Helping Hands - Wonders and Woes of Prosthetic Technologies
9th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction
Stanford University, January 15-19, 2015
The human hand is not merely useful. It is arguably the most openly and inexhaustibly programmable biological machine in the universe. The partnership it forged with the brain and the rest of the human body over the span of many thousands of years not only made human life possible but reappears in every healthy new human baby as a legacy of wide-open prospects for adventure and discovery.
For most large organisms, survival of the species has been won through the tactic of genetic and behavioral conservatism – settling into a niche where skills are suited to needs, and where environmental change comes slowly compared to the pace of generational renewal. Humans, too, are genetically conservative, but our evolutionary path liberated us from repertoires of fixed and safe routines and turned us into behavioral improvisers. Possibly this happened because the childhood and adolescence of our species was spent crossing unfamiliar landscapes and chancing life in unpredictable environments. This migratory strategy didn’t just save us, it transformed us. Over time we became “modern Homo sapiens” – highly resourceful tool-makers and users who had learned to live together and to share labor, knowledge, and ideas. Eventually, having no real competitors, we put ourselves in charge of the shallow global compartment of oxygen-rich terrain where our ancestors had started hanging out millions of years ago.
The downside of our survival strategy has been that what makes us so successful also makes us a danger to ourselves, as Greek mythology and Shakespeare so eloquently remind us. The latest irony and most recent danger is the perverse idea that our biology is our undoing, and that only technology can save us. It is this idea, or part of this idea, that I want to talk about here. Specifically, I want to consider our high hopes for “prosthetics technologies,” by which I mean not only those devices and machines that are created to repair and replace broken or missing parts of ourselves but also the devices and machines we design and build to outdo ourselves.