Thursday, October 25, 2012

On the Cutting Edge


Theory of Accelerating Change

"The Singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history"

Ray Kurzweil, Law of Accelerating Returns



"This is where we would make the incision," a doctor says, trying not to scare me.

My heart is pounding out of my chest.

I am five years old, laying down on a cold table with a piece of what feels like butcher paper on it. Cold gel has been oozed onto my chest to soften the touch of rod-like probe being pushed under my ribs by a technician trying not to hurt me.

On the screen I can see my heart beating.

Closing my eyes doesn't help, the image comes with too much sound; and even more, I can feel it. The thing is inside me. I have just been told by the doctor that I have a broken heart. My mother gently rubs my wrist and hand, trying not to show me her anxiety.

"We would cut a small opening in your chest, then cutting here, we would cut out the valve," the doctor continues, "then we would put in the replacement, sew you up and you'd be good from then on out; you just might hear clicking in your chest."

My mother asks on my behalf to explain what he meant by clicking.

"Well, the replacement valve would either be cybernetic, or it would be taken from a pig's heart. Do you like pigs?"

Fifteen minutes later, my mom is walking me down to the car, out of the cardiac section of the hospital. She is telling me that if I keep healthy, such as not gaining too much weight, I may not need heart-surgery. "And," my mother adds, my face buried deep in the arm of her sweater, "if technology keeps on developing, they may be able to repair your heart without requiring you to go under the knife"



It's quiet in our basement on Hawthorn Street, except for the occasional sound of clicking on a clunky early 90's key-board. The computer covers the whole desk and my Dad is very proud of it. We are one of the few families on the block to have a computer like this, it is cutting edge.

I lay on my stomach on the floor a few feet away, I'm around seven years old. The floor is padded by a plastic mat with little bumps on it. All around me are markers and scrap pieces of paper.

"How about a penguin, Dad?" I ask, drawing an indeterminate black and white blob on the sheet in front of me. "Or maybe a phoenix." I add some wings in red.

"Whatever you like," my Dad says, adjusting his glasses and smirking. I'm told I get my smirk from him.

Taking yellow markers I add flames to the body. I am designing the mascot for my Dad's new computer business. He is in the process of developing a program, waiting for space to become available in the office building a few blocks away. The project is very exciting, he is working with some very cutting edge stuff.



"Just feels so impersonal," my mother says as I am helping set up her new work computer in the basement of her new house. "Nurses should be there to sit with people, not just talking to them on the phone."

After a few years as head-nurse at the local community college, my mother is now working for the largest health-insurance company in Illinois, the one with all the government contracts. Her new job, as she explains to me, is to call patients that have recently been to the doctor and go through a script to make sure they understand what was prescribed. If people follow the doctor's instructions, people with numbers and graphs say, fewer will go to the ER and the insurance company will save money.

"On the bright side," I tell her, connecting the printer and popping out from under the desk, "a little time on the computer every day: you'll soon be a tech expert."

She will be. Within a few years, she moves into management and steals away to other insurance companies that are hungry for nurses savvy with computers. Her employers are impressed with her ability to cut through the confusing techo-babel, with what they describe as "a voice that just sounds like a real nurse."



I walk past a wall covered in maps of Chicago, drawn from pictures taken from a satellite floating just on the edge of space. This is my Dad's new office.

They are a navigation technology company, currently designing and programming the data for the website "Map Quest," but they are already starting to look ahead at the days when you can have navigation units hooked into your car.

It's bring your kid to work day at their office, so my Dad is introducing me around. We finish at his cubicle where he hands me a soda and offers me a laptop if I wanted to browse the internet. I tell him there really isn't anything online that interests me. He smirks and goes to work as I pull out a book.

A little bit later I look up, he is typing, and tell him that there is one thing online that I am kind of interested in: my advanced dungeons and dragons group could use some more painted pewter figurines and last time I was able to find some on a new website called "E-Bay."

My Dad gets really excited and pulls up a program on his computer with lots of tabs and message bars, then explains to me that it's a newly developed technology called "Sniper" that allows you to make bids on sites like E-Bay at the very last second before it closes; usually assuring that you can get whatever you want, so long as the price doesn't go beyond what you are willing to pay.

"What if someone else is using this kind of program?" I ask, showing him which box of figurines I want (an assortment of heroes and goblins, you always need lots of monsters for the battle-mat).

"Oh, well then it just depends on what version of the program you are using," he says setting Sniper to purchase the box for me, "obviously the more you spend and the newer the technology, the closer you can cut it."

(This time the program cuts close enough, there wasn't much competition, and a few weeks later I get my Dungeons & Dragons accessories.)



"This is where we would make the incision," a doctor tells me stoically.

I squirm a bit as their finger touches my chest, just under the ribs.

"We would cut a small opening, then lifting up the chest muscle," the doctor continues, "insert the silicone breast forms underneath. Then we'd sew you up and you'd be good for several years; at most you'd feel  soreness or hardening."

Fifteen minutes later I am walking back to my car. On the ride home, I talk to my mom on the phone about how it went. I'm uncertain. Right now I certainly couldn't afford the operation, much less the time off. Also, there is hope that within a few years the silicone technology will improve so you wouldn't have to get replacement surgeries once a decade to make sure they don't burst inside your chest. It will probably happen soon, but I'm not yet ready to go under the knife.

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