ever since the term ‘cyborg’ was first coined in 1960. Popular culture has been fascinated with the concept of enhancing or restoring human abilities through artificial means. The American TV show The Six Million Dollar Man wedged the ideas in public consciousness, and there have been many takes over the years that imagine what it will be like when we can have our limbs replaced with super-powerful robotic equivalents or new eyes with eagle vision. Now we are witnessing these concepts transition from science fiction to fact, and the future will see them become an everyday reality.

Key Dates:

  • The first chip RFID is implanted in Kevin Warwick
  • Google Glass is released to the public
  • The AlterEgo headset prototype is unveiled

There is a clear difference between implant technology and wearable tech, but they both occupy roughly the same ideological space. Implant technology is when a piece of technology is physically inserted into a person, whereas wearable tech is the kind of technology that offers an enhancement but can just be put on and taken off at any time. Both serve similar functions, and in the future we will see more of this wearable tech become implanted. Hearing aids are an example of a technology that moved from being wearable to implanted. For certain kinds of hearing loss, implant technology is superior to wearable aids and can yield improvements that could not be achieved in any other way.

One of the most common types of implant technology, and arguably one of the most likely candidates for mass adoption, is the RFID chip. Renowned engineer and researcher Kevin Warwick was the first human to have a chip implanted, way back in 1998. The chip was programmed so that it could open doors and turn on lights when Warwick approached. While he only kept his chip implant for nine days, it was the first real example of biohacking and marked the first footsteps of a movement in which many others have followed.

Biohacking is the next step in human evolution

Biohacking refers to the practice of modifying your biology in a DIY fashion. People all over the world are experimenting with ways of adapting their biology to bring about improvements and changes. As well as chip implants, people are also experimenting with biomagnetic implants to sense magnetic fields. Biotech startup company Dangerous Things actually offer chip implants and other technology, and they at the forefront of the movement. In their opinion, enhancing humans with technology is the next step in human evolution.

The reason that the RFID style chip implants are the most probable for people to get on board with is the breadth of applications they have and the relative ease with which they can be implanted. The ridiculously named bodyhacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow implanted a travel chip in his hand so that he didn’t need to carry his travel card with him (although this got him in a lot of trouble), and Swedish biohacker and activist Hannes Sjobald has used chip implants to eliminate the need for many keys and fobs. The next frontier that is being pushed is to use implant chips for payment purposes, with a few companies such as Dangerous Things offering this type of solution.

Convenience is king, and anything that makes people’s lives easier and more hassle free stands a strong chance of being adopted. If you could replace every key and card you need with a single chip implant that was quick and relatively painless, would you do it? This is what the early adopters are doing now, and early adoption is the first step to mass adoption. The issues around security and privacy are still being worked through and debated, but once these are resolved we can expect increasing numbers of people to jump on the train.

Mind-reading technology is around the corner

On the wearable tech side of things, adoption is also key. Google poured millions into Google Glass only for it to fail to catch on with consumers. It has since been reborn as Google Glass Enterprise in a bid to capture the market for business applications. The first edition of Snap’s Spectacles also failed to generate sales they hoped for, eventually leading to $40 million of unsold inventory being written off. The next iteration of the spectacles has been released recently featuring a number of improvements.

Snapchat might be the best vehicle to achieve adoption of this wearable tech. By appealing to a younger user base, Snapchat could introduce the next generation of tech consumers to the concept and help get over some of the stigma and difficulties that Google Glass faced. And again, convenience and problem solving may help this tech along. It’s a pain to take your phone out of your pocket and open up the camera to shoot a photo or video, and sometimes you miss the moment. Tapping a button on your glasses is a lot faster and easier.

This convenience aspect might extend to one of the most startling examples of wearable tech to emerge in recent times – the AlterEgo headset. MIT researchers have developed the hands- and voice-free interface that can communicate with a computer or device using sensors that detect subvocalisation (the way you say words in your head). Being able to communicate with your phone without the need to take it out of your pocket, or voice-activating Siri or a similar AI, is a real boon. The benefits of being able to use AlterEgo in this way would more than make up for having the strange looking device strapped to your face.

There is still some distance to go before the proliferation of implants and wearables reaches the ubiquity of smartphones, but you can be sure that in five years time the idea of further augmenting the human condition in this way will become the norm.

Further reading and resources:

Dangerous Things
Kevin Warwick
To be a Machine