Are we cyborgs yet?
The cyborg, or cybernetic organism -- part human, part machine -- is a staple of science fiction, from Star Trek to The Six Million Dollar Man to RoboCop to the Terminator. These pop culture cyborgs usually involve robotic machinery to enhance physical capabilities rather than mental ones because that's more visual, more entertaining and easier for the general public to understand.
And, of course, such physically enhanced cyborgs exist in real life. Oscar Pistorius, a runner with two artificial legs, was disqualified from competing in last year's Olympics because his man-made limbs gave him an unfair advantage.
Current research in prosthetic limbs is aiming for artificial arms, hands and legs that are directly controlled by the wearer's thoughts.
But the term cyborg, coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, originally envisioned either the human mind enhanced by machines, or the use of human minds to control or direct machines.
Aren't Internet-connected cell phones technically machines that are enhancing our minds?
I wrote a blog item Wednesday about the announcement by a company called reQall Inc. of its new self-described "memory aid" service. In that post, I wrote that "reQall is a life-changing, potentially culture-shifting, almost science fiction-like service." I'm going to tell you what I meant by that, but first let me tell you about my own experience with reQall.
What is reQall, exactly? Well, it's a service with both free and paid versions (both very powerful) that makes sure you don't forget things. You interface with reQall on the Web, via cell phone, e-mail or Short Messaging Service. You choose.
The original "killer feature" of reQall was voice recognition. With any cell phone, you speed-dial the reQall number, say anything, and reQall transcribes your words into text and places the text on a list. You can use it for to-do lists, shopping lists -- any list. If you have an iPhone or a BlackBerry, platform-specific applications make all these even more powerful. The list is always there, autosorted by type, date and other criteria. Plus, reQall would occasionally remind you of things on your phone or by e-mail (again, your choice).
The new version has yet another "killer feature," which truly brings reQall into the realm of science fiction. It's called Memory Jogger, and it's baked into reQall, always working quietly behind the scenes. The Memory Jogger technology looks at a wide range of criteria, such as the time of day, what's on your calendar or your physical location (it uses your phone's GPS) to figure out what to remind you of, and when. The reQall Memory Jogger is so eerily intelligent that it feels almost like a human assistant is looking out for you.
As you're about to drive by the cleaners, your phone beeps and shows the message, "Pick up your suit!" As you're about to leave your office for a business lunch, your phone tells you, "You met Jonathan Smith at CTIA 2006, he's a vegetarian, went to UCLA, obsessed with golf, has twin daughters and likes to be called 'Jonathan,' not 'Jon.'" ReQall seems to know what to remind you of and when.
After using the original reQall for months and the new version for days, I can tell you that it has changed how I think. I have essentially outsourced the management of trivial information to reQall, and I feel that I've picked up some additional brain capacity for more important things -- like thinking about writing brilliant columns.