Peter Nowak: Snapchat Spectacles raise concerns about a transhuman future

Snap’s new Spectacles are capable of recording video ten seconds at a time and broadcasting them through Snapchat. Snap / AFP
Snap’s new Spectacles are capable of recording video ten seconds at a time and broadcasting them through Snapchat. Snap / AFP

What’s a good way to get assaulted by a stranger? Try wearing Snapchat’s new Spectacles, the social media service’s upcoming video-streaming sunglasses.

The California company unveiled the new devices over the weekend.

Billed as a “toy” aimed at teenagers, the US$130 Spectacles will let wearers stream whatever they’re seeing to the Snapchat mobile app.

Clearly Snapchat has learnt nothing from Google Glass’s failure a few years ago. Google’s product, which could also stream video, failed for several reasons – but mostly because it was a privacy invasion waiting to happen.

Reaction on social media to Spectacles was understandably hostile, with some individuals even threatening violence against anyone using them in a public place. People just don’t like being filmed without consent.

The hostility heralds a larger argument that will arrive soon as such technologies become better, smaller and less obvious. What happens when Snapchat has streaming contact lenses?

There’s no time like the present to start having such conversations, since a future in which it will become easy for humans to augment themselves with technology – and do so without anyone knowing – is rapidly approaching.

Digital contact lenses, for example, are already well advanced. Google filed a patent last year on a smart contact lens that can detect glucose levels through tears. Swedish researchers are working on a lens that can monitor glaucoma, while counterparts at the Future Industries Institute of the University of South Australia believe they can create displays that fit right on to the eye.

Sony, according to a recently filed patent, also thinks it can build video recorders into contact lenses. Samsung has already lodged a trademark – Gear Blink – that is probably in the same vein.

Hopefully Samsung’s devices won’t have exploding batteries.

The benefits of such devices are as obvious as those of plain old contact lenses, which explains the tech companies’ enthusiasm.

But if Snapchat’s repetition of Google’s mistakes is any indication, these companies don’t seem to be spending much time thinking about the downsides.

The potential for privacy invasion is obviously a key one. Connected glasses are one thing – it’s easy to tell when someone is wearing them – but digital contacts would allow wearers to surreptitiously record or stream everything they see without anyone being the wiser.

A number of bars and restaurants barred patrons from wearing Google Glass for that very reason, but they won’t be able to do the same with connected contacts.

Control over such technology will thus inevitably go to higher powers. Privacy watchdogs may end up banning them, or at least outlawing the addition of recording capabilities.

Privacy isn’t the only concern. Smart lenses are also likely to be the vanguard of further technological enhancements, which raises the grim spectre of a new digital divide on a biological level.

If, for example, such lenses allow wearers to see into different parts of the light spectrum or zoom in on what they’re looking at, why would anyone not want them? Is there a person alive who wouldn’t prefer to see better, or farther?

As with many new technologies, the benefits will at first go to those who can afford them. Today, that means more affluent people have slightly better phones and computers than the poor, but in the near future it means the rich will effectively be able to become more human than human.

And their advantages will extend beyond contact lenses.

Researchers working for the US military have created bionic arms that can be controlled by neural and electro-muscular signals.

Last year, 19 patients received permanent artificial hearts. 3D-printed organs are expected to soon become possible, if not commonplace.

In each case, these technologies are intended to help people suffering from injuries and chronic ailments.

But just as soon as their efficacy is proven, there will be recreational interest as well, especially if they offer superiority to the biological alternatives. Soon, the rich will be looking to swap their body parts just like they upgrade their iPhones. Circulatory System 7S, anyone?

Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, declared more than a decade ago that this movement towards the technological improvement of biology – known as transhumanism – was the greatest threat to the world.

At a time when divisiveness is already so pronounced, he may be right. If some individuals are threatening to assault others who wear recording devices, what will happen when some people truly do become better than others?

The tech week’s winner and loser

Winner of the week:

Twitter. Shares of the social media company jumped as news of multiple suitors broke. Google parent Alphabet, Salesforce, Disney and US telecom provider Verizon are among the companies rumoured to be interested in an acquisition.

Loser of the week:

Motorola. After spending a few years bouncing around between owners, including Google, the mobile phone maker ended up with Lenovo in 2014. The Chinese company this week announced it is laying off 2 per cent of its workforce, or about 1,100 employees, mostly at Motorola.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read