The science and practice of sensory enhancement have come a very long way in the past couple of years. A neuroscientist at Baylor University announced his creation of VEST — a wearable “variable extra-sensory transducer” that translates information from the stock market or Twitter into tactile patterns users can sense through vibrations on their bodies. Duke University scientists recently came out with a brain-controlled exoskeleton that enabled a 29-year-old paraplegic to literally kick off the World Cup competition in Brazil. And researchers at Brown University built a brain-machine interface that was quickly commercialized into a wireless device that attaches to the human skull to transmit, via radio, thought commands collected from a brain implant.
In her thought-provoking book “We Have the Technology,” Kara Platoni points out the critical question such advancements raise: “Nature is amazing . . . but couldn’t it be more so?”
Platoni’s scrupulously researched response focuses on human perception and the way the brain constructs our experience of the world. Each chapter centers on an individual — a neuroscientist, physician, engineer or amateur biohacker — perched on the edge of sensory science. The result is a whirlwind tour of the senses and the ways technology may or may not enhance them through methods both fantastic and mundane.
The book opens dramatically, with an introduction to Grindhouse Wetware , a Pittsburgh-based start-up that specializes in developing products for biohackers, people who embed technology into their bodies to augment their experience of the world. The basic biohack mantra is this: “Open up your flesh, install a device, and see if it can talk to your nervous system. If it can, you’ve broadened your sensory world without waiting for slow, clunky evolution to do it for you.” Grindhouse founder Tim Cannon has embedded in his forearm a thermal sensing device the size of a pack of cards that records his body temperature and transmits it to his cellphone through a Bluetooth connection. The night we meet him, Cannon is on his way to RadioShack to scavenge parts to build a new gadget designed to essentially turn humans into compasses. As Cannon puts it, “Why not mess with the human body?”
While readers might think of many reasons, Platoni plows quickly past the whys to the hows of enhancing the human sensory system through technology.
The next stop is Denver’s Museum of Nature & Science, where a “citizen scientist” (a retired dentist) puts Platoni through a series of tests at the Genetics of Taste Lab. The goal is to determine whether fat, isolated from the foods it normally inhabits, has taste, a question scientists have yet to answer. The five basic tastes — salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (or savory) — are well documented, but some scientists believe there are more than five, perhaps many more. Platoni points out that the challenge is not only to uncover new “primary” tastes but the words to describe them, since it’s hard to know whether a perception can exist without the appropriate language to describe it.
In a fascinating chapter on smell, Platoni meets with scientists trying to find out whether smell — or the lack thereof — plays a role in the human capacity to remember and whether enhancing this sense may reawaken memories in those afflicted with syndromes such as Alzheimer’s disease. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and the hippocampus. These links make smell particularly vulnerable to diseases of memory — and scientists have long recognized loss of smell as an early symptom of Alzheimer’s. Platoni explores skillfully the question of whether charting the sense of smell might go beyond a diagnostic tool to offer clues to treatment.
And in chapters on vision and hearing, she does a superb job describing how today’s relatively crude technologies hint at a future when those senses might be enhanced well beyond what any of us might believe is possible.
Platoni is a wonderful explicator of technology who weaves memorable and vivid metaphors to illustrate difficult concepts . But her sections on time, pain and emotion seem a bit fleeting and superficial, and her technique — of dropping into a laboratory, bar or office, quickly describing the occupants and their thinking, and moving on to the next subject — can wear thin, as can her habit of forecasting her methods in sentences such as this one: “So before I finish my quest to find a potential sixth taste, I hit pause to learn how massively the food world, and therefore the rest of us, had to change before we accepted a fifth.”
Still, Platoni does not shy away from the tough question of whether our effort to enhance — or simply subvert — reality is a healthy one. In her final chapter, she returns to Grindhouse, pointing out that Cannon’s implant, while not killing him, might be giving him killer headaches. Boundlessly empathic, Platoni ends on a plaintive note: “It is heartbreakingly human to want to be more than human, creatures that can not just do more, but experience more. And so we keep building toward the edge, whatever it is.”
Ellen Ruppel Shell is a co-director of the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University and the author most recently of “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.” She is completing a book on work and its future in the digital age.
By Kara Platoni
Basic. 274 pp. $27.99