Seeing Our Cyborg Selves

We are still rolling down the track created by Moore’s law, which means that news about science and technology will continue to focus on computers getting smaller, smarter, faster, and increasingly integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives—in fact, integrated into our bodies as prosthetic organs and eyes. Our cyborg selves are being created out of advances not only in computers but also in computer peripherals. This is the technology that allows computers to hear, touch, and see.

Computers are becoming better at “seeing” because of advances in optics and lenses. Manufactured lenses, in some ways better than human lenses, are getting cheap enough to put everywhere. This is why the news is filled with stories about self-driving cars, drones, and other technology that relies on having lots of cameras integrated into objects.

This is also why we live in the age of selfies and surveillance. We turn lenses on ourselves as readily as the world turns lenses on us. If once we had a private self, discrete from posing, this self has disappeared into curated images of ourselves doing stuff that provokes envy in the hearts of our less-successful “friends.” If once we walked down streets with our gaze turned outward on the world, now we walk with our eyes focused on the screens that mediate this world. At the same time, we are tracked by cameras that record our motion through public space which has become monitored space.

Lenses molded from polymers cost pennies to manufacture, and the software required to analyze images is getting increasingly smart and ubiquitous. Lenses advanced enough for microscopy now cost less than a dollar. The latest issue of Nature Photonics, reporting on work done by researchers in Edinburgh, describes cameras that use photons for taking pictures around corners and in other places that the human eye can’t see. This is why our self-driving cars will soon have lower insurance rates than the vehicles that we currently navigate around town.

The language of sight is the language of life. We get the big picture. We focus on a problem. We see—or fail to see—each other’s point of view. We have many ways of looking, and more are being created every day. With computers getting better at seeing, we need to keep pace with understanding what we’re looking at.