Dreamers solve problems and still dream

When I was based in a London academic medical informatics centre it was on the cards but whaddaya know, now they’ve gone and done it. Another leap and bound towards autonomy for severely impaired people and another one in the eye for the disability threshold (notwithstanding the attendant danger of blurting out “Nice tits” when you only meant to think “Nice tits” – I don’t think the system can say “tits” yet but it will surely have to learn at some stage). The New Scientist:

A neckband that translates thought into speech by picking up nerve signals has been used to demonstrate a “voiceless” phone call for the first time.

With careful training a person can send nerve signals to their vocal cords without making a sound. These signals are picked up by the neckband and relayed wirelessly to a computer that converts them into words spoken by a computerised voice.

I find this kind of thing very moving. It makes me ‘pan out’ to regard humanity in all its dreaming and striving. I get emo about inventions because I love it that we (I don’t mean me – I haven’t invented a damn thing – but the human collective) don’t settle for life to merely drop things on us like so many sea anemones. We get down from the trees and started sniffing around and changing things – sometimes to make our lives better and sometimes just for the merry hell of it.

But hold it. It’s not quite humanity, is it?

I’m a technologist and often get pulled up short by the sharp tug on my leash to remind me that the tail does not wag the dog in this establishment. I’m perpetually bothered by retrogrades who try to tell me that technology must be kept in its place, that it’s a tool for solving problems we have already thought of. If they were the inventors we’d be lucky to have chalk and slateboards. The ones who disapprove are the kind of people who, on learning that cine-cameras and cinema have been invented, the extent of their vision is to broadcast recordings of theatrical productions. Fair enough. lack of imagination is one thing, and I have that myself. Ditto lack of energy and lack of time, god knows. But then there are the ones who inveigh against the evils of technology and its threat to learning while their students decide to stay in bed with their laptops rather than trail in to be talked at for two hours.

The notion that promotion of new technology which doesn’t obviously solve a problem constitutes ‘technocentrity’ is the reason that every (as it sometimes seems) technological advance has to be smuggled in as something that helps disabled people – like Kevin Warwick and his cyborg Parkinsons Disease patients – even though it’s quite obvious (though I hope not in their case) that health technologies have far outstripped our collective willingness to fund them.

The fact is that, as well as being moulded to our will when we have a will we can mould them to, technologies imply, invite and suggest. And suggest different things to different people from different backgrounds with different concerns. Saints preserve the speculative research which keeps our minds open to the propositions.


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