Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Smartphones and The Cyborg's Dilemma

In this month's issue of Fast Company, there's an article by Adam Bluestein titled, "As Smartphones Get Smarter, You May Get Healthier: How mHealth Can Bring Cheaper Health Care To All."  M-Health stands for "mobile health," a new trend in helath care technology which takes advantage of the smartphone platform to make expensive medical devices available around the world and on the go for only a fraction of the cost of convensional health care machinary.  For example, Bluestein's article features engineer Ramesh Raskar whose smartphone-based autorefractor takes advantage of the existing display technology to make an ordinarily cost-prohibitive instrument available in poor nations.  The technology cleverly takes advantage of an already existing economy of scale in smartphones.  In addition to Raskar's autorefractor, mobile ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, microscopes, and other applications build off of the display technology, wireless communication, and power supplies of existing smartphone technology.  See Bluestein's diagram below for the full range of innovations:

Amid all of this incredible innovation, there is one line in Bluestein's article that some may find unsettling.  It's a quote from the Chief Innovation Officer at Humana: "It's like a the human body has developed a new organ."  As I considered this, I was reminded of Frank Biocca's famous paper, "The Cyborg's Dilemma," which is described as a sort of paradox in human-machine relations: "The more natural the interface the more 'human' it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind.  The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface.  Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become 'unnatural,' the more we become cyborgs."

Of course, the prospect of becoming a cyborg is significantly less disturbing when one considers the alternative plan.  Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that this is another critical example of how the intimate connection we have with our tools is in the process of transforming us.

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