At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Apple engineers embarked on a rare collaboration with Google. The goal was to build a system that could track individual interactions across an entire population, in an effort to get a head start on isolating potentially infectious carriers of a disease that, as the world was discovering, could be spread by asymptomatic patients.
Delivered at breakneck pace, the resulting exposure notification tool has yet to prove its worth. The NHS Covid-19 app uses it, as do others around the world. But lockdowns make interactions rare, limiting the tool’s usefulness, while in a country with uncontrolled spread, it isn’t powerful enough to keep the R number low. In the Goldilocks zone, when conditions are just right, it could save lives.
The NHS Covid-19 app has had its teething problems. It has come under fire for not working on older phones, and for its effect on battery life. But there’s one criticism that has failed to materialise: what happens if you leave home without your phone? Because who does that? The basic assumption that we can track the movement of people by tracking their phones is an accepted fact.
This year has been good for tech companies, and Apple is no exception. The wave of global lockdowns has left us more reliant than ever on our devices. Despite being one of the first large companies to be seriously affected by Covid, as factory shutdowns in China hit its supply chain delaying the launch of the iPhone 12 by a month, Apple’s revenue has continued to break records. It remains the largest publicly traded company in the world by a huge margin: this year its value has grown by 50% to $2tn (£1.5tn) and it is still $400bn larger than Microsoft, the No 2.
It’s hard to think of another product that has come close to the iPhone in sheer physical proximity to our daily lives. Our spectacles, contact lenses and implanted medical devices are among the only things more personal than our phones.
Without us even noticing, Apple has turned us into organisms living symbiotically with technology: part human, part machine. We now outsource our contact books, calendars and to-do lists to devices. We no longer need to remember basic facts about the world; we can call them up on demand. But if you think that carrying around a smartphone – or wearing an Apple Watch that tracks your vitals in real time – isn’t enough to turn you into a cyborg, you may feel differently about what the company has planned next.
A pair of smartglasses, in development for a decade, could be released as soon as 2022, and would have us quite literally seeing the world through Apple’s lens – putting a digital layer between us and the world. Already, activists are worrying about the privacy concerns sparked by a camera on everyone’s face. But deeper questions, about what our relationship should be to a technology that mediates our every interaction with the world, may not even be asked until it’s too late to do anything about the answer.
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The word cyborg – short for “cybernetic organism” – was coined in 1960 by Manfred E Clynes and Nathan S Kline, whose research into spaceflight prompted them to explore how incorporating mechanical components could aid in “the task of adapting man’s body to any environment he might choose”. It was a very medicalised concept: the pair imagined embedded pumps dispensing drugs automatically.
In the 1980s, genres such as cyberpunk began to express writers’ fascination with the nascent internet, and wonder how much further it could go. “It was the best we could do at the time,” laughs Bruce Sterling, a US science fiction author and futurist whose Mirrorshades anthology defined the genre for many. Ideas about putting computer chips, machine arms or chromium teeth into animals might have been very cyberpunk, Sterling says, but they didn’t really work. Such implants, he points out, aren’t “biocompatible”. Organic tissue reacts poorly, forming scar tissue, or worse, at the interface. While science fiction pursued a Matrix-style vision of metal jacks embedded in soft flesh, reality took a different path.
“If you’re looking at cyborgs in 2020,” Sterling says, “it’s in the Apple Watch. It’s already a medical monitor, it’s got all these health apps. If you really want to mess with the inside of your body, the watch lets you monitor it much better than anything else.”
The Apple Watch had a shaky start. Despite the company trying to sell it as the second coming of the iPhone, early adopters were more interested in using their new accessory as a fitness tracker than in trying to send a text message from a device far too small to fit a keyboard. So by the second iteration of the watch, Apple changed tack, leaning into the health and fitness aspect of the tech.
Now, your watch can not only measure your heart rate, but scan the electric signals in your body for evidence of arrhythmia; it can measure your blood oxygenation level, warn you if you’re in a noisy environment that could damage your hearing, and even call 999 if you fall over and don’t get up. It can also, like many consumer devices, track your running, swimming, weightlifting or dancercise activity. And, of course, it still puts your emails on your wrist, until you turn that off.
As Sterling points out, for a vast array of health services that we would once have viewed as science fiction, there’s no need for an implanted chip in our head when an expensive watch on our wrist will do just as well.
