Steve Mann on roof of CBC building with his WearComp7 invention
(picture used with NYTimes article; click picture for picture info)
March 14, 2002

At Airport Gate, a Cyborg Unplugged


STEVE MANN, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, has lived as a cyborg for more than 20 years, wearing a web of wires, computers and electronic sensors that are designed to augment his memory, enhance his vision and keep tabs on his vital signs. Although his wearable computer system sometimes elicited stares, he never encountered any problems going through the security gates at airports.

Last month that changed. Before boarding a Toronto-bound plane at St. John's International Airport in Newfoundland, Dr. Mann says, he went through a three-day ordeal in which he was ultimately strip- searched and injured by security personnel. During the incident, he said, $56,800 worth of his $500,000 equipment was lost or damaged beyond repair, including the eyeglasses that serve as his display screen.

His lawyer in Toronto, Gary Neinstein, sent letters two weeks ago to Air Canada (news/quote), the airport and the Canadian transportation authority arguing that they acted negligently and seeking reimbursement for the damaged equipment so that Dr. Mann could put his wearable computer back together again.

The difficulties that Dr. Mann faced seem related to the tightening of security in airports since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But he had flown from Toronto to St. John's two days earlier without a hitch.

On that day, Feb. 16, he said, he followed the routine he has used on previous flights. He told the security guards in Toronto that he had already notified the airline about his equipment. He showed them documentation, some of it signed by his doctor, that described the wires and glasses, which he wears every waking minute as part of his internationally renowned research on wearable computers.

He also asked for permission not to put his computer through the X-ray machine because the device is more sensitive than a laptop. He said that the guards examined his equipment and allowed him to board the flight.

But when he tried to board his return flight on Feb. 18, his experience was entirely different. This time, he said, he was told to turn his computer on and off and put it on the X-ray machine. He took his case to Neil Campbell, Air Canada's customer service manager at the St. John's airport, and spent the next two days arranging conversations between his university colleagues and the airline.

The security guards continued to require that he turn his machine on and off and put it through the X-ray machine while also tugging on his wires and electrodes, he said. Still not satisfied, the guards took him to a private room for a strip-search in which, he said, the electrodes were torn from his skin, causing bleeding, and several pieces of equipment were strewn about the room.

Once his system was turned off, turned on again, X-rayed and dismantled, Dr. Mann passed the security check. When he was finally allowed to go home, some pieces of equipment were not returned to him, he said, and his glasses were put in the plane's baggage compartment although he warned that cold temperatures there could ruin them.

Without a fully functional system, he said, he found it difficult to navigate normally. He said he fell at least twice in the airport, once passing out after hitting his head on what he described as a pile of fire extinguishers in his way. He boarded the plane in a wheelchair.

"I felt dizzy and disoriented and went downhill from there," he said.

Air Canada said that there was no record that any of Dr. Mann's baggage had been lost and that the Canadian transportation agency, Transport Canada, had required that his belongings be X-rayed. "We don't tell the security firms that there is going to be an exception made," said Nicole Couture-Simard, a spokeswoman for Air Canada. "We don't have that authority."

Transport Canada declined to comment on the case except to say that it was reviewing it.

Considering that even tweezers may be confiscated when a passenger boards a flight these days, the stricter scrutiny that Dr. Mann faced may not seem surprising. But for him, the experience raises the question of how a traveler will fare once wearable computing devices are such fixtures on the body that a person will not be able to part with them.

"We have to make sure we don't go into a police state where travel becomes impossible for certain individuals," Dr. Mann said.

Since losing the use of his vision system and computer memory several weeks ago, he said, he cannot concentrate and is behaving differently. He is now undergoing tests to determine whether his brain has been affected by the sudden detachment from the technology.

Alejandro R. Jahad, director of the University of Toronto's Program in E-Health Innovation, who has worked closely with Dr. Mann, said that scientists now had an opportunity to see what happens when a cyborg is unplugged. "I find this a very fascinating case," he said.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information

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Thanks for all those who've expressed support in regards to the unfortunate incident with Air Canada.

Many questions have been raised, technically, scientifically, etc., in the below and elsewhere. Much of this pertains to the difference between merely augmenting, and actually mediating (mediating being a proper superset of augmenting), as I describe in my wearable computing textbook published by John Wiley and Sons,

However, beyond the fundamental scientific differences between mediation and augmentation, there are the more philosophical and cultural issues.

Even if I do experience a full recovery (still awaiting analysis of MRI, various other medical tests I underwent, etc.), I will probably not be traveling much more, if at all.

Therefore, my contributions in the form of various Keynote Addresses, lectures, talks, presentations, serving on various committees, advisory boards, etc., will likely need to take a shift toward writing more books, and articles, with my Air Canada experience being included in these writings.

I am not sure how the conference organizers will take to me submitting papers, knowing my inability to travel (though I didn't think travel to Switzerland ISWC2001 would be safe, I had figured travel within Canada was still safe).

After this experience, I feel more afraid of the people walking around the airport with machine guns, than I feel afraid of the people walking around the airport with box cutters.

The next big airline tragedy will likely be either an "inside job", or simply due to "inside negligence". All the while we have passenger scrutiny, I observed the following negligences higher up:

  1. Air Canada forgot to put headphones on the flight. No big deal because I don't watch movies anyway, but what's next?
  2. On the way back I asked for bandages to stop the bleeding where they tore out my heart monitor. When they opened the first aid kit there were no bandages in it. Luckily, however, they did remember to put fuel in the aircraft.
  3. Air Canada had lost the original notification I had given them about my system, and details. This loss of records on the part of Air Canada is what precipitated the whole unfortunate incident.
  4. Air Canada had promised to phone both my wife and doctor to let them both know when I would arrive. When I did arrive, neither my wife nor doctor had been notified, so I wound up at the airport hospital with a doctor unfamiliar with my situations. Their failure to keep their promise resulted in greatly delayed transfer to another hospital.
(the list goes on, but i'll save this for the sequel to my other wearable computing book).
rough draft of lawyer's letter