If you follow vision and long term goal of Google CEO Larry Page merging of human bodies with information technologies might not be too far fetched, “Eventually you’ll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”1. Sounds scary? If you got a pacemaker, an artificial body part, a complex prothesis, an implant for your ear or eye, you are technically speaking already a cyborg. And since those bioelectronic technologies are becoming smart nowadays, like your meter or fridge at home, the exchange of information between biological matter and human created technology is on the rise. Individuals like Hugh Herr, professor at MIT, are working passionately to fuse bionic body parts with our human nervous system. Developments like those will change our human self-perception for sure as you can see yourself in Herrs TED Talk. But what does that actually mean for the world of photography?
It will completely shift the way of creating, sharing, connecting and our valuation of visual information. For example, some camera concepts put their focus on your heart, where a sensor will determine by the rise of your heartbeat if a picture or video is being triggered automatically or not. No buttons pushed, no commands needed. This even works for dogs. But what about vision itself you may ask? The “Argus II” is the first retinal implant to be approved for clinical and commercial use in Europe and USA helping patients with severe Retinitis pigmentosa to improve their damaged vision. Connected to an external camera and implanted to the surface of the retina, the Argus II marks the beginning of a new era – the era of Bionic eyes – in human-machine-communication. But what works in one direction – to sent electronical information from a camera through a retinal implant to the brain – will work the other way round too. And any electrical signal captured by an electronic implant can be and will be recorded as well, like already done with cats in 1999 (see picture below).
Yang Dan and colleagues’ recordings of cat vision using a BCI implanted in the lateral geniculate nucleus (top row: original image; bottom row: recording). Source: Wikimedia, Fair use
Scientists are already learning to understand how to decode and record vision. But in my opinion the holy grail of neuroscience is hacking the mind. Research in this field is entering a very delicate territory previously thought belonging exclusively to ourselves only. Thoughts are generally considered private. So far we decide if we want to share them by speaking them out loud or by choosing to write them down. Sure, we might wish to posses the ability to read someones mind, but of course don’t want ours to be read like an open book. For several good reasons freedom of thought was declared by the United Nations as one of its Human Rights, since it is closely connected to the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.
Photography can be about sharing a private, an intimate or a secret moment or idea in life. In that respect, a person or group we are sharing our experience with becomes equally important as the initial act of taking a photograph in the first place. If you think about it, a photograph is something we see in our mind first, even if we put a camera between our eyes and chosen subject which we then, through the process of photography, are able to share with another human being. But still, the origin of the process is our attention guided by our mind. And that is exactly our connecting point for the developments happening right now in the field of neuroscience. Let’s have a look!
So, what do I mean by hacking the mind? Well, have you heard about BrainGate? Since early years of 2000, within the laboratories of John Donoghue of Brown University, paralyzed patients steering wheelchairs and controling robotic arms with their thoughts are an amazing reality.
Jan Scheuermann, paralyzed from the neck down, feeds herself chocolate using a mind-controlled robotic arm thanks to sensors directly plugged into her brain.
Or maybe you have watched the kick off of the World Cup in Brazil 2014 by Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old man, paralyzed from the waist down? He was able to do so because he had merged with an exoskeleton – a brain-machine interface (BMI) (sometimes also called a brain-computer interface (BCI)) – controlled as well only by his mind. Initially he should have walked by himself several steps into the soccer field and then kicked the ball, but FIFA had changed their plans for some undisclosed reasons and made the hole happening a little side event lasting only six seconds on the international media channels – not long enough for most people to grasp the meaning of what was shown to them on their TV screens at home …
Brain-computer interfaces are stepping stones for further inventions in the field of neuroscience. Coupled with precise brain stimulation systems, non-invasive computer-brain interfaces (CBI) are emerging – which means read and write out of information without the need of any surgery and implants. Well, EEGs (electroencephalography) were reading out brainwave patterns since 1924, but the hard nut to crack is the interpretation of the information gathered. Reading out your mind was still not possible till Yamazaki Toshimasa, lead scientist of a research team from the Kyushu Institute of Technology, came up with their findings. He and his team created a technology who would decipher words from brainwaves before they were spoken out loud or spoken in the mind of the participant only. I am talking science fiction, right? Actually, science fact: With an accuracy for some Japanese characters and words of 80-90% of the time, the interpretation of brainwave patterns is taking a huge leap forward what is generally considered as mind reading.
But the technological development is not just stopping at reading out and interpreting brain activity – conscious brain-to-brain communication systems respectively human-to-human brain interfaces are tested in laboratories worldwide with its first successful transmission of information between two human beings via the internet in August 2014, reawakening the dream of telepathy since both subjects were sitting in France and India 7400 kilometers (5,000 miles) apart from each other.
This kind of technology is still in its infancy, but it is raising important ethical issues and will have profound impact on the social structure of our civilization. Technology is changing faster than we do – but changing the mind requires a lot of training. I sincerely hope that the minds using that uprising technology are as highly trained and developed in other important areas of human intelligence – like morals, relationships, emotions, psychosexuality, ego, environmental relations, etc. – as the level of technology is they are going to use for our own safety. Indeed, new technology is always a double-edged sword, therefore it forces us to develop with it – fingers crossed.
