A View from Steve Mann

Wearable Technology as a Human Right

Hostility to the use of wearable computers and cameras threatens to limit their benefits, says Steve Mann.

  • February 18, 2014

Many of us who use a wearable computer to augment our vision have come to rely on it as our normal way of seeing, understanding, and making sense of the world. As we get older, whether we become reliant on the technology through loss of natural function or merely grow further acclimated to it from many years of use, it becomes a part of our own selves in mind, body, and spirit.

Steve Mann
Steve Mann

This technology is only now becoming available for large numbers of people to use (see “Glass, Darkly”). But it has already started to be banned in some places. For someone who has been inventing, designing, building, and wearing such devices for more than 30 years, and who founded MIT’s wearable-­computing project more than 20 years ago, being forbidden to use this technology feels like an affront to bodily integrity. These devices are not simply pieces of clothing or a variation on conventional eyewear. They have profound effects on how we see, understand, and remember the world.

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As more people grow to depend on this technology in all facets of their lives (for example, as a memory aid or face recognizer), we must balance their rights with the desire to allow other people privacy and confidentiality. It is absurd to forbid people to remember things. Imagine an elderly gentleman being asked his whereabouts on a particular night, to which he replies, “I was not allowed to remember.” We can’t hold people responsible for their actions if we prevent them from doing what it takes to recall them.

My six-year-old daughter once asked me, “Why do buildings and cars have the right to wear a camera at all times, but people don’t?” Our society has decided that organizations and businesses always have the right to use a camera for security, but the right to wear a camera as an assistive device seems less assured.

Let’s value people at least as much as we do merchandise and elevate the wearable computer to the level of a security camera. We never forbid cameras to protect five-cent candies. So let’s not forbid people to protect themselves with this same kind of technology. I have proposed legislation to protect the right of individuals to remember, computationally, what they experience.

As wearable computers and cameras become more widespread, we will certainly need to adopt new protocols and social attitudes toward the capture and sharing of visual information and other data. But these protocols should not include discrimination against users of these valuable assistive devices.

Steve Mann is chief scientist at the wearable-­computing company ­MetaView and a professor at the University of Toronto.

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