A Brief Introduction to Humanistic Intelligence: The Symbiotic Future of Machine and Human

“Why did I go to such extremes? Because I realized that the future of computing was as much about communications between people wearing computers as it was about preforming colossal calculations.” — Steve Mann

“Why did I go to such extremes? Because I realized that the future of computing was as much about communications between people wearing computers as it was about preforming colossal calculations.” — Steve Mann

In recent years we face more uncertainty with the advancement of AI technology. New research frontiers are bringing challenges to higher education, disruptions to commercial industries, and creating a society that nervously watches out for technological unemployment.

What can we expect? —— There is not a single lab, university, company, or government institution that can accurately describe where we are at the moment, let alone having to make any predictions.

When Professor Steve Mann was a student at MIT in the 1980s, he was infatuated by something different that could provide an alternative to the binary opposite world of humans versus machines: wearable computing.


(Portrait of Professor Steve Mann on IEEE Spectrum)

Before enrolling in MIT, Mann played with wearable helmet gadgets in the 1970s. He then started wearing the self-designed “EyeTap Digital Eye Glass” in 1999, thirteen years before the release of Google Glass, a product which he claims to be “much less ambitious than the computer-mediated vision systems I constructed decades ago.” Throughout his career, Mann developed his idea systematically, combining theory with application, experiments, and real-time simulations, coining what is called humanistic intelligence (HI).

In other words, humanistic intelligence (HI) is an umbrella term (similar to artificial intelligence (AI)) that steers the research and development of wearable computing. The HI system puts humans in the computing feedback loop alongside computers, where the two agents work together to enhance system performance.

The computer’s primary task is no longer computing, but to become an integrated part of its user. And Kurzweil, Minsky, and Mann tell us that “when a wearable computer embodies HI and becomes so technologically advanced that its intelligence matches our own biological brain, something much more powerful emerges from this synergy that gives rise to superhuman intelligence within the single ‘cyborg’ being.”


The Next Rung in Evolution: The Natural and (or) Inevitable Merger of Man and Machine


Why would any one of us want to merge with a computer?

This question can be answered in various ways. One proposition is that we need to start measure and record ourselves, enhance our physical and mental performance in order to navigate the increasing complexity of a global, hyperlinked world.

This sounds like climbing onto the next rung of the evolutionary ladder.

Instead of being scared by the idea that artificial general intelligence will eliminate all jobs, or that a superintelligence will emerge as the new god, pioneer researchers believe that human plus machine is the way to go.

2(Ernest Haeckel – Systematic Tribal Tree of Man; the tree diagram places human on top of the evolution hierarchy).

On technical side of the evolution, realizing human-computer interaction had been a series of trial-and-error. Deloitte’s 2016 Tech Trends Report recounts the history of wearable computing by stage. Currently we are moving from “smart screen” and into the “shortened chains of command” era, where “augmented and virtual reality help accelerate the coalescence of users with their device-powered experience of the world”. A big milestone took place April 15, 2013 when Google started selling Google Glass at $1,500 a pair, introducing the world to VR.


Yet even with AR and VR , machines and humans are considered to be separate entities, and the eventual vision of HI is having a seamless fusion of hardware, software and humanity.

As of today, most of the research and development of HI is carried out in the Humanistic Intelligence Lab, located at University of Toronto. The lab was first established by Professor Mann in 1998, it has incubated some student projects that later attracted large sum international VC investments.


Three Rules of HI: How Must the System Work?



  • 1) Constancy
    • A HI system never powers off. The system can be put into sleep mode, but it will never completely shut down. A wristwatch is a borderline example of HI because it still needs to be charged, whereas a bionic eye serves to be a better example because it is functional 24/7.
  • 2) Augmentation
    • A HI system’s primary function is augmenting the human intellect or body functions instead of focusing on just computation. Augmentation includes but is not limited to augmenting human body, memory, and senses using wearable, chips or other hardware gadgets.
  • 3) Mediation
    • A HI system completely encloses its user. It can be used as a filter which people use to block excessive information, reorganize existing information, or camouflage from outside environment. The system guarantees solitude and privacy.


(Example of mediation: Cyborg Major Kusanagi wearing a thermoptic camouflage suit in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie)


Augmentation, Mediation, and Aug-mediated Reality


One of the most interesting aspect of HI is sensory augmentation. “Sensory modalities [create] additional senses, which synthetic synethesia merges with the wearer’s senses”. Machine gadgets can enhance, interfere, or change human tactile, visual, auditory, and olfactory sensation. It will upgrade the interactive experience between human and the environment (or even distort reality, as depicted in episode “Men Against Fire” of TV series Black Mirror).

In the graph below, Mann shows the six ways in which a wearable device mediates reality.6

With HI implementation, our sensory perception of reality changes. A person with augmented eye may be able to see ultraviolet instead of visible light, or perceive the entire spectrum of light.

A person can also have multiple view points by sharing the data of another person’s device. Mann gave an example where he could watch himself eat through a digital glass through the camcorder view camcorder of person sitting across from him.

At the same time, the augmented human is someone capable of redefining his or her information intake. Once people can actively pick and choose what they see, hear, smell, or touch, diminished reality emerges out of the blue. In the future, it is quite possible to go blind in front of an annoying advertisement on the street.

Mann combine the augmentation and mediation experience into a singular phrase: aug-mediated reality.


Surveillance: the Social Problem of Humanistic Intelligence


Social dilemmas are introduced when people start to upgrade themselves with machine gadgets, and the big one is privacy.

A person may think that his (her) privacy is infringed by someone around him wearing a recording glass, but this is less the case when the person himself starts wearing one, or when he takes into account all the formerly unnoticed CCTV, GPS tracking, drones, computers, and mobile devices around.

“Sous-veillance” is a concept first proposed by Marvin Minsky, Steve Mann and Ray Kurzweil. The word literally means watching from beneath, as opposed to surveillance, watching from the above. It is proposed that personal wearable devices can help mediate a world full of “watchful others”.

How do we define privacy in the future? If you have satellite, street-level, household, and personal cameras recording everything that goes on 24/7, privacy is something that needs to be restated.

As Mann told IEEE Spectrum in 2003, “I would prefer to live in a world which, shall we call a world of “equiveillance,” that is to say, a world in which there’s a balance between surveillance and sousveillance.”


So, Are you a Tech Nerd or Early Adaptive Cyborg ?


In 2012, Professor Mann was attacked at McDonalds in Paris, while wearing the self-designed digital EyeTap. According to Toronto Star, this happened “while [the professor and his family] were eating their meal, Mann says an ‘erratic’ person approached and tried to pull the EyeTap off his head.”

Professor Mann wanted to “make sure this doesn’t happen to me or anybody else again”.

Yet how can we guarantee that similar events are prevented from happening in the future? Early adopters of wearable technology are still conspicuous people walking down the street. After all, we live a society that dresses and behaves too uniformly.

But for people who envision a future with HI, becoming real cyborgs are just a matter of time.

“The Society of Intelligent Veillance”, by Kurzweil, Minsky, and Mann, in Proceedings of the IEEE ISTAS 2013, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, pp13-17.
Mann, S. (May–June 2001). “Wearable computing:toward humanistic intelligence”

Author: Meghan Han | Localized by Synced Global TeamNicholas Richards

1 comment on “A Brief Introduction to Humanistic Intelligence: The Symbiotic Future of Machine and Human

  1. Pingback: Synced Review | Wearables: Translate Ideas into Products

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: