We’re All Cyborgs Now…Almost

Augmented Reality Coming to a Place Near You

There is a park in Post Falls, Idaho, near where I live. At the park there is a pond where you can see different types of wildlife including ducks, muskrats, and turtles. Once my children and I even saw a beaver there. Above the pond there are rocky outcroppings where, if you’re quiet enough, you can sometimes see marmots—a type of large ground squirrel that I had never heard of until moving to North Idaho. The park also features some paths, and on one of these paths I found an apple tree loaded with fruit.

One autumn afternoon in 2016, my children and I arranged to meet some friends at the apple tree, as they were interested in harvesting some of the fruit for baking pies. As we walked around the pond to the apple tree, I observed that the park seemed unusually full. Yet the other visitors seemed strangely absent and even slightly disoriented. Suddenly I heard someone talking to me.

“Did you see the wartortle over there?” asked a man in glasses, probably late twenties, as he approached me.

“A what?” I replied.

“The wartortle. I just saw one over there by the pond,” he said excitedly, taking it for granted that I would know what he was referring to.

It became apparent that this man, like most of the other visitors at the park that day, were “seeing” creatures I could not. They were playing Pokémon Go – an augmented reality game that overlays virtual creatures onto spaces in the physical world. To succeed at the game, users must venture out into nature to capture and train various creatures, which then battle the armies amassed by other participants. The game briefly enjoyed the status of a phenomenon in 2016 but became controversial after a number of people died by not paying sufficient attention to their physical surroundings.

The people at the park that day were not interested in the muskrats, turtles, marmots, or even the wild apples, but only in the wartortles, charizards, and mudkips with which the park had been populated, and which were only visible through their gaming apps.

What was going on that day is something called “augmented reality,” or AR for short.

“A very blended digitized future”

AR may seem to be the stuff of science fiction and experimental gaming, but could it actually impact the lives of ordinary people, and even change how we approach the world and each other?

This is a question that was addressed last October at the Think Big Festival 2020. Part of the “Innovation Collective,” the technology conference/festival was jointly hosted across three cities through digital and in-person talks. I had the opportunity to attend the conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

One of the conference presenters was Chen-Ping Yu, co-founder and CEO of the AI technology company, Phiar.  Chen-Ping spoke about his own research into AR, including glasses that will blend together physical and digital spaces.

AR is not the same as Virtual Reality (VR). With a VR headset, the user leaves the real world to interact with an entirely simulated environment. By contrast, AR simply enhances and optimizes the real world, providing users with an experience that blends together the physical and virtual. Right now, AR is limited to driving apps and platforms like Pokémon and its successor games. But at the Think Big Festival, Chen-Ping told us that AR will soon change how we experience the world. Our sensory perception will be linked to AI algorithms that will continually adjust how the world is presented to us.

Chen-Ping’s company has stated, “Our mission is to change the way you perceive and navigate the world, forever.” Ultimately, he believes this mission will be achieved when everyone is wearing AR glasses, which will mediate to each person an optimized version of the world. Speaking of these glasses, he said,

“They will really revolutionize how we interact with the world.... Your home may even be much more simpler physically than before because you can change the layout just by overlaying different AR. That's going to be our future. It's going to be a very blended digitized future for us….”

We’re All Cyborgs Now

Other speakers at the Think Big Festival spoke about ways we can use technology to customize ourselves and other people, and thus redefine who we are and our relationship to the world. One researcher shared work being done on brain implants to put data directly into the brains of students to help them with memorization. A neuroscientist spoke about his research to bring the sense of smell into virtual reality.

Will this mean that we all become cyborgs? That was a question one member of the audience asked the panelists. The answer given by Chen-Ping was instructive:

“When you think about cyborgs you typically think about hardware being implanted in your brain to enhance your sensory system. But you don't really have to because now imagine having your AR glasses on you. AR glasses are not only showing you information around the world, it’s also sensing the world through computer vision AI that's running on device... Therefore, I think all of us will become cyborgs in the next ten or twenty years.”

