by Mark de Clercq
By 2016, it's estimated that one in three people will own a smartphone. There is an ever-increasing demand for smaller, more power efficient connected devices that is bringing about a revolution similar to one that so dramatically changed human understanding hundreds of years ago, when microscopes and telescopes were invented. They extended our limited natural senses and enabled pathways of discovery into our world and ourselves that are still being explored today with no signs of dwindling.
Just as these devices increased our vision and understanding, the accelerating development of wearables is extending the senses available to our smartphones, and in turn informing us, in unprecedented detail, about the world - and bodies - we live in. According to analyst IHS, in 2019 an estimated 230 million wearable units will be manufactured, creating a richness of data about our surroundings, our habits and our health that we can harvest for remarkable and empowering insights that have never before been available to us. This creates not just a 'digital self', but a whole new dimension of information at our fingertips.
The first generation of wearables carried just a few sensors - accelerometers and heart-rate monitors, primarily aimed at the fitness market - but the increasing miniaturization and sophistication of sensor technology will give the next generation of devices far more input: sensors for air humidity and pressure, spectrographs for blood oxygen and glucose levels, pH sensors for mineral and hydration levels, and microphones whose inputs can be used to place us in certain contexts - on an airplane, in traffic, in bed asleep. Coupled with GPS and other location-aware inputs, we can then derive even higher-level information, such as stress levels, calories burned on particular routes, and other health signifiers - all without having to enter any information by hand anywhere, or ask any explicit questions.
By choosing to share this information - securely, of course - with our medical service providers, and their own analytical machinery, we can enjoy another level of confidence that our health will be under our own control. So-called "stage zero medicine" will allow us to alter our behavior immediately, steering away from bad habits and helping to catch any worrying symptoms before they can escalate, hugely increasing the success of such timely treatment. And it's not just our personal health and lifestyles that will benefit from this technology - the global population as a whole can share in it, whether they're wearable owners or not.
In 2009, analysts at Google realized that there was a very close correlation between the spread of flu across the US (as traditionally tracked by the Centre for Disease Control, and reports from medical clinics) and the array of classic symptoms that people were typing into its search engine in an attempt to diagnose themselves. They could watch this 'trend' spread live, as it crept across the US, and it's now seen as the most up-to-the-minute and efficient indicator of disease spread. It's this kind of multi-connected scenario that wearables can bring about globally, but in a far more wide-ranging way. Instead of people typing in symptoms, however, they can share - anonymously or otherwise - a rich tapestry of data about their world with everyone else, to the benefit of all: the speed of traffic, the density of crowds, the fluctuation of temperatures and pollution and humidity, the daily habits of millions of people worldwide helping to generate insight into how we behave, and what secrets there might be hidden in that data that might offer solutions to health, transport and other social problems that we encounter every day. By giving our vast machines better and better sensors all over the world, we can ask them bigger and bigger questions.
Wearables also have the power to transform the world around us - to interact on our behalf with other 'smart' devices that are increasingly common. We already do this, of course: for example, there's a good chance that you only know two or three phone numbers. Because phones can now hide those non-human-friendly strings of digits away behind familiar names of people - or even clickable pictures of their faces - that raw information has been 'farmed out' to a machine so you don't have to interact with it yourself anymore. The same thing happens with all technology - it becomes 'mature' when you don't really think of it as technology anymore.
Instead of carrying around sets of keys, ID cards, boarding passes and other objects that are essentially information-relaying objects certifying your authenticity, a wearable with bank encryption security protocols can do that for you, and so much more. Actions that currently require our direct intervention will become automatic, and mediated by our wearable devices. You can already ask your phone's digital assistant to remind you to buy some milk when you leave the office, but wearables will take things one step further and remove the need for you to ask any specific questions at all. They will know to watch out for you, and automatically help you control both your own healthy lifestyle, and the connected world around you. As technological visionary Arthur C. Clarke one said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It’s into this seamlessly magical, extended world of the self that we're heading right now.