This week I am sitting down with my friend and fellow NASA SUITS teammate Chris Hill. He is a senior in computer science here at CU Boulder. He is also a McNair Scholar and a Google CS Research Mentorship recipient whose research interests lie in human augmentation, sensory extension, Transhumanism, biohacking, emergent technology, and educational technology. These interests culminate in the development of sensory extensions and augmentation devices that encourage shared innovation and scientific discovery, with the intent that these open source projects have the potential to lead to a stronger augmentation community and the dispersion of more novel ideas.
Very exciting Stuff!
Let me set the scene. We have just taken advantage of a promotional offer from a local facial studio. Our skin is glowing and very moisturized. We decide to get lunch, tacos. We are sitting in the main room of a trendy hipster style taco joint drinking margaritas at a bar height table and its super crowded Saturday. We both have on fun printed knit cardigans, cool sneakers, and glowing skin.
AJ: Hello Chris! Are you ready to talk about how awesome you are?
Chris: laughs HI!
AJ: So tell us about yourself?
Chris: Alright, I am computer science student at CU Boulder. For the past two years I’ve been doing research in human augmentation and children’s education. To give a very broad overview. I develop computationally enriched sensory extensions that help people interact and explore the world in new and novel ways.
Definition of human augmentation: Described as the natural, artificial, or technological alteration of the human body in order to enhance physical or mental capabilities.
AJ: Awesome, great description! How did you get interested in human augmentation?
Chris: Yeah so about three years ago I was taking a discrete math class with the late Mike Eisenberg and I thought he was an interesting guy in class. He said he was teaching a first year seminar. I had just transferred So I was technically considered a first year student, although it was mostly freshmen in the class. I took it and was enthralled in the idea of people in there basements or by themselves, injecting things into themselves, changing their own physiology to adapt new senses to embed technology.
AJ: I actually saw a YouTube video of people implanting microchips into their body, It was wild.
Chris: Yeah! Actually at the end of that class I injected an RFID chip into my hand.
AJ: Oh my gosh! Is it still there then?
Chris: No, it been cut out but you can see the scare from it.
AJ: laughs their is indeed a scar there. between his thumb and pointer finger there is the scar
Definition of RFID: Radio Frequency Identification. It is a passive technology, that means that it remains off until it makes contact with a magnetic field. Once it gets into contact with a magnetic field or RFID reader it exchanges some kind of information. So with mine, my chip was from around 2016 so had a password and an identification key.
AJ: Can you explain what Transhumanism and Human Augmentation mean to you?
Chris: Transhumanism is the ideology that the next step in human evolution is going to be man made, and hardware made. I personally am not a part carrying member of the movement but I think that technology embedded into humans can provide a new opportunity for us to create art, to make new things and experience the world in new ways. It’s beneficial in the idea that it’ll help us adapt to new environments, possibly.
Humans Augmentation is the idea that we can augment, or enhance, which is use that term loosely I rather say, add to humans these new experiences, new ideas. I see it as a way for humans to express themselves as a form of social expression but also as a way to mitigate interaction between humans.
AJ: I totally agree. I definitely have thought about evolution and where technology plays a role in that. I have thought that maybe many years from now that completely artificial, maybe by then it wont be considered artificial, completely mechanical beings will replace organic humans, in the future… LONG! DISTANT! FUTURE!
Chris: Yeah, I mean, one of the future implications I see of my work is, Imagine your sending and astronaut to a far distant planet and there is intelligent life on that planet. There is no guarantee that that intelligent life is able to see the same spectrum we see, have the same vocal chords or speak in the same way we do. So you’ve gone to a planet full of dogs! Dogs are going to develop technologies completely different from humans. So they’re not gonna have vacuums anywhere! Cause that will hurt their hearing.
AJ: Aww. It’s gonna be a really quiet planet!
Chris: Exactly! Very quiet, lots of blue objects. So that’s one of the applications I see.
AJ: We kind of talked about this off record but I’m interested to learn more about your McNair scholarship and your Google CS Mentorship recipient status. How did you hear about it, get into it, and what are you doing with it?
Chris: Yeah, so I am very bad at finding opportunities to improve myself career wise. I was taking a class with my mentor at the time and he said, “Are you low income?” “Yes.”
“Are you a minority?” “Yes.”
“Are you interested in Grad school?”
And I had to think about it. “Maybe???” I was like 20%.
He was like “Either way I’m going to nominate you for the scholarship.”
At the time I was still trying to figure out a way to make research my career, so I didn’t have to do 9-5. I applied and got accepted. Two years later the principle investigator for the pet project and I where talking and I told him I was interested in being the big picture guy at some corporation. He then sent me this opportunity for Google. They were looking for student who had promising skills as a researcher, so I applied and got accepted.