As a teenager I do remember the introduction of mobile phone technology in our society everybody is so familiar with nowadays, changing the way how we would set up appointments or feel secure about the other persons wellbeing over space and time. As a kid I was wandering how my grandparents would have lived without a TV or phone, not knowing what the other person was doing high up in the mountains taking care of livestock, or as it happend to be that time in Europe, was fighting a war in a foreign country … Only some photographs were taken at all to tell family and friends what had happened those days, and those pictures were kept as a treasure. Now, almost everybody is able take decent photographs with the push of a button, call their loved ones on the other side of the world and share visual moments instantly. Therefore thousands of photographs are flooding our hard drives and are uploaded on cloud storages as well as on social media networks. Most of pictures are never being looked at again and slowly but forever lost in the matrix of our digital realm. Even if one photograph has a short moment of fame in Facebook, Instagram or co, it will almost immediately disappear in the limitlessness of the internet. Only few photographs will stay on top but still not be remembered long – there are just too many pictures to be liked every single moment …
So why do we collect so many photographs? Why does this matter so much to us? Why do so many people just fall in love with photography nowadays – or is it an obsession? What kind of necessity do we feel to preserve through pictures? …
Like a mountain of precious moments and memories we feel assure that photographs are our save mental backup. Over there, digital, no taking physical space at all. There is no real urge to look at them right now, to repeatedly remember them as we just did some decades ago when grandma showed us the same old photo album again and again, never getting bored at them at all. Because of their uncommonness those days photographs were powerful and precious symbols of our past life. Yet, we capture and store our most dear moments in form of digital photographs locally or in the cloud and assume that they are there if we need them. If a drive fails with our photographs on it and we missed to make a backup copy of it, it feels like a part of our personality has suddenly vanished. A sense of void arises, a feeling of great loss. Like something very close has been taken from us. Unasked. Forever. If feels like a little death.
I surprisingly found myself not looking at photographs anymore afterwards I had taken them. I realized that people feeling the same as me just like to take pictures because of the sake of it. It is in itself completely satisfying. Because we love to photograph. Anytime. Anywhere. It’s not about the picture anymore. It’s a certain way of looking at things, at people, our surrounding. To find beauty in small details and in large inter-relations, being fascinated by a ray of light, enchanted by a specific ambience or a living being. Photography becomes a way of sensing life. Using a camera I am present to the moment, always ready to react to the circumstances and able to freeze the moment in space and time. At least that’s what I deceive myself. If I am honest, I sometimes find myself putting a camera between myself and the moment which unfolds right in front of me. The camera than works as a shield, protects me from being too close to the subject. I am becoming somewhat untouchable. Distance unfolds. But what good does it do if I am not present to the moment anymore? Or if I always need a camera to ensure my feelings? …
What if we push the envelope further and project the technical tendencies happening the last 130 years into near future? Maybe soon not photographs, but memories are recorded including all classical five senses, vision, smell, sound, taste, feelings and thoughts accompanied by it. If we could store and share such a memory, wouldn’t that be the ultimate “photography”? Recording units will merge with human bodies, no technical skill or knowledge required for their operation. Recording takes place 24/7, starting from birth till death. Every memory is instantly stored in some kind of super network storage, never going to be lost, accessible to anyone, or at least to a higher instance supervising it, maybe not a human intelligence. We might be even able to share and exchange memories with each other in a completely new way. “How did you feel inside your body through that specific experience?” or ”May I see through your perspective?”, we may ask for permission and stream or download the others memory to our mind and body.
But for the time being Light field cameras like the Lytro-Immerge are the next big thing in capturing reality. In contrast, light field cameras are not just recording the intensity of light in a scene like conventional cameras do, but also are recording which direction the light rays are traveling in space – which means the information of depth is recorded in a given scene. Packed with this additional information it is possible to create and play back highly sophisticated virtual realities for the use with virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens, the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. For now we still need to wear those headsets to have the pleasure of experiencing a virtual reality (VR). But who knows how long it will take to meet a real hologram emerging right in front of us – like on a holodeck , as envisioned in the famous Star Trek movies? Captain Picard and his crew were enjoying themselves in that virtual reality facility pretty much indeed.
Memories are in constant flux. When we remember we actively take perspective and change the past experience according to our current understanding. Feelings do change afterwards. Just take for example a picture with your former beloved one you are now apart. How do you feel about that picture in this very moment? Do you feel the happiness or love you might have felt the moment you took the picture? Or do you feel regret or anger in this moment? As you may see memories do change over time with our experience. But what will happen if you can record them as they occur and you are able to play them back including all sensations you experienced at that very point in time? What if you recorded a memory you want to forget but since recording is constantly and stored in the cloud with no capacity to forget, what will you do? Can you resist not to replay a specific memory again and again, causing a trauma to reappear indefinitely? How will you be able to heal those memories inside you? Do you have the capacity to change your thoughts? Are you able to develop further and take the next necessary step if you can constantly replay the past? …
Be that as it may, there is a technological revolution happening right in front of us. And who can allow him or herself not to be part of it? Even if it starts a heavy controversy like Google glass did? Some cities in the US banned the wearable optical head-mounted display to secure the privacy of their citizen as it had started several heavy disputes in public spaces. For the time being Google decided to stop the production of its ambitious first generation wearable device. Google glass was first and formost a social failure cause the tech company did not consider deep enough its impact on intimate human relationships. But the next generation of Google glass is in the pipe, and I bet it will be much more discreet. But as people start to merge with technology, will you ban those people too? We want to remember, specially those memories who make us feel good and alive, and the high-tech and information industry is helping us to accomplish exactly that – at least that’s their alluring promise.
Cyborg activist Neil Harbisson is the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull and officially recognized as a cyborg by a government. Photo by Dan Wilton/The Red Bulletin - Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Who and what will be the next photographic posture game changer? A tech giant with a wearable solution? A small start-up with a crowd funded idea? A body implant developed by a medical company or maybe a smart product an online science class has brought into existence? What can you imagine? Let me know if you have seen the future. Thanks for reading.
[Evolution] to be continued …
Google CEO Larry Page in Steven Levy’s book, “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.” Brilliance Audio; Unabridged edition (April 1, 2012), page 67, ↩