My father was an aeronautical visionary. In WWII, when a small plane was needed to fly supplies into and wounded persons out of remote areas with hardly any landing space, a design competition was held. When engineering teams presented their creations to see which could land and take off in the shortest strip of runway, my father’s team landed the runway crossways. His Stinson L5, “the Flying Jeep”, hangs in the Smithsonian today. I didn’t inherit that gene.
Dereck Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic, recently wrote of interviews conducted within Google’s “Moonshot Industry”. This portion of the company is devoted to what they call radical creativity, exploring breakthrough technology to address huge societal problems.
Success requires both invention and innovation. Failure is more common than success; an expected part of the process. Ideas must be feasible, even if seemingly outlandish. One example? How to get affordable, dependable internet access to the most remote areas of the planet, perhaps using a form of balloon technology flying above planes and below satellites. Hmmm.
The notion of “what could be” struck a chord closer to home when reading an article by Matthew Hutson, a science writer based in New York. He focused on examples of radical creativity when considering how technology could be designed to impact our senses and perception, perhaps mitigating loss, or opening new ways of living.
In the study of age, it’s known that our basic senses change or diminish as we grow older. Disease can increase change, but some lessening of basic senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch is normal. We usually accommodate changes over time, often without thinking about it.
By age sixty for example, the pupils in our eyes may decrease to about a third of the size they were at age twenty. This impacts how fast the older eye can adapt to light and darkness and explains why we use more light than a younger person to read or move comfortably in darker places. We also know that differences between colors, blues and greens for example, become hard to distinguish.
Changes in our ears affect both hearing and balance. Being aware of and managing change by discussing options with an audiologist and using balance exercises can help. Taste and smell typically lessen after age seventy, particularly if smoking is involved. Finding new ways to cook and season, without shaking on more salt, works well and can be fun. Sensations of touch may also be lessened affecting our ability to sense pain, temperature and pressure. Not recognizing pain, cold or extreme heat can be dangerous.
So why did Matthew Hutson’s article catch my eye? He picked up on research ideas working to enhance use of our senses, and more radically, perhaps even give people access to senses evident in other species.
Ideas included cameras allowing sight for the blind by triggering electrodes in the retina, or optic nerve, or the brain. Paralysis could perhaps be aided by pressure pads on real or robotic hands sending touch feedback to the brain or nerves in the arm.
Individuals without one sense often compensate by developing higher ability with remaining senses. A blind person often hears more acutely than a sighted person. Using the body’s ability to compensate is spurring the idea that we might be able to send impulses that allow us to “hear” images or “feel” sound.
In a section called “Borrowing From Nature”, Hutson points out that technology could use implants in the ear to hear low frequencies heard by elephants or high frequencies heard by dolphins. Bionic eyes could allow humans to see ultraviolent rays seen by butterflies, dogs and other animals. Some researchers support the notion of the ability to “swap in” different sensors as we need them.
Growing ever older, it’s amazing to feel one’s own sense of history spanning significant swaths of time. The technology of our earlier life suddenly feels antiquated.
Future design - hard to imagine. I wonder what our grandchildren will see when they’re in their eighties?