InfoVis Makes Us Cyborgs

by Enrico on February 9, 2011

in Thoughts

cybernetic eyeThis is a tough post my dear readers. Tough for me I mean, not for you I hope. I have a thousand ideas in mind and sincerely I couldn’t find a way to sort them out in a neat and clean format before writing. But I prefer to share with you this mess I have here and now than waiting forever. This stuff is serious enough to make me afraid of writing. But being afraid to post something is actually a good thing, so here I am.

There is a big trend around us. Maybe you grasped it but you couldn’t put it in focus. The technology we have built turned us into cyborgs and we didn’t realized it. Only if we put information visualization and related disciplines into this bigger picture, into a larger context, we will be able to understand its importance, role, and impact.

The cool thing is that some people started noticing it and little by little a common global consciousness is taking shape. You want a demonstration? Ok.

Amber Case is a cyborg anthropologist studying how technology is turning us into cyborgs. She recently gave a TED talk titled “We are all cyborgs now” and if you haven’t seen it yet go there now and come back here when you are done. Amber explains us that the technology we currently have around us turned us already into cyborgs even if we have not noticed it yet. We can talk with any person at any time even if this person is on the other side of the world. We have a second self on the net and we have to take care of it if we don’t want to lose our face. We exist at the same time in several places now.

Another demonstration? Eric Schmidt in a recent talk talked about augmented humanity and how the technology around us is making us augmented creatures that can do things our bodies and minds couldn’t do before.

You want more? I have more. Strata hosted a panel entitled: “Posthumans, Big Data and New Interfaces“. Kevin Kelly published a very successful book titled “What technology wants“, where the symbiosis between our 21st century technology and us is discussed at length. Everett Bogue turned his blog from a minimalist lifestyle blog into a post-human cybernetic blog.

I could keep writing links over links ad libitum for a while, but I don’t want to annoy you. So what’s the point here? The point is: what is the role of  infovis (and related technologies) in this whole new picture that the human started to cultivate?

This image of intelligence augmentation or amplification, or whatever you want to call it, resonates so much with the original reason why I started this whole journey that I just cannot avoid to share it with you. Information visualization is one of the most powerful tools cyborgs have in their arsenal and here I want to start scratching the surface of this idea with you.

How I decided to do research in InfoVis and why the cyborg idea is implanted in its very core.

I remember it vividly. I was 18yo or so and I came back from a life-changing trip in the US with a book on my hands: “Virtual Reality” by Howard Rheingold. Virtual reality seemed the next big thing in computing at that time and Rheingold wrote a wonderful book in his classic entertaining, deep and mind-blowing style I will love forever. By reading that book I learned about research labs and people dreaming of machines able to amplify our senses and our cognition. I fell in love with the idea of working in a research team and build machines for the human mind. Plus I loved the idea of building “things” that people could see with their eyes. It was such a powerful message! At that point I decided to study computer engineering and to become a researcher. Only after several years I discovered information visualization. Virtual reality had already lost its appealing but InfoVis was like a revelation to me. I thought something like: “Wow! This is what I always wanted to do. I will do it.”

During my readings I had already absorbed the whole notion of intelligence amplification and human augmentation. My favorite piece of writing, and personal manifesto, is the mythical article Fred Brooks wrote when he received the prestigious Allen Newell Award: “The Computer Scientist as Toolsmith“. In this paper he advocated the need of focusing on intelligence amplification (IA) rather than artificial intelligence (AI) and he argued that  IA > AI. A great piece!

Another monumental work is the framework built by Douglas Engelbart in his famous “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework“, the work that originated the whole personal computer revolution. Engelbart wrote it in 1962 and I cannot resist proposing a small excerpt form the introduction. Try to think about infovis while reading it:

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

What do you think? Doesn’t it look like an agenda for Visual Analytics and related fields?

Then, “Readings in Information Visualization” fell into my hands, I don’t remember how, and the definition of information visualization got imprinted in my mind forever. Information Visualization is:

The use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition

Many of us tend to forget the origin of this discipline. I myself am guilty: lost in the technicalities and intricacies of technological development we have lost sight of what is the goal. And what a goal we have in mind! We want to AMPLIFY HUMAN COGNITION. This is our target, this is what is a stake, and this is still a grand grand grand challenge.

The augmented human landscape and how a cyborg “wears” visualization.

I don’t have a definite picture, as I told you in the beginning. It’s work in progress. It’s a way to reason around it. Here are the pieces I joined together so far. We have something like this:

Real World -> Sensors -> Databases -> Computational Tools (Vis) -> Human … Action into the Real World (note the feedback loop)

This is the landscape in which information visualization and computational tools take place. There are sensors that capture elements of the real life and translate them into bits. These bits are stored into data. Computational tools give us the power to access this data and make sense of it. Finally, the knowledge we produce (should) help us in taking action. But let’s analyze some of these elements in more details:

  • Sensors enhance our ability to sense the world around us in new unimaginable ways. The power of a single sensors is ridiculous compared to the sensors humans have. Nonetheless when you consider the whole network of sensors, their pervasiveness, parallelism and their increasing ability to capture details of our life they become a fundamental part of this architecture.
  • Databases extend our memory by allowing to store huge quantities of data without the risk of forgetting. What I think is more interesting however is our ability to decouple data production from data consumption. We as humans have to have mechanisms that continuously filter the high throughput information we receive from our extraordinary sensors. In the digital space we tend not to have this problem, we just store everything.
  • Computational Tools extend our mind by allowing us to find patterns and connections that our brain alone couldn’t find without the use of an external representation. And this is where visualization plays the largest role.

In the end it all boils down to having an external working memory that we can rapidly access with our eyes and manipulate with our hand in ways that make thinking several folds more powerful.

So why so much excitement about visualization? Because if you analyze this short list, visualization is the only component that really expands our processing power. Better sensors and better memories are great, but they are useless without a more powerful brain. Companies have been developing huge markets around data collection and storage but did these technologies make us smarter? They ensured our financial transactions were recorder so that you could ask for a balance of your bank account. They allowed a store to monitor its inventory and automatically detect when there was a shortage of diapers or tomato cans. They allowed you to be a number in a huge database system so that public offices could retrieve your personal data from your social security number. But did this make us smarter? No. Not really. But look at what we have today. These technologies when coupled with computational tools and visualization they allow us to reason around problems that were impossible to grasp. That’s quite a step in human evolution!

The old way to make us cyborgs vs. the new one.

But wait a moment one could say. Humans have always desired to extend their capabilities and go beyond the limits offered by their bodies. We built wheels to move faster, tools to hit harder, telescopes to look farther, microscopes to look closer, etc. What is different or new here? One big thing is the asynchronous nature of the tools we have built. As I said before, the sensors, databases, and computational tools all work independently so it is perfectly fine to sense the world in fine details now and process it later. This was not possible with telescopes. This was maybe possible with photography, few centuries ago, but then it was limited to a few chunks of information that we had to process anyway with the same visual mechanisms we use to sense the real world. And here we have the second revolution introduced by visualization. With visualization we take one problem and change its representation (decoupling it from its physical form) to give it a shape that better suits our mind. Isn’t that fantastic?

And with this I conclude this crazy post which I feel is kind of exploding in my hands now. I really hope you will enjoy it and you will find some inspiration for doing big things. I personally gained a lot from writing it. At least I could recall what was the main reason why I started this whole thing … and it is a damn good one.

Take care. Have fun. And please remember to share your thoughts and spread the word on twitter if you like it. Thanks!

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