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Cyborg Luddite Steve Mann on Singularity 1 on 1: Technology That Masters Nature is Not Sustainable

Steve Mann is sometimes called the first cyborg. Other times he is called the cyborg Luddite because of the stress he puts on choosing which technologies to embrace and which ones to abandon in order to be in harmony with nature. Whatever the case may be, I was super happy to get him on Singularity 1 on 1.

During our conversation with Steve we cover a wide variety of topics such as: his early interest in both nature and technology; his MIT thesis on humanistic intelligence; his digital eye glass EyeTap camera and display technology; his inventing and usage of HDR imaging technology; augmented reality, mediated reality, augmediated reality and the long and short-term adaptation issues thereof; rethinking the relationship between nature and technology; why he is sometimes called the cyborg Luddite and his call to use less of televisions, elevators, automobiles and air-conditioning; his take on the technological singularity; surveillance and sousveillance; existemology – existential epistomology, learning by doing and learning by being; the hydraulophone; the differences between live blogging, logging and glogging.

My two most favorite quotes that I will take away from this interview with Dr. Mann are:

“I am not saying more or less technology – I am saying appropriate technology. Instead of technological excess – we should have technology that is balanced with nature. Instead of replacing nature with technology – we should balance it. Instead of replacing intelligence with artificial intelligence – we should use humanistic intelligence…”


“I think that the only way we are ever going to understand AI is through HI. I think that the only way we are ever going to understand computers is to become a computer. And I think that the only way to understand measurement (at least as children) is to become the ruler.”

(As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.)

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The Hydraulophone

Steve Mann playing a hydraulophone and explaining the differences between different models.


Steve Mann and Ryan Janzen Hydraulophone Duet


Socrates and Steve Mann playing duet on the Hydraulophone (sort of)


Who is Steve Mann?

Steve Mann has been described by the media as “the world’s first cyborg” and was named “the father of wearable computing” at the IEEE ISSCC in February 2000 for his invention of Mediated Reality (predecessor of Augmented Reality), and also invented HDR and panoramics (U.S. Pat.s 5828793+5706416) now implemented in most cameras including Apple iPhone. He also invented the neckworn sensor camera like the one now manufactured by Microsoft.

Mann creates interventions+inventions to combine art+science+technology, with emphasis on interplay between technology and nature. Mann is the inventor of the hydraulophone, awarded numerous patents, the world’s first musical instrument to make sound from vibrations in liquid (other instruments make sound from vibrations in solids or gases), won first place in the Coram International Sustainable Design Award, and is the recipient of the 2004 Leonardo Award for Excellence.

Mann has written more than 200 publications+books+patents, and his work and inventions have has been shown at the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History, The Science Museum (Wellcome Wing, opening with Her Majesty The Queen June 2000), MoMA (New York), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Triennale di Milano, Austin Museum of Art, and San Francisco Art Institute.

He has been featured by AP News, New York Times, LA-Times, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, WiReD, NBC, ABC, CNN, David Letterman (#6 on Letterman’s Top Ten), CBC-TV, CBS, Scientific American, Scientific American Frontiers, Discovery Channel, Byte, Reuters, New Scientist, Rolling Stone, and BBC. Thousands of articles about him have appeared worldwide in many languages.

He received his PhD degree from MIT in 1997, and is a tenured professor at University of Toronto, where he teaches and does research in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Faculty of Forestry.

Mann’s award winning documentary cyborglog ShootingBack, and ideas from his recent book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer(Randomhouse Doubleday, 2001) inspired a 35mm feature length motion picture film about his life, said, by P.O.V., to be “Canada’s most important film of the year”.

In the words of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, Mann “brought the seed” that founded the MIT Wearable Computing project.

Steve Mann's EyeTap Digital Eye Glass and Google's Glass

Steve Mann’s EyeTap Digital Eye Glass and Google’s Glass

Joi Ito, the world’s leading entrepreneur in moblogging, credits Mann with having initiated the moblogging movement by creating the world’s first system for transmission of realtime pictures, video, and text. In particular, from 1994 to 1996, Mann continuously transmitted his life’s experiences, in real time, to his website for others to experience, interact with, and respond to. His CyborGLOGS (‘glogs), such as the spontaneous reporting of news as everyday experience, were an early predecessor of ‘blogs and the concept of blogging, and earlier than that, his pre-internet-era live streaming of personal documentary and cyborg communities defined cyborglogging as a new form of social networking.

Together with his students James Fung and Chris Aimone, and neurologist Ariel Garten, Mann founded InteraXon, a Canadian company, that is commercializing the cyborg technology developed by Mann, Fung, and Aimone. InteraXon created a large-scale public art installation for the Vancouver Olympics (the flagship project of the Ontario Pavillion), running Feb. 12-28, 2010. The installation bridged the gap between cyberspace (cyborgspace) and physical space, allowing participants to use their brainwaves to control the lights on major architectural landmarks (the CN Tower in Toronto, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, and the lights on Niagara Falls).


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  • CM Stewart

    With Mann’s extensive aug-mediated reality, he should be the expert consultant for machine-human integration.

    I agree with cutting back on air conditioning, TV, automobile use, and elevators, indoor lighting, etc. More does not equal better. Better equals better.

    My favorite quotes:

    “Technology that masters over nature is not sustainable.”

    “If we humans want to synergize with technology, it has to be able to withstand the natural environment that we’re in.”

    “What if a toilet became more intelligent than people?” (I think this has already happened, in some instances.)

    I love the hydraulophones, they look like a lot of fun! The background trickling noise is very soothing. The slapping sound of the water hammer gives that particular hydraulophone the most “human” sound of the bunch, in my opinion. Even when I listen to the water hammer without viewing the video, I get an image of hands slapping in water puddles, and a sensation of getting splashed. Love it! 🙂

  • why06

    This reminded me so much of the Hugo de Garis interview. Mann talks just like him, constantly creating tons of new words. Perhaps too many to be honest, but I find it funny nonetheless. However he is much different from Hugo in that his take on intelligence is very much a cyborg philosophy, where as Hugo just wants to build the AI with little care on mankinds interaction with them. Well I mean he certainly finds the interaction interesting, but he views humanity and AI as two separate things and even cyborgs as more machine then human. So you have Hugo who is for AI and could careless on the balance of things. Mann who is a cyborg and cares very much about striking a balance between humanity and technology.

    Personally I believe technology is an evolution and different people will evolve at different rates, but ultimately the door should be left open for all of them, but at the same time the current environment should be protected. Currently our technology is getting away from us, and is changing our environment against us. We need to upgrade ourselves not to just interact in the new world, but ultimately survive. This is why the problem should be attacked from two from. Making the technology equate with humans and nature from the back-end. And us augmenting ourselves from the front end to deal with our new environment created by technology. As Technology advances that link between nature and technology gets longer and longer. Humanity is the link that holds it together and we should be able to exist on both extremes of those links with no adverse side effects to us or the environment or impeding technology.

    Great interview. I wish he would have talked about his McDonalds incident, but I respect his privacy and respect for the privacy of others.

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  • Alexander Hayes

    If you have a moment please visit http://veillance.me – Professor Steve Mann is the General Chair. The IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) is an annual international forum sponsored by the IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) to be held in Toronto, Canada, 27-29 June 2013. We are very grateful that Socrates has brought this interview to the world. Very important and very timely.

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