That’s not to say that the entirety of the cyberpunk vision has been left to the world of fiction. There really are people walking around with robot limbs, after all. And even there, Apple’s influence has starkly affected what that future looks like.
“Apple, I think more than any other brand, truly cares about the user experience. And they test and test and test, and iterate and iterate and iterate. And this is what we’ve taken from them,” says Samantha Payne, the chief operating officer of Bristol’s Open Bionics. The company, which she co-founded in 2014 with CEO Joel Gibbard, makes the Hero Arm, a multi-grip bionic hand. With the rapid development of 3D printer technology, Open Bionics has managed to slash the cost of such advanced prosthetics, which could have cost almost $100,000 10 years ago, to just a few thousand dollars.
Rather than focus on flesh tones and lifelike design, Open Bionics leans into the cyborg imagery. Payne quotes one user describing it as “unapologetically bionic”. “All of the other prosthetics companies give the impression that you should be trying to hide your disability, that you need to try and fit in,” she says. “We are company that’s taking a big stance against that.”
At times, Open Bionics has been almost too successful in that goal. In November, the company launched an arm designed to look like that worn by the main character in the video game Metal Gear Solid V – red and black, shiny plastic and, yes, unapologetically bionic – and the response was unsettling. “You got loads of science fiction fans saying that they really are considering chopping off their hand,” Payne says.
Some disabled people who rely on technology to live their daily lives feel that cyberpunk imagery can exoticise the very real difficulties they face. And there are also lessons in the way that more prosaic devices can give disabled people what can only be described as superpowers. Take hearing aid users, for example: deaf iPhone owners can not only connect their hearing aids to their phones with Bluetooth, they can even set up their phone as a microphone and move it closer to the person they want to listen to, overcoming the noise of a busy restaurant or crowded lecture theatre. Bionic ears anyone?
“There’s definitely something in the idea of everyone in the world being a cyborg today,” Payne says. “A crazy high number of people in the world have a smartphone, and so all of these people are technologically augmented. It’s definitely taking it a step further when you depend on that technology to be able to perform everyday living; when it’s adorned to your body. But we are all harnessing the vast power of the internet every single day.”
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Making devices so compelling that we carry them with us everywhere we go is a mixed blessing for Apple. The iPhone earns it about $150bn a year, more than every other source of revenue combined. In creating the iOS App Store, it has assumed a gatekeeper role with the power to reshape entire industries by carefully defining its terms of service. (Ever wonder why every app is asking for a subscription these days? Because of an Apple decision in 2016. Bad luck if you prefer to pay upfront for software.) But it has also opened itself up to criticism that the company allows, or even encourages, compulsive patterns of behaviour.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously likened personal computers to “bicycles for the mind”, enabling people to do more work for the same amount of effort. That was true of the Macintosh computer in 1984, but modern smartphones are many times more powerful. If we now turn to them every waking hour of the day, is that because of their usefulness, or for more pernicious reasons?
“We don’t want people using their phones all the time,” Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, said in 2019. “We’re not motivated to do that from a business point of view, and we’re certainly not from a values point of view.” Later that year, Cook told CBS: “We made the phone to make your life better, and everybody has to decide for his or herself what that means. For me, my simple rule is if I’m looking at the device more than I’m looking into someone’s eyes, I’m doing the wrong thing.”
Apple has introduced features, such as the Screen Time setting, that help people strike that balance: users can now track, and limit, their use of individual apps, or entire categories, as they see fit. Part of the problem is that, while Apple makes the phone, it doesn’t control what people do with it. Facebook needs users to open its app daily, and Apple can only do so much to counter that tendency. If these debates – about screen time, privacy and what companies are doing with our data, our attention – seem like a niche topic of interest now, they will become crucial once Apple’s latest plans become reality. The reason is the company’s worst-kept secret in years: a pair of smartglasses.
It filed a patent in 2006 for a rudimentary version, a headset that would let users see a “peripheral light element” for an “enhanced viewing experience”, able to display notifications in the corner of your vision. That was finally granted in 2013, at the time of Google’s own attempt to convince people about smartglasses. But Google Glass failed commercially, and Apple kept quiet about its intentions in the field.
Recently, the company has intensified its focus on “augmented reality”, technology that overlays a virtual world on the real one. It’s perhaps best known through the video game Pokémon Go, which launched in 2016, superimposing Nintendo’s cute characters on parks, offices and playgrounds. However, Apple insists, it has much greater potential than simply enhancing games. Navigation apps could overlay the directions on top of the real world; shopping services could show you what you would look like wearing the clothes you’re thinking of getting; architects could walk around inside the spaces they have designed before shovels even break ground.
