Primal Numbers – Human Satnav

Forget about self-driving cars. How about satnav-guided people? In the latest melding of human and machine, German scientists have developed a way to use electrodes on people’s legs to guide them to their destination. The idea might have some practical uses, but it could also steer things in the wrong direction.

The technology itself is fairly simple. As The Telegraph explains, electrodes strapped to a user’s leg would use a small electrical pulse “to stimulate the sartorius muscle, which runs from the inside of the knee to the top of the outer thigh.” The pulse is faint enough that a user can choose to ignore it, but strong enough to act as a guide that directs a leg in the desired direction.

When the electrodes are paired with an app, they could direct the user to a specific route or destination. Say, guiding a tourist around certain parts of a city or steering “long distance runners via different jogging trails on different days for increased variety and enjoyment.”

It’s easy to see how that could be useful. Instead of constantly looking down to check a map or directions on their smartphone, tourists or runners could simply follow the gentle pulse that guides them along their route.

But what about some of the other suggested uses for the human satnav system?things like crowd control or guiding firefighters through burning buildings? That’s where the idea strays from the path of common sense.

Take the scenario of guiding firefighters through buildings. It’s impossible to map the interior of every private home and load it into a database, so let’s assume the technology would be used for public buildings. Perhaps a museum or government office. An alarm goes out, firefighters put on their electrodes, and off they race to a burning, smoke-filled building.

In a dangerous environment where seconds count, a lot of factors can affect the result. Using human satnav would bring another factor into that mix: the database that holds a map of the building. If It’s not current, updated every time a room or section is closed for repair or renovation, those pulses could be guiding firefighters down a blind alley. It’s the kind of thing where one small administrative error could put lives at even greater risk.

Then there’s the idea of using human satnav for crowd control. For starters, it would only work if every single person (or the vast majority) at the stadium or outdoor venue was wearing their electrodes. And a lot would depend on compliance, too. When things get out of control in a crowd, whether It’s a hockey riot or natural disaster, it can be sheer bedlam.

For the satnav system to work, everyone would have to stay calm enough among the pushing, shoving, and general mayhem to focus on following the gentle pulse That’s guiding them to the exit. Assuming, of course, that the exits are still functional and the crowd isn’t scrambling to find an alternative route from the one their electrodes are steering them toward.

Like every other invention, human satnav has its pros and cons. Out for a leisurely run or marvelling at the sights in Rome? Those friendly electrodes could be handy. Controlling large crowds or navigating a burning building? If I told you human satnav was a good idea I’d just be pulling your leg.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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