Tech is reaching its 'I know kung fu' moment. Are we crossing a line?
A view from Omar Oakes

Tech is reaching its 'I know kung fu' moment. Are we crossing a line?

The stakes are too high to continue with the 'move fast and break things' culture.

It may be hard to believe, but it has been almost 20 years since The Matrix was released. 

Perhaps the most memorable part of the movie is when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is plugged into a machine that is able to instantly upload a lifetime’s worth of martial arts training directly into his brain. 

Amazed, Neo triumphantly exclaims: "I know kung fu!"

It seems that such fantastical tech could now be much closer to becoming a reality (accepting that we are indeed experiencing reality right now).

Last week, AKQA revealed that it is working on a machine called Neuromuscle, an apparatus powered by artificial intelligence that connects artificial arms and hands on to a human. The AI is then able to take control of the hands in order to play an original 1979 Asteroids arcade game.

The same AI has been learning how to play the perfect game of Asteroids, much in the same way that Alpha has been crushing complex board games such as Go and chess.

But what if, through hours or days or months of repeated use, your muscle memory allowed you to retain the enhanced motor skills created by this AI? 

A headset manufacturer called Halo in the US claims it can do just that by using electric currents to stimulate the brain's "plasticity", ie the ability to create and strengthen connections between neurons.

"This means you can learn any movement faster – from playing piano to performing a muscle up," Halo’s marketing literature claims. 

Whether or not it can literally teach us kung fu without having to get up from the sofa, connected products that are able to retain muscle memory have far-reaching implications in the health, training and education industries.

For marketers, the key will be finding out how to harness these ways of delivering "enhanced human" abilities, such as experiential activations in which you can play tennis with the power and precision of Serena Williams or play the guitar as sublimely as Jimi Hendrix.

You can also imagine how it could enable people to once again do something that they hadn't been able to do due to illness, an accident or old age.

All technology is always open to abuse; one can conceive of cat burglars or computer hackers that could potentially use such a device to add speed to their criminal enterprises.

But there is a more fundamental issue of regulation at play here: are we in effect creating a new form of performance enhancement that is akin to steroids? Are we creating yet another way for the wealthy and privileged to steal a march on others when it comes to gaining greater physical or technical abilities, just by buying the best equipment? 

As MPs said of tech companies in its daming report on fake news and disinformation last week: "The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission."

This "culture", built on libertarian values about the free market knowing best, should not be allowed to persist when it comes to tech that can radically alter our physical capabilities and test the boundaries of what being "human" really is.

The stakes are simply too high when products like Neuromuscle or Halo are the first signs that tech companies are literally allowing human beings to move fast and break things. 

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