With each new iPhone launch, Apple’s demonstrated new breakthroughs in the technology, such as “Lidar” support in new iPhones and iPads, a tech (think radar with lasers) that lets them accurately measure the physical space they are in. Then, at the end of 2019, it all slotted into place: a Bloomberg report suggested that the company hadn’t given up on smartglasses in the wake of Google Glass’s failure, but had spent five years honing the concept. The pandemic put paid to a target of getting hardware on the shelves in 2020, but the company is still hoping to make an announcement next year for a 2022 launch, Bloomberg suggested.
Apple’s plans cover two devices, codenamed N301 and N421. The former is designed to feature “ultra-high-resolution screens that will make it almost impossible for a user to differentiate the virtual world from the real one”, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. This is a product with an appeal far beyond the hardcore gamers who have adopted existing VR headsets: you might put it on to enjoy lifelike, immersive entertainment, or to do creative work that can make the most of the technology, but would probably take it off to have lunch, for instance.
N421 is where the real ambitions lie. Expected in 2023, it’s described only as “a lightweight pair of glasses using AR”. But, argues Mark Pesce in his book Augmented Reality, this would be the culmination of the “mirrorshades” dreamed up by the cyberpunks in the 80s, using the iPhone as the brains of the device and “keeping the displays themselves light and comfortable”. Wearing it all day, every day, the idea of a world without a digital layer between you and reality would eventually fade into memory – just as living without immediate access to the internet has for so many right now.
Apple isn’t the first to try to build such a device, says Rupantar Guha of the analysts GlobalData, who has been following the trend in smartglasses from a business standpoint for years, but it could lead the wave that makes it relevant. “The public perception of smartglasses has struggled to recover from the high-profile failure of Google Glass, but big tech still sees potential in the technology.” Guha cites the recent launch of Amazon Echo Frames – sunglasses you can talk to, because they have got the Alexa digital assistant built in – and Google’s purchase of the smartglasses maker North in June 2020. “Apple and Facebook are planning to launch consumer smartglasses over the next two years, and will expect to succeed where their predecessors could not,” Guha adds.
If Apple pulls off that launch, then the cyberpunk – and cyborg – future will have arrived. It’s not hard to imagine the concerns, as cultural questions clash with technological: should kids take off their glasses in the classroom, just as we now require them to keep phones in their lockers? Will we need to carve out lens-free time in our evenings to enjoy old-fashioned, healthy activities such as watching TV or playing video games?
“It’s a fool’s errand to imagine every use of AR before we have the hardware in our hands,” writes the developer Adrian Hon, who was called on by Google to write games for their smartglasses a decade ago. “Yet there’s one use of AR glasses that few are talking about but will be world-changing: scraping data from everything we see.” This “worldscraping” would be a big tech dream – and a privacy activist’s nightmare. A pair of smartglasses turns people into walking CCTV cameras, and the data that a canny company could gather from that is mindboggling. Every time someone browsed a supermarket, their smartglasses would be recording real-time pricing data, stock levels and browsing habits; every time they opened up a newspaper, their glasses would know which stories they read, which adverts they looked at and which celebrity beach pictures their gaze lingered on.
“We won’t be able to opt out from wearing AR glasses in 2035 any more than we can opt out of owning smartphones today,” Hon writes. “Billions have no choice but to use them for basic tasks like education, banking, communication and accessing government services. In just a few years time, AR glasses do the same, but faster and better.”
Apple would argue that, if any company is to control such a powerful technology, it ought to. The company declined to speak on the record for this story, but it has invested time and money in making the case that it can be trusted not to abuse its power. The company points to its comparatively simple business model: make things, and sell them for a lot of money. It isn’t Google or Facebook, trying to monetise personal data, or Amazon, trying to replace the high street – it’s just a company that happens to make a £1,000 phone that it can sell to 150 million people a year.
But whether we trust Apple might be beside the point, if we don’t yet know whether we can trust ourselves. It took eight years from the launch of the iPhone for screen time controls to follow. What will human interaction look like eight years after smartglasses become ubiquitous? Our cyborg present sneaked up on us as our phones became glued to our hands. Are we going to sleepwalk into our cyborg future in the same way?