What Chen-Ping is talking about is not a variation of “Google Glass,” which were the rage for the first half of the last decade but never moved beyond experimentation. The glasses produced by Google were basically just a computer through which external information was delivered through an optical head-mounted display. The goal of AR glasses is much more ambitious: to change how the physical world looks to the user; to overlay the real world with an enhanced version of it. The software for AR is substantially already in place, and we are waiting only on advances in hardware before AR glasses can become mainstream.

Moral Therapeutic Digitization

The most immediate application for AR will be advertising. Imagine Steve is driving to work and passes a billboard advertising a new dating app. He sees a picture of a 35-year old blond dressed in lingerie, while his colleague, Abdul, sees an olive-skinned 20-year old wearing a head scarf. When Steve passes a fast-food outlet, he sees an advertisement for sizzling bacon while Abdul sees one for kebobs.

Imagine that each man’s reaction to these and other stimuli is collected through a brain chip that feeds neurological information into a personalized algorithm in the cloud that is connected wirelessly to each person’s AR glasses. The algorithm is continually updated in order to better customize the world in a way that is “just right” for each man.

But advertising will be just the start. Let’s continue the thought experiment. When Steve arrives home from work, he is greeted by his wife Elizabeth, who appears ten years younger than she actually is. And thanks to the algorithm in the cloud that knows what Steve wants, Elizabeth is not wearing the tired expression she normally has at the end of the day. Steve’s AR glasses deliver an improved version of his wife: Elizabeth has a gentle smile that gives an impression of complete availability. Moreover, instead of wearing the T-shirt and jeans she normally changes into after work, Elizabeth is dressed in a transparent blouse and short skirt. That night as Steve and Elizabeth enjoy intimacy, the algorithm adjusts Steve’s perception again so he can realize his goal of having sex with a 20-year old Asian, without even having to commit adultery.

It is easy to see how this type of digitally enhanced reality could be pitched as therapeutic and therefore “moral” in the most watered-down sense. The digitally enhanced world could be looked upon as a kind of therapy that delivers self-fulfillment in response to our ever-changing kaleidoscopic set of needs and desires. At least, that is how it will likely be marketed. But the reality is that an AR-mediated world fulfils the needs of a very small group of elite techno-geeks who have grown impatient with reality, and now expect the rest of us to jump on their bandwagon. Let’s look at this more closely.

Impatient With Reality

The techno-utopianism of the Think Big Festival, with its promise of optimizing the world through digital illusions, is merely the latest manifestation of what British media scholars, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, called “The California Ideology.” They coined the term in a seminal 1995 paper by that name, which remains influential in media studies to this day. In the article, Barbrook and Cameron suggested that Silicon Valley was in the grip of “a contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism.” This contradictory philosophy, which combined “the freewheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies,” offered a vision of emancipation from both the encumbrances of government and the constraints of the physical world.

The de facto philosophy that is now growing up around the promise of an AR-mediated world comes as the successor ideology of California’s original techno-libertarianism. The geeks working on this new vision combine the individualism of pioneers with the obsessive monomania of engineers and the techno-utopianism of basement dwellers who long ago opted out of life in the real world. At one time, these techno-weirdos would have been socially marginalized, yet now they have found their moment: they serve the function of high priests for the rest of us, as they seek to connect the earth to their digital heaven of possibilities.

The only problem is that to live in the type of world engineers like Chen-Ping are trying to create requires that we become the type of people who can passively receive such a world. Specifically, it requires that we become people who have surrendered our inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things. It requires that we see technological absolutism as a positive good. It requires that we embrace a narcissism that looks upon the world as simply one more deliverable for meeting our needs. It requires that we embrace the anti-metaphysical metaphysics of the engineering mindset. It requires that we become impatient with reality, and thus turn into the types of people who will greet a digitally optimized world as a form of redemption.

In short, it would require me to become the sort of person who is more interested in the digital wartortle at the other side of the pond than the muskrats and turtles who are actually in the pond.

Further Reading

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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