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Cyborg genius claims he's the next step in human evolution

Sunday, July 21, 2002    

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DOCTOR Steve Mann is a real-life super human. He can see perfectly in total darkness, control all the functions of his body with a simple thought and with just a glance take measurements requiring teams of scientists. And he never forgets anything. He even has beyond human senses like the sonar of a bat and the ability to see infrared.

Doctor Mann is not some comic book hero, however. He is a soft-spoken 40 year-old college professor, ordinary in every way except one -- Steve Mann is a cyborg, a man bonded with machines. And he says that we are next.

"We are all going to become what I am now," says Dr Mann gesturing to the wires connected to his body. Those wires link Steve to a tiny super computer clipped to his belt which then uses micro-lasers hidden in his eyeglasses to paint computer displays directly onto his eyes.

Like the robot in the Terminator movies, wherever Steve Mann looks, computer displays and scientific measurements hover over his vision. Dr Mann never forgets things like ordinary people. Names and personal information hover above people he has met before and the computer shows him a recorded image of where he left his keys.

With the memory and processing power of a super computer, Mann is quietly warring against natural evolution. From his offices and laboratories at the University of Toronto in Canada, Steve Mann and his devoted techno-disciples have begun what is possibly the greatest leap in human development since we stood upright -- the end of the separation of man and machine.

It began when he was a child. "My father worked in clothes manufacturing. I was very interested in electric circuits so I ended up making my own clothes combining circuits and computers," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-trained inventor. "Electrical wire and thread blended together in my mind."

Later in high school, Mann began to show an unusual genius for invention. "I made a shirt with electric lights that would pulse in time to my heartbeat or at the sound of someone's voice. It would flash with the music at the high-school dance."

Then when he took an after school job in a TV repair store the direction of his future inventions became clear. "We had access to miniature television tubes for cameras. I built a wearable TV on a helmet. In those days computers were plugged into a TV so the natural thing was to connect a computer in a backpack to my TV helmet."

Mann says he received either fascination or ridicule. "Once I showed people that it was a real computer they would ask what use is it? I would ask them what use is some of your clothes? Someone can do something just because they like it. The way I work is that I build something and then try to figure out why I built it later."

When Mann began to study electrical engineering at MacMaster's University in his home town of Hamilton, Ontario, he found that his wearable computer, or WearComp, was a great way to meet women. "When I was first dating I would have other people wear a WearComp too and then we plugged ourselves together," says Mann. "I did that with my wife on our first date."

"It was very intimate to have a cable joining us," says Mann. One of the things Mann would do when linked on a date is what he calls Eye-to-Eye. "I see through her eyes and she sees through mine in a picture-in-picture swap." Mann and his date would experience the moment from the other's point of view.

Mann's wife, Betty, seems to have enjoyed it. They continued dating when Mann left for the United States and doctoral work at MIT and married in 1993. "When we met in 1984 I was already a cyborg so she knew what she was getting into," laughs Mann.

But the WearComp was not just for fun. Mann used the device to create many inventions that could be of great benefit to mankind. Among them was the Blind Sight Project which gave blind people a kind of sonar. "You could feel objects sort of pressing against you," explains Mann. "As you got closer they would vibrate stronger."

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind became very excited by his invention. "We never got into mass production. I am an inventor rather than an ambassador of technology," admits Mann. "I would rather let somebody else popularise the technology."

One setback was how cumbersome the early WearComps were. "At that time these devices were quite heavy, especially the computer," says Mann, "so I didn't wear them much. But as the technology evolved and became smaller I began to wear them more and more."

The most important advance was the replacement of the heavy TV helmet with a tiny device resembling regular eyeglasses. Called an EyeTap, it uses a laser to paint the computer display directly onto the human eye. "Today's WearComp looks like eyeglasses," says Mann, "it is pretty normal looking."

With miniaturisation, a world of applications have opened up for the technology. Mann says WearComp can help the elderly suffering from Alzheimer's disease by giving them artificial memory. UN weapons inspectors sent to places like Iraq could have teams of experts analysing what they see. Crime and terrorism could be solved by playing back the footage of WearComp users, like human "black boxes". Doctors would be alerted the instant the wearer begins to have a heart attack. "An instrument panel on an automobile lets you know if there is something wrong," says Mann. "Why not have the same for the human body?"

Once small enough, Mann began to wear the technology constantly and a strange thing happened. Says Mann, "I became one with the machine." The technology became Mann's only way of seeing the world and directly linked with his body through intense bio-feedback.

Dr Mann no longer directly sees the outside world at all, he sees a computer-generated image. Light comes into his glasses, is processed by the computer and is then painted onto his eyes by lasers. "It is kind of like flying an airplane on instruments," explains Mann. "I see the world only through the computer."

When asked whether he is losing touch with the real world, Mann responds, "are we losing out by wearing shoes and clothing because we can no longer feel the breeze on our skin or the earth beneath our feet?"

Experiencing the world through the computer is fascinating, he says. "Everything is new. Everyday mundane objects somehow become interesting," claims Mann. "Another thing I have fun with is reversing up/down or left/right. I have lived for weeks in an upside down or a left/right world.

"I am allowed senses we don't normally have like radar and sonar. I see in complete darkness and can make out each individual turning propeller on flying airplanes. I see infrared which makes the warm grass brighter than the cold sidewalk. Scientific measurements hover over my vision. It makes me feel like some sort of super human being."

Another strange side effect is that everything is in focus. "It is like living in a photograph. It gives you an appreciation of the natural beauty of the world. I see the world the way a great artist might."

The price of these fantastic experiences is that Mann must strictly avoid using his normal human eyes. "I shower in the dark and have to turn off the lights before I remove the equipment and get into bed with my wife at night," he says.

With careful effort Mann can still leave the computer world. "I can gradually dial down the effect over a week," says Mann, "if I want to go swimming next week, for example."

It takes about another week for Mann to become one with the machine again.

To be removed suddenly from the equipment, however, can be dangerous. A colleague at MIT almost sweated to death when she was using the machine for bio-feedback and it suddenly broke down. A new machine had to be quickly built so she could use bio-feedback to turn the sweat off.

Mann believes brain damage can occur on sudden severing due to the new brain connections formed to interface with the technology. He actually suffered such damage on returning from a recent trip to Newfoundland where he was lecturing.

Mann travelled to Newfoundland without any problems but on his return the advance notice documentation he provided Air Canada seems to have been lost from his file.

In the heightened security world of post-September 11 travel, the wires crisscrossing Mann's body alarmed Air Canada security officials. He seemed like a walking bomb.

Mann charges that Air Canada security personnel put him through a three-day ordeal. He was finally only allowed to board the plane after removing all of his equipment and shipping it through as baggage. They even made him rip off the electrodes attached to his body with Derma-bond surgical glue, resulting in heavy bleeding.

When suddenly removed from the computer-generated world, Steve Mann immediately fell ill. "I was sick to my stomach and dizzy," he says. "I slipped and fell a couple of times."

When Mann arrived back in Toronto, much of his equipment was damaged or lost. "My students estimated there was about $120,000 of damage in broken and lost parts."

Mann is now suing Air Canada for damages and discrimination. "This is not about money," says Mann. "It is about the right not to be excluded. My case reminds a lot of people of discrimination against blacks in the 1960s. But in my case, it is as if we will all be turning black in another 10 or 20 years. We are all going to become what I am now, so there is a lot at stake here for everybody."

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