The Network, the Body, and the Future

Jay Iorio, Innovation Director, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)


Networking is, in a sense, the key metaphor for the modern age. It is the development of tools that enhance existing human activities in ways that would be impossible in the physical world. The network is really the virtual remapping of our lives, lives that pivot around interaction and collaboration. It started with the telephone.

The personal computer, a revolution in itself, really came into its own when it was connected in large numbers over networks. Even in its early, comparatively slow form, connecting to the Internet was compelling enough to draw new participants every day. Bulletin-board systems, ftp sites, and email seem basic or charmingly old-school today, but they opened up a whole new way of thinking of a computer as merely part of a larger whole.

As network bandwidth approaches the bandwidth within the computer itself, the distinction between computer and network in effect evaporates and turns the entire collection of networked computers into one big device. We are seeing hints of this today in the form of the cloud and new collaborative tools and modes. The cloud concept potentially turns cyberspace into one large virtual machine, where users don’t care about the specific location of code, data, or other resources, any more than they care about what their phone is doing internally.

As wireless networking was quickly incorporated into phones, the definition of a computer expanded to include mobile devices, which for many users now constitute their primary computer, and the number of connected devices exploded.

We are now poised for another revolution in which the connection goes well beyond connecting only computing devices and begins to include sensors, everyday objects, and the built environment. Much of what we have traditionally considered to be inert and distinctly non-electronic is becoming a part of this mega-network—a phenomenon currently referred to as the Internet of Things.

The current term for networkable objects with built-in electronics is “smart,” implying vaguely human characteristics of responsiveness to stimuli, at least the appearance of basic decision-making, and adaptability to the environment. In a sense, objects come alive as they are “wired” (wirelessly, no doubt) into the larger environment.

It is hard to predict how such a network might evolve over the decades, but it is hard not to imagine a physical environment that senses us, our needs, and our context and then evolves continuously in harmony with that profile. What we currently call Augmented Reality—the integration, from the individual’s point of view, of computer-generated sensory content with the physical world—could evolve to be the “display” for this new environment, an environment that would appear to the user as the physical world with which we are all familiar, yet enhanced with powerful, customized illusion.

As powerful as this promises to be, however, the picture will only be complete when the physical human body is connected to this internet of everything.

We are already seeing mass-market products that connect the human body to the outside world; even more importantly, the public mind seems to be acclimating to this coming reality. In an important way, the smartphone is really a wearable—you might leave your eyeglasses in the other room, but rarely your phone—and the general public has now experienced a decade of having their networked computer almost attached to them.

The conceptual leap from the smartphone to smart watches, biometric devices of all kinds, sensors, smart fabrics, and wearables in general is not that great, and the myriad potential health, medical, and fitness use cases do not require a futurist to imagine. This could be a change in medicine and health as radical as the development of antibiotics.

It will allow for continuous monitoring of medical conditions, ongoing communication with healthcare providers, and the greatly enhanced diagnostics that might derive from such ongoing monitoring, especially when correlated to patient behavior. The natural first step in this direction is wearable devices, and new ones are appearing every week.

But the collective imagination has always been fascinated by the possibility of actual human augmentation. The cyborg concept in various forms is perennial in popular culture, and it is natural for us to want to develop tools to help overcome our inherent physical limitations and let our brains do what our bodies can’t. In a sense, the entire superhero genre of entertainment is a collective, symbolic attempt to envision ourselves without the physical restrictions we have to live with.

Body hacking, direct-to-brain communication, implants for a whole variety of purposes, smart tattoos, and clothing that interacts with the body are all subjects of intense work today, and it’s not hard to imagine a near-future generation that sees implants with much the same nonchalance as today’s twenty-somethings see extreme tattoos. It is not far-fetched to imagine a generation from now when the human body is actually itself a part of the computing environment, with all that such a link implies in a liquid, cloud-structured network.

All this might sound like science fiction, but it is happening. Each of the constituent technologies is overflowing with innovation and creativity, which can turn sci-fi fantasy into Best Buy product in a remarkably short time—witness the burgeoning virtual-reality space, a technology that as recently as two years ago was commonly seen as perpetually fifteen years in the future.

Within a very short time, areas we currently call Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, smart spaces, robotics, artificial intelligence, and all kinds of medical devices could coalesce in such a way that all the terminology, wires, and computers seem to disappear and leave us simply with multiple channels of instantaneous, complex communication between our bodies and the rest of the world.

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