Every year, as hundreds of Harvard students dutifully shuffle through Economics and Computer Science department requirements in hopes of an approving scribble on their degree, a few eccentrics design their own course of study — what Harvard calls a special concentration. The academic plans must be unique, and the topic must fall between or outside all existing departments. Titles of past special concentrations include “Neuroeconomics,” “Music Cognition and Perception,” “Nuclear Geopolitical Studies,” and, most recently, “Human Augmentation.” But for the last entry in the list, the road less traveled is more populated than usual — “Human Augmentation” has two concentrators, Alice X. Cai ’25 and AnhPhu D. Nguyen ’25.
Cai and Nguyen have a lot in common. Besides their shared course of study, they both help direct the Augmented Reality Developers club (which the pair co-founded), they both participate in the art technology collective Conflux (which Cai co-founded), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they both love thinking about the future.
Although the two concentrators may seem to be operating in parallel, their paths are quickly diverging. Beneath the auspices of human augmentation, Cai and Nguyen have fundamentally different approaches to technology, ones that will shape their futures — and perhaps ours, too.
Nguyen grew up a tinkerer. During high school in Omaha, Nebraska, he built a coin sorter out of Legos that went viral on Reddit and founded a phone repair business called Phu’s Phone Emporium.
While Nguyen took apart phones, Cai put together novels. Growing up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she began writing them at the age of eight and published her first — a fantasy story about a kingdom of bears — at 16. She has also won many awards for her nonfiction writing. On the side, she researched nanomaterials at the University of Arkansas.
Cai and Nguyen both arrived at Harvard in fall 2021. According to Nguyen, Cai was thinking of applying for a special concentration in computational creativity, while he was considering concentrating in CS, Economics, or Engineering. After taking a class at MIT with Cai on virtual reality and brain-computer interfaces, Nguyen changed his mind.
“We were both really interested in cyborgs and technology, and how humans and computers and machines can combine into something new,” he says. “We kept talking more and more and basically I had the idea: what if we did like, ‘human augmentation,’ both of us together?”
Cai frames the special concentration as a practical matter.
“Human augmentation was the broadest umbrella that could describe almost anything I wanted to do,” she says.
Indeed, an explanation of the concentration on her website describes it as “the interdisciplinary study of motivations, ideologies, history, theoretical foundations, methods, and implications of augmenting the human condition.” An attached academic plan lists courses — seven of which are at MIT — in topics including systems engineering, science fiction, neurobiology, transhuman forms, and artificial intelligence. The scope of human augmentation, in other words, leaves Cai and Nguyen with a vast space to explore.
With a boyish, infectious grin, Nguyen gushes about an MIT class called “Human 2.0,” taught by professor Hugh Herr, who built his own prosthetic legs after a climbing accident.
For the final project, Nguyen built “JETSON,” a software that allows those wearing augmented reality headsets to use AI while engaging in conversation. This form of augmentation — enhancing cognition through interfaces between humans and computers — is what Nguyen finds most interesting. “How do we make humans more seamlessly communicate with AI?” he asks. “And what are the interfaces for that?”
In the demo video for JETSON, Nguyen is having a mock conversation with Alina Yu ’25, his partner on the project, about the ethics of making an AI girlfriend. Yu is wearing the AR headset, which displays semi-transparent blue boxes in her line of sight: “summarize,” “ideate,” “define,” “fact check.”
“Basically, this AI listens to you at all times passively,” Nguyen says. “If someone ever says any word that you don’t understand, like BCI” — the acronym for Brain-Computer Interface — “you can simply glance — very quickly — at ‘define.’ And the language model will automatically look for all the difficult terms and then relay the definition to you.”
In the video, Yu glances at the box marked “ideate,” and AI-generated text begins appearing in the center of her vision, offering different arguments for and against AI girlfriends that she can use in conversation.
Nguyen wants to reinvent how humans interact with computers, building interfaces that are easy to use and maximize the amount of data transferred between brain and machine.
Nguyen also just loves to build. Among his other projects like JETSON, his website showcases a 3D-printed Iron Man Helmet and a “punch-activated” flamethrower (modeled after the firebending martial artists in the animated show “Avatar: The Last Airbender”).
The next version of JETSON, which he is currently working on, trades in the bulky headset for an augmented reality monocle. Before he explains it, he pulls the glass monocle out of his backpack and hands it to me. It’s light and transparent, with a small glint of gold and green electronics near the top.
“It has a camera, microphone, Bluetooth, and capacitive touch sensors for input,” he tells me.
He’s especially excited that the monocle fits neatly in a small case like the ones used for AirPods. As we talk, he fidgets with the case.
