SixthSense – excellent technology, but potential term-hijack?

Courtesy of a Tweet from knowledge-management figurehead David Gurteen, I’ve been looking at a TED presentation on Media Labs’ so-called ‘SixthSense‘ project. [Apologies, couldn’t get the embed to work – please use the links above instead.]

As David puts it, “WOW!!!” – very impressive indeed, and definitely reminiscent of the system shown in the sci-fi film Minority Report. What worries me, though, is that there’s a significant risk of a serious term-hijack here. As a “wearable gestural interface” to contextual information available via the net, ‘SixthSense’ is certainly an innovative form of augmented reality; but that’s all it is – it’s just clever technology, not ‘sixth sense’ in the traditional meaning of the term.

Probably the closest definition of ‘sixth sense’ would be “access to information which is not available directly via touch, taste, sight, sound or scent”. So any form of indirect sensing – such as plain old telephone or television, just as much as internet data-sources – is technically a kind of ‘sixth sense’. Another often-cited component is synaesthesia, any kind of cross-merging of the senses – so that aspect of the definition would apply to SixthSense too, because it cross-maps the indirect net-derived information with that arising from the immediate physical world. But not only is there a real danger of IT-centrism – where the technology becomes the sole centre of attention, ignoring the purpose for that merging of information – but we also risk assuming that we should constrain the meaning of ‘sixth sense’ to the available information solely to that which already exists in accessible form on the net. If we do the latter, without full awareness of doing so – in other words, if we fall for the implied term-hijack – we could entrap ourselves within three potentially lethal problems:

  • we may shut out other information-sources, including possibly our own senses – “lost in cyberspace” etc
  • we may limit ourselves only to what is already known – risking loss of insight or innovation
  • we may be unable to test or verify the reliability or trustworthiness of the ‘augmented’ information-sources

From a human perspective, it’s essential not to limit our sources of information, because each can both provide unique information of its own, and also provide cross-checks against the sources, This is a key theme in enforcing transparency via the ‘social web’, for example. But it also brings us to the more traditional meaning of ‘sixth sense’, via the often strange concepts – or experiences, rather – such as psychometry, remote-viewing, telepathy, dowsing and the like. Generically these are often classified as ‘inituive skills’ – where the word ‘inituion’ literally translates as ‘teaching from within’. I’m well aware that self-styled Skeptics and other followers of the fundamentalist religion of ‘scientism‘ may have difficulty with any such notions, but as it happens, I’ve studied dowsing or ‘water-witching’ for several decades now: my first book, a kind of ‘teach-yourself guide’ nowadays known as The Diviner’s Handbook, was first published way back in 1976, and has been continuously in print ever since. This perhaps seem a bit of a surprise if you’ve only only known me as an enterprise-architect, but as far as dowsing is concerned, I’m generally regarded as one of the world experts in the field – particularly in its intersection of theory and practice as methodology. I do know what I’m talking about here: most self-styled Skeptics don’t. (At which point I’m reminded of Isaac Newton’s retort to astronomer Edmond Halley when the latter mocked his extensive writings on astrology: “I have studied the subject, sir, and you have not!” 🙂 )

The point there is that in all of these intuitive-skills there’s a clear gradation from straightforward physical synaesthesia (one that for some people does quite literally resemble IT-based augmented-reality) all the way through to what we might describe as ‘good question…’; most people seem to make a big fuss about the ‘good question’ end of the scale, but in practice it’s the more ordinary world that is more important in most dowsing work, and, crucially, it is a learnable skill, dependent on much the same disciplines as for any other skill-based technology. (More info on that in my book Disciplines of Dowsing, co-authored with archaeologist/archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska.) Because this is technology, not science, it’s not ‘fraud’ for such intuitive information to come from any mixture of sources: it’s just information. (Though it’s often important to be able to identify which source the information arises from, so as to be able to verify the information-value – a theme we’ll return with the third point above.)

If we only limit ourselves to known sources of information, we’ll be unable to discover anything new. Often, for example, we’ll come across instances of a tactic I describe as “In order to remember something you never knew, first set out to forget it”. The mathematician Henri PoincarĂ© provides one famous anecdote of this kind:

The circumstances of the journey made me forget my mathematical work; arrived at Coutances we boarded an omnibus … At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformation that I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-euclidean geometry. I did not verify this, I did not have the time for it, since scarcely had I sat down in the bus than I resumed the conversation already begun, but I was entirely certain at once.

This is a key theme in one of my favourite books, William Beveridge’s The Art of Scientific Investigation, which explores the use of chance, the use of intuition, the hazards and limitations of reason, and suchlike concerns in the process of scientific research. (Another example quoted in Beveridge’s book is KekulĂ©’s well-known story about how he discovered the ring-like structure of benzene: at the end, he urges his fellow-scientists, “Gentlemen, we must learn to dream!”) So the science of science itself is still something of a mystery: a century or more later, we still don’t know much about how these processes work, but we do have a much clearer understanding of how they can be worked – in other words, the technology and methodology, rather than the science. To quote Louis Pasteur, “In the field of scientific endeavour, chance favours the prepared mind”; yet if we arbitrarily constrain our sources of information, we’re limiting our chances. An open mind matters here – and ‘open’ in every sense, too.

Finally, by what means can we test and trust the information from these ‘augmented’ sources? Much of the self-styled ‘New Age’ teachings, for example, might perhaps be described not so much as ‘channelling’ as an open drain: no cross-checks of any kind, and far too often just ‘received truth’ for the gullible and self-deluded. But is much of what’s on the internet really any better? Google Maps’ interpretation of British post-codes is notoriously variable in its accuracy: I’ve sometimes found it to be half a mile or more off-target, especially in the smaller towns and villages. As a desmonstration of the technology’s potential, the SixthSense presentation was brilliant – but I really do have serious doubts as to how well it would work in practice. As with cloud-computing, Enterprise 2.0 and the rest of the current hype-wagons, there are some really serious questions about security and data-quality and the like that will need to be addressed before it could be trusted for use in any non-trivial real-world application. And as with other IT-hype term-hijacks, that’s exactly what usually doesn’t happen, because the hype is itself used to block out any visibility of those broader issues.

So yes, SixthSense is an excellent demonstration of net-based augmented-reality’s potential: but it’s important that we don’t let the hype and excitement block out the broader, richer, traditional meaning of ‘sixth sense’.

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