Cyborgs unite!

Professor Steve Mann just may be the world's first cyborg rights activist. It is a future, he says, that is no longer the exclusive preserve of science fiction.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
Steve Mann is not only a pioneer in wearable computers, an electrical engineering professor and the star of a documentary titled "Cyberman."

Mann also is the first cyborg rights activist.

A native of Canada who teaches at the University of Toronto, Mann became famous in the 1990s for roaming the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus as a graduate student outfitted with chunky glasses that augmented his vision, a bulging, hip-mounted PC that boosted his memory, and an antenna that broadcast to the Internet whatever he saw. Since then, Mann has slimmed his "eyetap" apparatus down to a more manageable size and has purchased a former Toronto nightclub to use as a home, a design laboratory and a sort of tech-art gallery.

In his 2001 autobiography-manifesto "Cyborg," Mann described what it's like to be a human Netcaster who sees the world only through a wearable computer--and inevitably encounters hostile reactions in shopping malls and department stores. He became even more of an activist after an incident at a security checkpoint in a Newfoundland airport in early 2002; Mann says he was roughed up and left bleeding and disoriented after electrodes were ripped from his skin and his reality-altering eyetap glasses were confiscated.

CNET News.com caught up to Mann at his home lab in Toronto, where he was planning a pair of "DECONism" events, featuring music controlled in part by brain waves. An electrode attached at the base of a participant's skull reads electrical impulses, which a PC can use to alter audio characteristics such as volume or tempo.

Q: What happened with your lawsuit against Air Canada over the incident at the airport security checkpoint?
That company has gone on the verge of bankruptcy, near as I can tell. First, I wrote a letter asking them if they would cover the minimal costs of replacing my damaged equipment. Then, I filed a statement of claim. The company has declared that they're on the verge of bankruptcy, so the proceedings were stayed.

So you don't travel on commercial flights anymore?
Anything that involves travel now has to be on a chartered flight or driving or other forms of remote intervention--I have the visual vicarious soliloquy (a kind of remote Internet-delivered lecture). In the age we live where we have more and more disease hysteria, virtual travel is going to be a more and more important element.

What happened when, many years ago, you let your hair grow through the fabric of your wearable computer so it could not be readily removed?
Reactions varied quite a bit. Some people thought it was good and others were quite negative.

The first people who wore clothing were seen as weird in that they had a pseudo-skin.
You've described anticyborg hostility in supermarkets, shopping centers, even at MIT. How do you account for it?
I think Simon Davies (an activist with Privacy International in London) explained it quite well by saying a totalitarian regime would like to know everything about everyone but expose nothing about itself. I call it "sousveillance," a balancing act. Surveillance is out of balance.

Do people think you're rudely doing something else when viewing the world through your goggles--reading e-mail, catching up on the news?
I suppose it's a variety of things. The first people who wore clothing were seen as weird in that they had a pseudo-skin. Such attitudes will continue until these new inventions become widespread and widely in use. It's sort of like telephones. At first, people thought it was terrible that this machine is speaking to them. You can imagine someone saying, "Do you prefer talking to people or talking to machines?"

You liken society's acceptance of gay rights and racial minority rights to acceptance of cyborg rights. Why?
I would say, in general, corporeal de-referencing, which I think of as the postmodern age--or the cyborg age--is something that we saw quite a bit of. And then we now see that sort of thing on the decline again.

You call that decline the post-cyborg age?
What I talk about is the relevance of the body as pre-cyborg. The cyborg age is transcending the body. We've all adapted to shoes, jewelry and personal effects. This is the norm, and their absence is abnormal. The post-cyborg age is this re-reference to the body. So, for example, with the anthrax scare, we see the body de-referenced from its cyborg prosthesis. We see a return of racial profiling and a return of gender reference--a return of corporeal matters.

You say you want to achieve personal liberty, but can't your inventions be turned into virtual nightmares--smart handcuffs, person-tracking leg irons and other forms of repression and surveillance?
Like any new invention, it has a variety of uses. My role as inventor is to try to create an awareness of new directions that things might take.

You told me earlier that you're having a hard time controlling some digital cameras with a PC, because the proprietary software provided by companies like Canon and Nikon won't let you do what you want. Why do you liken that to a virus?
Science is a venue for exploration and understanding how things work. And there are certain viruses that attempt to circumvent science.

So, any closed-source, proprietary software is a virus?
I see anything that attempts to obfuscate its functionality as antiscience. Children might open up a clock and see how it works in the past. But now we might envision a world where clocks are made so they blow up when you open them up--to make it more difficult to figure out how they work.

How close are you to selling your eyetap computers commercially?
They're ready to be manufactured, if we could find a manufacturer to produce them. We could have them on the market this year. It's a matter of finding interested parties.

Xybernaut makes wearable computers, but they don't seem to be nearly as popular as "pocketable" computers like PDAs and newer cell phones.

My role as inventor is to try to create an awareness of new directions that things might take.
Xybernaut doesn't fully implement or attain the eyetap criteria. There are three criteria: colinearity, which says the rays of incoming light should pass through and continue along the same trajectories. There is a sense of immediacy--that the input should come out within a reasonable time frame. And then there is the tonality notion--that if light increases coming in, it should increase coming out.

You own some patents relating to wearables. How do you reconcile owning exclusive rights with promoting unfettered scientific progress?
I believe in a kind of concept where the hardware device itself would be manufactured by a large company. But the programs and concepts that run on it would be in the scientific domain, where people are free to contribute toward it. That's consistent, I guess, with science in general. So I'm not anti-corporate. I think that it's fine to sell glassware and beakers and so on to do science. But what I am against is the soft science kind of problems that I talk about in the book.

You say that you can take a snapshot of an ad on a sign or billboard and then instruct your eyetap computer never to display it again. But ads are becoming digital. Won't they alter themselves as quickly as spam does?
I guess I could envision theft of human thought resources as being something that those who wish to steal the CPU cycles of your brain would attempt by getting more sophisticated. And therefore, the theft prevention mechanism would have to get more sophisticated. Spam could be thought of as theft of resources.

You have a 1-year-old daughter. Are you going to turn her into a cyborg by showing her the world only through an eyetap computer?
Well, maybe I'll wait until the items are mass produced and available and as common as other things like shoes and clothing.

Because of the cost?
I think that if you're going to adapt to using shoes in your ordinary life, you would also want to be able to get shoes easily.

What's going to happen at your panel and concert events?
This time, the panelists will be in the bath. In a previous event, the attendees were in the bath (an 8-foot-long plastic vat that's used commercially for mixing chemicals, donated by a fellow MIT alumnus). There's also a brain wave concert, where people are hooked up, and their brain waves generate the music. Additionally, there is a Parkinson's patient who will be remotely participating in the event.