Though Nguyen firmly believes in the power of augmentation, he recognizes that reducing friction between humans and computers doesn’t always make people’s lives better.
He brings up TikTok: “The elimination of friction from new content there has been pretty terrible, I would say, for mental health and social interactions.” He doesn’t want technology to help people be self-destructive or promote bad behavior in the long term.
Still, he says making the decision about what’s good or bad is “really hard.” But one good way to use technology, he thinks, is to quantify human behavior and allow people to use the data how they want, like how many phones now track screen time. He also brings up the tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who has spent millions of dollars tracking and optimizing his own health in an attempt to slow or reverse aging. (“I don’t think you should be forced to live forever,” Nguyen says. “But you should have the choice.”)
Despite the concerns, as long as we’re “careful about it,” Nguyen argues that merging humans and computers would be best for humanity.
“We’re already seeing that with phones that give you perfect memory, right?” He points to the phone I’m using to record our conversation. “You can look at this later and write a better article. I think we will only inevitably progress toward more and more integration with machines.”
Whereas Nguyen is fascinated with the physical means of connecting organic and mechanical intelligence, Cai’s definition of augmentation is much broader.
“I would include the stories that run our lives as part of augmentation,” she says. “If I have some story about how I grew up, and what my parents’ influence on my character was, this is sort of an autopilot story that has been generated by society. I want to augment that and understand why these stories exist, and then see how I can retell my story in a different way.”
When she got to college, Cai wanted to merge humans and computers, much like Nguyen. She collaborated with Nguyen and some of their friends on the flamethrower and a hand-controlled skateboard.
With them, last year, Cai started the Augmentation Lab, a student-run collaborative to house augmentation projects, and for 10 weeks over the summer she worked full-time with seven other students and recent graduates in an Augmentation Residency on projects ranging from an immersive, VR-aided search engine to software translating brain activity into artwork using AI.
Many of her projects, she said, arose more from a desire to “build something cool” than out of any real need for the augmentation. But over time, she began to turn away from this mode of development.
“A lot of tech development is an expression of ego, like, ‘look what I’ve made,’” she says. That kind of expression drove her own work until she started discussing it with people and realized its hold over her.
She now sees building augmentations without considering their meaning a kind of “affliction.” Instead, she wants to “integrate artistic processes with tech development.”
“Artists, I think, try to find truth and meaning,” she says. The objectives of art, then “almost counterbalance the objectives of tech development.” The impulses that once drove her to write novels, in other words, now steer her creation of technology.
As she talks, she stares pensively into the space between her gesturing hands. She tells me about Game Changer, an application she’s currently working on with members of the Augmentation Lab. Game Changer works through “a mix of narrative and software” to help people change themselves. In the first stage, which Cai calls the “‘yes and’ experiment,” the user has a close friend — or if one’s not available, an AI assistant — repeatedly insult them.
“It’s supposed to be pretty brutal,” Cai says. The user on the receiving end then must say “yes, and” to all the insults, as in improv, collecting evidence from their own life to support the insult.
Through the “yes, and” experiment, Cai says, users could “develop courage” and come to terms with their own negative qualities as a person. The next stages of Game Changer then focus on imagining alternative versions of oneself — assisted with AI and guided meditations — and trying to become some version of those people.
“The classic kind of rationale for why you should build technology is that it's some sort of optimization, improving human productivity or improving human wellbeing,” she says. But art, she explains, isn’t always about happiness or productivity.
Cai says that the Augmentation Lab is “interested in building technologies that enhance some aspect of human meaning,” she says “Sometimes those are not necessarily pleasant technologies. Sometimes they’re provocative.”
Developing Game Changer, she tells me, was “an ambiguous process” — part traditional tech development, part storytelling. It also involved making members of the group the first users of all their projects.
“I’ve been much more in favor of augmentation as a method for bringing out inherent capabilities,” she says. She contrasts her current perspective with the idea of merging humans with computers: “I call it magic within humans rather than necessarily facilitating merging.”
Despite their differences, Cai and Nguyen share a fundamental belief in technology’s transformative power. Indeed, Nguyen is relentlessly optimistic about the future.
“The scale of humanity will be much more than on one planet,” he says. “It seems like technology allows you to possibly destroy the world a lot faster than anything else could before. But I’m generally optimistic that we can control that.”
In the future Cai imagines, technology could be just as vital in reshaping our interior lives.
“Rather than necessarily becoming just optimally efficient,” she says, we could become “super fulfilled in our souls.”
Correction: October 15, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only AnhPhu D. Nguyen ’25 co-founded the Augmented Reality Developers club. In fact, both Nguyen and Alice X. Cai ’25 co-founded the club.
— Associate Magazine Editor Hewson Duffy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.