Monday, February 15, 2016

We have the technology - book overview

Brief overview of the book: We have thetechnology: How biohackers, foodies, physicians, and scientists are transforming human perception, one sense at a time by KaraPlatoni, published 2015 by Basic books.

Generally positive reivews from Kirkusreviews which also provides a list of similar books.

This book is an interesting read. I borrowed the book from the local library and took it along with me on a long weekend / biking holiday. Then did a re-read when I got home as there were snippets throughout the book requiring further attention.

The book’s premise is the challenge the world as we perceive it, through our senses. There are chapters diving deeper into each sense – taste, smell, vision, hearing, touch including the ‘meta sensory’ perceptions of time, pain and emotion. Then 3 consolidating chapters on virtual reality, augmented reality and new senses.

The introduction opens with details of the fringe activity of bio-hackers. People who connect themselves to electrical / digital circuitry to add a new sense (e.g. an embedded compass) or augment a sense. The concept of ‘reading’ what happens in our brains to ‘writing’ what it may be saying, is also introduced. In short, we are on the difficult and complex journey towards being able to unravel the impulses in our brain, and translating them to control exterior devices. Of use, especially for people unable to use their limbs or unable to communicate.
In the chapter on taste, the hunt for ‘another’ taste beyond salty, sweet, sour, bitter and unami is detailed. Scientist postulate there is a ‘fat’ taste, a’calcium’ taste and a taste for ‘fullness’. The idea being that the body will intuitively seek foods which it is missing and through taste, eat foods high in the absent elements. Overall, a really good overview of how we taste and the history of research on finding out how we taste.

The next chapter focuses on smell. In particular, the ways smell brings up memories. The chapter details therapies used with dementia patients. Using significant smells, patients are encouraged to articulate their memories triggered by certain smells. Of note is the cultural / generational significance of certain smells. As will all aspects of life, the smells we are exposed to when we are young, are predicated by our life experiences. 

The vision chapter provides details of attempts to augment vision for people who have lost sight. State of the art therapies are introduced and the long process of developing practical application for theories and the refining of visual prosthetics makes for an interesting read. Various prototypes are described and discussed.

Hearing chapter provides details on the work undertaken to try to ‘read’ how the brain handles language. If ‘reading’ can be worked out, then ‘writing’ to it may also be deduced.

In the chapter on touch, surgeons using ‘robotic’ arms are used to illustrate the role of tactile senses in navigating our world.

The chapter on time is somewhat intriguing. It details the movement towards making a clock, that will measure time for 10,000 years.

The pain chapter undertakes to try to understand if emotional pain is similar to physical pain. Why do we suffer from ‘broken hearts’?

Following on, the chapter on emotion explores the cultural desensitisation in some cultures to expressing emotions. How does each culture ‘feel’? Cross cultural studies are detailed with emphasis on comparing how Eastern and Western cultures 'feel'.

The two chapters on virtual reality and augmented reality detail the latest research into these areas. Examples are provided of how virtual / augmented reality has been used to assist American troops with pre-preparation for the realities of overseas postings into stressful environments or to assist with recuperation from post-traumatic stress following deployment.

The final chapter is on ‘new senses’, returning the book’s trajectory to where it started at the beginning. The example used is the inclusion of ‘electro-magnetic’ detection into human sensations portfolio.

It might be some time before any of the above technologies infiltrate the educational sector. The challenge is the cost of developing these technologies and the context specificity of much of human learning. Virtual reality and augmented reality have been around for over a decade, but what we have seems to be only small applications into education. As with other innovative technologies, the research and development dollars are in the commercial, health and military sectors. Slowly, the technologies filter to education which tends to not have the R & D $$ to support large scale and expensive developments. Granted R & D takes place in the university sector, often building prototypes useful for learning as a by-product of applications for other sectors. However, some way yet for VR and AR to become mainstream in all sectors of education.

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