What is… human augmentation?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — March 7, 2023

In 1868, luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe presented to its customer Countess Koscowicz of Hungary a technological marvel: a miniaturized timekeeping device small enough to wear on her arm — a piece is now widely considered to be the first true wristwatch. Today a constellation of performance-enhancing devices can be worn in or on your body, whether strapped to a wrist, slipped over a finger, embedded in clothing, or even surgically implanted in the brain, to help you perform at the peak of your potential. With sensors onboard to help people understand, quantify, and optimize their own bodies and habits — a practice broadly known as “human augmentation” — there’s seemingly a bottomless appetite for these devices. Experts expect the market for them to be worth $341 billion by 2026.

Eric Chow

How it works 

The sensors and processors of wearable devices complement the sensory organs and cognitive abilities of the user. Familiar examples include smartphones and watches, head-mounted displays, augmented reality glasses, smart rings that track your vital signs, and even implantable medical monitors. And new ideas keep coming. Levi’s, for instance, recently introduced the Commuter x Jacquard by Google Trucker Jacket made with conductive thread woven into the fabric; wearers can swipe the cuff to control their music player, make phone calls or ask for help from an AI assistant.


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The a-ha moment

In his 1964 book Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan introduced the idea that technology can serve as an extension of the human body — a telephone connection, for instance, can be thought of as stretching the ear out into the world. Probably no single event went so far towards achieving this vision as the introduction in 2007 of the smartphone, which not only puts a whole suite of sophisticated electronic capabilities in users’ pockets but can serve as a portable hub for smart watches, biometric sensors, and other devices. This new networked ecosystem has fueled yet further innovation. Some new devices can even extend into new realms, for instance, by allowing wearers to sense magnetic fields via their skin.

What it means for everyday life 

As it takes ever smaller and more lightweight form, the power of portability means that human augmentation can blend seamlessly into our lives. Tasks that once required attention and effort, like monitoring chronic health conditions or keeping track of your kids, become automated and effortless. For those who’ve been on the biohacking train, human augmentation promises to circumvent human limitations of attention, athletic ability, and even lifespan.

How it might change the world

Going forward, wearable technology will integrate ever more seamlessly into our lives as chips become smaller, cheaper, and more resilient. Neural implants might allow us to communicate and control devices through the power of thought alone, or power-boosted prostheses will not only replace, but even improve on missing limbs. And so the gap between machine, human, and superhuman will vanish. We will, as McLuhan put it, “extend our central nervous system itself in a global embrace.”


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