The Melding of Man and Machine May Be on a Mission to Mars

By Special Guest
Alex Pop, Guest Columnist
November 08, 2017

How will Homo sapiens psychologically adjust to the wearable technologies that will inevitably augment our bodies in the coming centuries? Further, as mankind expands into the cosmos, what inevitable marriages will have to occur between astronaut and machine in order to give us an edge over the difficult voyage? Will implantable digital devices become the societal norm – or will it create a divide between cyborgs vs. tech-abstinent-purists?

One thing is for sure, popular culture is more aware of these questions than ever; we already begin to see signs of man melding with machine. It is evidenced by atypical movies like Blade Runner breaking onto the big screens and individuals the like of Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson becoming mainstream. It seems humanity is looking up at the stars in wonder, before returning to work, welding their microchip.

Did you know that the space race during the Cold War was the best thing to ever happen to engineering? During 1958 to the early 1980’s both the U.S. and the USSR wanted to be the first to put a man on the moon. There was a very real and palpable intellectual battle between NASA and Sputnik, each side poaching brilliant scientists from the other. The U.S. needed sharp minds, smart scientists, better technology, and stronger payload capacity to go against the USSR. The USSR felt it needed the same to go against the United States.

As a result, governments pushed parents to push their kids to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. They needed STEM to be sexy so that they could get to the moon before the other guy, and win the ideological arms race that was the Cold War.

The speech that comes to mind is of JFK, whose words reverberate even more lucidly today:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Having such an ideal set forth by a leader in society will create the new breed of scientist -- a digital native operating in a data-rich world. During the Cold War it was geeks, nerds, and techies who were most prized; in 2017 it is A.I. engineers who are the highest-sought-after workers.

So what went right? First off, the demand was there; the government clearly valued these workers. Parents started pushing their kids into studying science -- and as a species, we arguably had the greatest revival of intelligence since the Enlightenment. Children in the 1960’s grew up lionizing engineers and a disproportionate number of them went into STEM fields. The top strata of these individuals eventually became Nobel prize winners who would usher in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

And now humanity has set its sights on Mars.

I believe the space race of our own age will propel these technologies to the next level. The trend towards technological miniaturization following WWII had inventors working on products that became ever smaller and smaller. The invention of the microchip and the proliferation of the smartphone are a harbinger of what new technologies in the space race will look like.

The effort involved in propelling a group of astronauts though space is immense and we’ll need brainpower and a novel approach. Machines and wearables will have to provide psychologically soothing experiences to assist astronauts’ mental health. The two-year journey is filled with sensorineural isolation, loss of normal biorhythms, and lack of familiar stimuli. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality provide a start for virtual programs which can place dancing pictures in an astronauts’ field of vision, but they will have to be combined with programs that help to combat muscle atrophy (muscle mass and muscle strength decreases while engaged in space flight).

We will need lightweight IoT on the voyage. We will need sensors on everything: on electronic probes outside the ship, on automated batteries powering devices throughout the deck, inside the astronaut’s waste receptacle (giving warnings of urine toxicology). It will need to be live, to be powered –on continuously, and will need to integrate back into the greater ecosystem of hardware and software that runs the ship. In case the Challenger disaster does happen again, we need multiple black boxes of information brought back for post-hoc forensic review. 

What’s more, the pioneers that enter into this new environment will need to get accustomed to these technologies, many of which will be worn on the body, tracking biodata. Imagine having electrodes on your head and chips underneath your skin. It won’t just be likely or even “nice-to-have,” it will be needed, especially when we expect astronauts to perform at such peak intervals, and under much duress, for extended periods of time.

Who knows the types of technology we can expect to arrive in the next few decades! If designed with the user in mind, the right hardware will be as easy to put on as a pair of glasses or a wrist-watch.

The information we gather on our trip to the red planet will allow neurologists, doctors, robotics inventors, and UI/UX designers to work together to solve important questions. Questions such as:

  • “How can the human mind adapt to solitary spaces – and how can technology help the human being stay more connected to the tribal social group?”
  • “What technologies will help astronauts overcome sensorineural isolation?”
  • “What IoT sensors are mission-critical to the health of the crew and the success of the voyage?”
  • “How will the field of ergonomics, UI/UX design, and robotics change over the coming decades?”
  • “Where does the line between ‘human’ end -and ‘cyborg’ begin?”

Unfortunately, we are left with more questions than answers. For now, we are still very much on the “real world” struggling to eradicate poverty, disease, and a lack of education. There are pressing problems we need to take care of on earth.

Technology can bring both good and evil. Take, for example, the hotly contested cochlear implant. Early treatment of severe hearing loss (even deafness) can be affected by the installation of a cochlear implant in the infant’s brain. Deaf infants outfitted with the device grow up to be fully functioning children, possessing speech, communication, and vocabulary abilities well within the norm. Would we call such a child, now blessed with the miracle of hearing and speech a “cyborg” – just because they have a device on their head? Furthermore, would it make sense to be willfully abstinent from such developments, shutting oneself in a closed-minded doomsday bunker - even when such technologies can resolve complex existential issues like social isolation? I, for one, support a positive outcome for every human being, even when this requires technological augmentation; I wish to give my children every conceivable advantage in this competitive world.

Each day we become closer to the augmented age when devices will become more convenient, widespread, and interact in such a way that if one is not connected to the grid, one will not have a voice. It’s a fine line to walk; as shapers of industry we must consider the utilitarian good and never forget our ethics. And no matter how far our voyage takes our species, let us not forget the muck from which we came.

About the Author: Alex Pop is a content writer for SayWhat. He specializes in advertising, e-commerce, and hearing solution technologies. He enjoys educating readers on the beneficent power technology brings, while tackling societal issues that both unify and isolate modern man. Follow Alex on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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