The arrival of Google Glass did not surprise everyone. Innovators like the U . of Toronto’s Steven Mann spent two decades making wearable computerized visual overlays — or “specs” — more compact and effective, till at last Google deemed the technology ready.
Augmented reality, or AR, has been explored in fiction since the 1980s by authors Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and in my own novel “Earth,” portraying a near future when citizens will take it as a routine element of life.
The path to your destination might be viewed as yellow bricks that are visible only to you. At command, you’ll access public knowledge about any building. Your glasses may equip each passersby with a name tag so you’re never at a loss.
But conveniences accompany drawbacks. Do we want to be recognized by everyone in sight? Will advertising penetrate our barriers and swarm before our eyes?
Huge privacy questions are raised by the way specs can record whatever the wearer sees. Efforts have been made to ban such devices from bars, theaters, even towns. Police , already upset over recent court rulings that allow citizens to record them with cell-phone cameras, will find the Glass stare more unnerving.
These devices won’t just record, they will enhance vision, zooming in and magnifying objects distant or close. Sensors that already exist might link to your specs, empowering you to detect body heat or another person’s pulse rate. We can’t fly like Superman, but we’re rapidly acquiring his other powers.
AR will display all of this on the inner surface of the user’s specs, tailored to his or her preferences. With a tooth-click or a grunted command, that person over there might scan not only your name but also your preening Facebook profile — or instead peruse dissenting opinions posted by your ex-spouse. That giggling teen may have her Google Eyes (a better name than “Glass”) tuned with an app that draws mustaches onto passersby. Other apps might bedeck buildings in jungle vines and attire us in fantasy armor — or ersatz nakedness.
Indignation won’t stop this, any more than raging at a tsunami of cameras will make them vanish. Before rushing to legislate, let’s try looking beyond momentary crises and consider the world 10 years further along.
Cameras become smaller, cheaper, more numerous, mobile and available. Next year, one will sit innocuously at the corner of your sunglasses. The year after, it’ll be invisible in shirt buttons. Then cameras will wave and peer from the tips of your cyber-active hair.
You want to ban it all? Fine, pass laws. Then you and I won’t get these things. But do you imagine this will inconvenience elites of government, wealth, corporations, technology or crime?
These devices will shrink till they become imperceptible. A handful of companies and researchers have already developed electronic contact lenses that can monitor data, with full-scale versions coming. If the technology is banned, surreptitious versions will simply accelerate.
As Robert Heinlein observed way back in 1950, privacy laws tend to just make the spy cameras even smaller. Elites will have it all anyway, making us peasants under omniscient lords.
If these technologies are inevitable, we should embrace them, trying for a win-win. The one hope we have for privacy will be if everyone can use these new powers of sight, and if we agree to rebuke those who stare.
Instead of panicking, we should be arguing, negotiating and adapting ways to get most of the good, and to mitigate the bad to bearable amounts of the merely irritating.
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