AJ: Awesome! Congratulations on that! There is was something you touched on about being the big picture guy? So I would say everybody aspires to be the big picture guy. So with the research you do, what’s the opposite of a big picture guy? and how would you define the big picture guy?
Chris: So I would say, if I had to put a label on it. There is a group of people who create technology with the expectation that they will output a result. From those results they will write papers, they’ll use it for their career. Big picture people think about creating technology that may or may not work. It may or may not be beneficial now, or in the future. They are the people who are going to be thinkin about it, playing around it, and are going to try and create the technology. Not with the intent of a paper, but that it will benefit the community that they wish to publish too.
AJ: Excellent. What is your favorite project that you have worked on so far?
Chris: laugh Oh, you know I have not been asked that before. I would say I really like what I am currently working on. It’s very far from human augmentation and what I am usually interested in. It’s a project to help people who create E-textiles. E textiles are computationally enriched textiles so textiles that have microcontrollers in them. So they can sense, actuate, and take sensory inputs.
AJ: AH! have I seen that on your water bottle? the one with the LED on it. What is that doing?
Chris: So that is something new I am developing. Currently E Textiles has no equivalent to a bread board. Which is a way traditional microcontrollers work. What we are working on is in the non traditional route where we have conductive thread, we have Lily Pad which is a micro controller designed for people to sew with. These don’t have tools developed for them or faces that help with prototyping devices. So what I have on my water bottle is my version of these, an E textile bread board that has a bunch of magnets. Someone can use stainless steel wire to prototype their own devices. They can tear it apart they can put it on their water bottle they can put it on their fridge and when they are ready to put it into a physically sewn E textile they can do so.
AJ: Have you seen those watches that you wear and they control your body temperature? I imagine E textiles would have some application in that.
Chris: Yeah so I have actually developed something like that. I’m trying to think how to describe the visualization. So imagine that your going to create a hardware project. The most common errors you get are incorrect polarity, you initialize the wrong pin, or you cause a break. Most people reading this will not be able to identify this at all. So the ideas is that I want to create a device that while a person is creating their project they are able to identify when they make a mistake circuitry wise. They can undo the stitch and ask questions as to why this is creating an error. currently the tools available for debugging circuitry is only useable for traditional electronics. What I want to do is take the historical textile world and take the electronics world and combine the two into E textiles. So we are creating tools that benefit and help E textilers in a way that has not been previously shown.
AJ: What has been the most challenging project for you?
Chris: So in my conceptualization I am thinking of difficult as me traversing unknowns in technology. I feel like am at the point in my career to where I can come up with an idea and I can realize it fully. To me that makes everything so much easier. My first project was my hardest. It was a tactile illusion. The device allowed humans to imagine that their fingers were longer than traditional fingers, like a foot long. I spent about three months trying to figure out how to set up a simple button. Which is something I can do now in like 5 minutes. I remember our first prototype was a wearable glove and so the only finger we had prototyped on was the middle one. So just imagine this foot long middle finger. I was on a team with 3 other undergrads. We had to present it to our professor at the time, Mike Eisenberg. He told us it looks like we created a road rage finger. From that point my mindset went from, it has to be perfect to, it doesn’t matter as long as the idea, conceptualization, and the interaction is there. If people understand where your coming from they are gonna enjoy the hardware. If you try to over design it can really miss the mark and people will miss what your saying. I think people in a lot of fields they miss the idea of having a novel invention vs having an invention that people expect. If you have something novel people can learn from it, take it, and try to make it better. If you have something expected then people will be less inclined to try to improve on it, and it wont make you think differently.
AJ: So Chris, we took Human Computer Interaction together and a big part of that class was accessibility and how designing with accessibility in mind helps create really novel technologies. So I find your point of how you approach design really fascinating. All of your projects are open source which I believe very strongly in the power of open source software. By doing that it not only encourages the development of novel tech but encourages the growth and improvement of it.
Definition of Open Source: Open-source software is a type of computer software in which source code is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software may be developed in a collaborative public manner.
Chris: Yeah, to expand on that I would say that even in the class the idea of developing for accessibility is what we would call a constraint. Developing for a specific differently abled population is very different from developing for a very abled population. I am interested in bridging that gap and developing technologies that benefit differently abled people gain or enhance their perception in some type of way but also can be used by people who don’t have the same level of ability, gain some empathy or help them experience a new understanding of the world.
AJ: Empathy is really important. It makes me think of when people talk about accessibility and empathy and things like that with technology. I feel like sometimes you get these really brainy types that are just focused on their GPA and getting an A. It just feels like sometimes there’s not a lot of empathy there as far as people that create certain technologies, where they’re just like, well if you don’t get it, then you don’t get it. That’s terrible to think like that.
End Part One
For more information on Chris and his projects check out the links below:
So there you have it! Christian Hill! Be sure to check for updates on when part two comes out. We get into the applications of Chris’s work with AR/VR!