The neuroscientist—or “mad scientist,” if you will—has focused her career on exploring the endless possibilities of using technology to boost human potential. Ming, a mother, is now merging her professional and personal lives together in an attempt to offer her son a “superpower” that most of us take for granted.
Most neurotypical people are able to interpret and respond to the facial expressions of others in mere seconds, without much effort or even awareness of what our brains are doing. Such is not the case for many people—children and adults alike—on the autism spectrum.
This is where Ming comes in. After her son’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, she set to work on the most advanced face- and expression-recognition system created to date—a system that works with the ill-fated futuristic glasses, Google Glass, to interpret facial expressions in real time.
Ming, who previously worked with the CIA to create Artificial Intelligence (AI) to catch liars, explains:
“For a woman that wanted to build cyborgs, there was so much potential. Along with its computing power, Glass had a live camera, a heads-up display, and a combination of voice and head-motion controls. Drawing from that old CIA project and my years of machine-learning research, I began to build face- and expression-recognition systems for Glass. (In truth, the crappy little processor would heat up like a bomb, so the system required an extra computer strapped to the user’s back to work—not exactly Iron Man.)”
While there was quite a lot of potential for it, Ming wasn’t out to create some unsettling technology straight out of Black Mirror. She only wanted to help her son navigate the confusing world around him.
Because most people take this ability for granted, it may be difficult to recognize just how important the skill truly is to living what many would call a successful life. Simply put, being unable to recognize, interpret and respond to facial expressions is like being unable to speak the same language as every other person around you while being unable to learn that language, despite your best efforts. The inability to communicate in this way can make everything from education to friendships and jobs extremely difficult and stressful.
To many people with autism, this seemingly basic human skill is more like a superpower that they’re unable to poses and Ming responded as any transhumanist mother would:
“I’ve chosen to turn my son into a cyborg and change the definition of what it means to be human.”
In 2013, Ming built SuperGlass.
“Based on research from one of my academic labs, our system could recognize the expression of a face and write the emotion on Glass’s little heads-up screen, allowing an individual with autism to more easily perceive whether the person in front of them was happy, sad, angry, or something else.”
And now, years later, a team at Stanford has concluded that the technology improves expression recognition of the user even when they aren’t wearing it. Ming’s pilot study found that the device even helped foster empathy, something that many neurotypical people need a lot of help with.
And this isn’t the first time Ming has dabbled in using tech to maximize her son’s potential. She hacked his insulin pump after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in a way that used AI to match his insulin to his emotions and activity level, effectively acting as an artificial pancreas.
No longer is the idea of augmenting human biology a thing for sci-fi fantasy novels. Cyborgs walk among us and chances are you have no idea. While some efforts to physically merge technology with humanity are to reach new, unimaginable potential, most devices simply exist to make someone who is “different” a little less so.
Ming asks an important question:
“But do my son’s engineered superpowers make him more human, or less?”
What happens when this novel technology ends up making a human, or a group of humans, “better” than others? These are important questions to ask when boosting human potential through technology. As Ming herself admits:
“In theory, anyone might have access to new neurotechnologies. But in reality, those most able to take advantage of them are likely to be the ones who need them the least.”
“In an era where jerks like me are building AIs to replicate human tasks, your value to the world will become what makes you uniquely human. The more different you are, the more valuable you become. My son is therefore priceless.”