The year 2029 must have seemed a long way off when Masamune Shirow first published his cyberpunk vision, Ghost in the Shell, in 1989. The intervening 28 years to today have seen multiple animated adaptations of his work (two films and a TV series). Despite its age and the inevitable changes that follow from any adaptation, Shirow’s core technological vision has been remarkably unchanged since the first manga.
The franchise provides plenty of food for thought relating to cybernetic augmentation, artificial intelligence, and fundamental questions on the nature of humanity and sentience. In this post, I’ll take a close look at one particularly eye-catching concept — cybernetic prosthetic hands that are shown driving computers with blazing speed. Even in our current era of Bluetooth and optical communication, this concept somehow still earns a prominent place in the contemporary canon.
Beyond the Home Row
Keyboards, whether QWERTY or Dvorak, split ergonomic or Maltron, all have 10 keys on the home row. Debates about comparative speed aside, they all have approximately the same number of total keys as there are only so many keys that can be presented to a user before the keyboard becomes impractical for human hands. The shift key was first introduced in 1878 and expands the domain of characters and commands that can be quickly accessed, but in practice chorded patterns generally max out at three keys for concurrent keys for actions like ctrl+alt+delete. There are, in fact, chorded keyboards that allow more complex chording, but their intention is to reduce key count and maintain a single hand position while typing, as opposed to expand the domain of input.
Additional cybernetic fingers would make practical additional input keys. These could be used to formalize more complex computing operations and commands. For instance, as a programmer, I could imagine a key designated to switch between view and edit mode in VIM. There could be specified buttons for common programming structures like
if statements, loops, etc. A series of keys could be dedicated to multiple independent clipboards used to store and recall frequently used variable names. These key mappings could be contextual, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine filling up a few dozen more keys for applications ranging from programming, to image and video editing, to gaming, to data analysis…
Moreover, multiply that utility by several terminals. In practice, a keyboard interacts with a single terminal at a time. Utilities like
screen allow a user to quickly navigate multiple terminal sessions, but the keyboard can’t interact with more than one at a time. An expanded key-set could be partitioned to drive multiple terminals concurrently. As an engineer, you might be hard refreshing a web browser while testing web software, while modifying and committing some code in a second terminal, and listing docker container status in a third.
Can’t We Just Use Bluetooth?
The answer is surely artistic license, in part — the concept looks sufficiently cool that it’s appeared in the manga, on TV, and in film twice — but perhaps there could be more practical reasons as well.
The plot of Ghost in the Shell hinges around a powerful hacker who can invade people’s cybernetically augmented minds, and uses their connectivity as a way to do so. Simply put, establishing any duplex network connection between one’s brain and an untrusted or compromised device (which in Shirow’s world is basically all devices) is a recipe for disaster. These prosthetic hands could be considered a one-way isolation or air gapping strategy for sending input from a cybernetic brain to another system.
Furthermore, physical prostheses would be interface-independent. Radio-based networking is susceptible to interception, and so wired networking sounds appealing while working at a terminal. However, before I build a physical USB-A port into my arm, I better be sure Apple’s not moving to USB-C in the next few years. I don’t want to be carrying around a bag of dongles. Cybernetic hands ensure that I can walk up to any machine, even an archaic QWERTY if that should come to pass, and enter input rapidly.
Update — September 6, 2017:
No sooner had I published this than I upgraded to a 2017 Macbook Pro at work, which features the Touch Bar. In many ways, the Touch Bar is contextually expanding the key space to bring relevant actions within reach while keeping a sane key-count. These actions are contextual with respect to active applications and even specific focus within apps. They are also customizable, to some extent, to suit individual preference and priorities. I’ve been really impressed by the basic affordances and optimizations it allows. It’s still not second nature to access these keys, other than simple music controls, but it’s a step in the right direction toward breaking out of the same keys we’ve seen for the last 100 years.