Who's Afraid of the Technopath? Luddites, Your Dad, and the X-Men.

What mutants controlling electronics with their minds tells us about the future of UX and our tentative reliance on machines.

Classic X-Men nemesis Apocalypse makes his big screen debut in the forthcoming film X-Men: Apocalypse. According to Marvel lore, he’s the first known mutant aberration in the human gene pool, and this makes him a feisty character. Not only is he immortal and able to control every single molecule in his body to grow and transform into anything, but he is a “technopath” as well.

The premise behind this last ability is simple. Technopaths are those who are able to communicate with electronic gadgets the way humans speak with each other. Apocalypse could hypothetically tell your smartphone to explode the next time you held it to your ear. He could control a spaceship’s (or a tank’s, or an airliner’s) maneuvers simply by thinking at them. He’s kind of like a hacker, but minus the hacking. This is worthy of note because it makes a metaphysical ability out of an essential life skill, interacting with technology in a competent way.

The first popular conception of technopathy (also referred to as technomancy, synthetic telepathy, and cyberkinesis) perhaps appeared in the novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by revered science fiction author William Gibson. A character named Angie Mitchell has a unique nervous system that has been modified with “bioware” that lets her connect to the stories’ early imagining of a modern Internet with nothing but a thought. As such, Mitchell is a formidable hacker who can think her way through any technical problem.

It’s an interesting idea — so interesting that researchers are actively working on making it into a product. It’s called a “brain-computer interface.” Where your hand operates a mouse to interact with a computer, your brain operates a BCI to interact with a computer.

While far from perfect, sweeping strides are being made in this arena. DARPA, the American government’s secretive research arm that played a formative role in the birth of the Internet, is in the middle of developing a high-resolution BCI that would seriously decrease the distance between a human user having a thought and a computer executing an action, whether it’s to type text, load a webpage, fire up an application, or even control that application. It will spend $60 million over four years to see just how far it can advance this ball.

More immediately, however, limited BCIs are proving to be invaluable tools for those with limited speech or motor skills. ALS patients, whose condition most commonly attacks motor neuron and robs them of freedom of movement, perhaps stand to benefit the most from such technology for the sake of better communicating with the external world. ALS patient Stephen Hawking currently relies on eye-tracking technology to control his computer, but that could and likely will change.

In a sense, fear of Apocalypse is fear of a technology that, while in the offing, is far from implausible. In another sense, fear of Apocalypse is an amped up version of the intimidation parents feel when they watch their two year old use an iPad with a fluency they can’t muster. He’s a villain built to match the X-Men, but he’s also a villain created when the rate of innovation was slower and technology presented only hypothetical threats. His arrival in theaters correspondents with the announcement of a Russian robot army and during the reign of UAVs. Almost everything scary Apocalypse can do with technology, we’ve purpose built machines to accomplish. The difference between him and a four-star general is that he can use technology in unexpected ways and the general can only use weapons as weapons.

Still, the public’s reaction to an avatar for extreme computer literacy will be interesting. The movies target demo doesn’t fear technology so the character will strike a strange note if the script plays up his technopathy. In some sense, Ultron already tried to make tech — albeit a more specific form, neural networks — scary and failed. One wonders if Oscar Isaac can pull of what James Spader couldn’t and make an ability we all strive for into a power that inspires real fear.

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