A lens you will stick in your eye, but an implant under your skin is too much?

It is unquestionably fascinating how successful we have been in miniaturizing technology to the point that it can be invisible to the human eye. In fact, Google and other companies have been talking about a computerized contact lens that could potentially do anything we want. Google has been focused on using such a contact lens to measure the level of sugar [glucose] in our blood via our tears. Other companies are more focused on a “Mission Impossible” type of lens that would record video and take snapshots and provide us with the famous “Terminator vision”, whereby anything we look at is immediately identified and has descriptive information displayed on the lens.

So imagine you are trying to impress the young lady who has just moved here from Italy, and you take her to the local art museum, despite the fact that you wouldn’t know the Mona Lisa if you walked right through it. But, with your enhanced contact lens remotely connected to your smart phone, you can effectively be a history and art expert, that impresses her to no end.

Of course, the young lady will most likely be wearing the same lenses and will quickly pick up on the fact that you are simply reading off of the Wikipedia page on the specific painting that you are looking at. Therefore, it is very important that these lenses also allow you to change the color of your eyes to aqua blue, which is known to be irresistible.

I personally wear glasses and have worn them from before birth. I once tried contact lenses and was astonished at the fact that people purposely put huge foreign bodies in their eyes, even though an entire part of our brain is dedicated to stopping us from doing something so radical and ridiculous. I do not see myself adopting contact lenses in the near future. On the other hand, I imagine it is possible that new applicators and even new materials will be used to make the placement of contact lenses far less intrusive than it is now.

But even if not, I suspect that there will be an option that works with regular glasses, and will probably, simply use wraparound external lenses so that your entire field of view is covered. Covering your entire field of view is pretty important when it comes to virtual and even augmented reality. There is yet another option whereby cameras, the size of a speck of rice, will sit on our glasses and project an image directly onto our retina. So even though we are not wearing contacts, the effect will be the same.

Before I proceed I think it’s important to clarify the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality. Considering the fact that these two are starting to be blended into a combined experience, my neat little definitions will likely quickly break down.

Virtual reality encompasses as many of your senses as possible so that you are totally entrenched within the computer’s display of reality. While you are wearing virtual reality goggles and earphones, you are not aware of your surroundings and yes, could easily fall into a manhole. As virtual technology advances and virtual smell, taste and even touch become part of the experience, it may very well be possible to fool a human being into thinking that he or she is in a different reality. The obvious question is – all they have to do is reach up and pull the glasses off their face. Without going into the details, it is possible to create an illusion of reality whereby the user will not know where his or her face actually is and thus will not know where to reach to pull off the glasses. Yup – pretty scary.

Augmented reality is often referred to as “Terminator Vision”. In this system, the user sees everything as it really is, but is provided with additional virtual images that either add information to the viewing field or provide additional virtual tools, like a virtual floating knob that can be turned to activate a virtual machine. With such augmented reality, directions can easily be displayed within the field of vision of the user, but without distracting the user from the objects and people in front of him or her. Augmented reality can also answer questions such as – what am I looking at now, who is it that I am speaking to now, what appointments are pending for me right now and so on.

To be clear, there is definitely a crossover between the capabilities of virtual and augmented reality. And as I noted above, there are already groups working on ways to combine the advantages of both into one virtual environment that can dramatically increase the productivity of the human. So, imagine a human standing on top of an empty lot, and via the VR portion of his glasses, seeing the final version of the house that is to be built. However, while the house is being built, the same individual would use augmented reality to see exactly what the purpose is of each beam and what the cost would be for upgrading the wood being used from birch to Pine.

We are living in a perfect storm, where so many technologies are crossing over at the same time, and this raises issues. A classic question would be, how would someone drive their car, if they are in the midst of a VR experience? Within the next 10 years, many of us will be driving in self driving cars and we will not need to interact with the steering wheel and the road. All the more so, we will be able to leave our homes an hour later yet immediately be immersed in the critical staff meeting that is going on, while we are still in our cars. In fact, all the members of the meeting might still be in their cars.

If VR is so good, you should ask the question why there is any need to travel to a common location to share experiences. And I would agree with you completely. I think that the combination of VR and auto-driving will make it far less efficient to physically be in the same location at the same time. We may finally get to a point where virtual meetings are practically indistinguishable from real life interactions. Our car could auto-drive to our children’s schools and drop them off, all the while that we are partaking in our meeting. Considering that self driving cars will most likely be electric, we are also talking about a very positive effect on our environment.

Of course, one could ask why children need to go to school if they too can benefit from VR experiences. I have an answer for this, which is valid for the next 20 to 30 years. But for now, let’s get the whole thing working for the adults and then we can let it spread to all of our children.

The title of this blog post has to do with people’s willingness to adopt certain technologies. And I was very specific in how I phrased the title. I personally have absolutely no problem having a small device being implanted  under my skin. And if this device needs to be upgraded once a year, I once again have no problem with this. Contrarily, having to switch out contact lenses on a daily basis, strikes me as being incredibly annoying. Permanently implanting a smart lens, will raise the question of how to deal with upgrades. Replacing a smart lens would mean more surgery, and the human eye does not like to be poked. All that needs to happen is one slip up, and the eye becomes infected and the user literally loses vision in that eye.

As subcutaneous implants become smaller and smaller, they will literally become unnoticeable. But they will have unique access to the subcutaneous milieu of our bodies. This will provide a level of information about our health that is still only dreamed of. How will upgrades be handled? A scanning device will be passed over the arm (or other location) and will identify the implant. At that point, it will be removable with a small incision and a pair of tweezers. I personally find this far less intrusive and risky than anything having to do with our eyes.

What about people who simply refuse to wear a lens or have an implant or to buy smart clothes, made of smart fabric that connects with local networks? What happens today to people who refuse to use an ATM or smart check-in at the airports? What about people who refuse to carry a mobile phone?

Anyone who refuses to take advantage of transformative technology will lose out on a tremendous number of advantages that the new tech brings with it. And the time will come when day to day activities will become nearly impossible without the new tech. Eventually, credit cards and cash will fade away, and you will only be able to pay with some unique identifying technology, that may be in your phone or implanted in you. If you have no such technology, the waiter/tress will politely inform you that you will have to be externally scanned in order to identify you (and you better be registered in some biometric database). If not, then who knows how this will be handled? But societal pressure will make it near impossible to leave your house or make any purchases or even hail a taxi, if you refuse to be tagged.

Is this a dystopian future? Will privacy end? Will data security be the equivalent of whack-a-mole and you will simply get used to having your most personal information being leaked out? Let me already say that I look forward to all of this tech as I see it as freeing us from interim technology that does not do what we need well enough. But I know that there are many people who will be literally disgusted by this invasion of their physical bodies. Will these same people refuse to have their children tagged as a pre-requisite to start school? Perhaps a subculture of anti-tech people will form who will live tech-free lives (yes, like in the movie Surrogates). I wouldn’t dare guess.

I will say the following: progress is a speeding train that even Superman cannot beat out. And its pace is exhausting. Even in medicine, which is notoriously slow when it comes to adopting new technology, entire fields of medicine are changing before our eyes. The time will come when we will all have to decide what kind of life we want to live. And we will have the choice of living with tech or without it. There are plusses and minuses on both sides. I personally will choose the tech side, just as long as no one comes near my eyes with a needle or scalpel.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.