WELCOME TO TOMORROW

IN HIS REGULAR COLUMN FOR THE MAG, PAUL ARMSTRONG LOOKS AT WHAT’S GONE DOWN RECENTLY IN THE WORLD OF TECH AND GETS TO LISTEN TO THE CRÈME DE LA CRÈME BANG ON ABOUT HOW AMAZING TECHNOLOGY IS. TROUBLE IS, MOST OF IT ISN’T ALWAYS THAT AMAZING, AND SOME OF IT IS DAMN POINTLESS. THE OLD SAYING GETS RECYCLED HERE - ‘KILL THE CHEERLEADER, SAVE THE WORLD.’ IT’S A BIT LIKE READING THE ECONOMIST REALLY, (WITHOUT THE NEOLIBERAL PRO-MARKET PROPAGANDA OF COURSE). .

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FAANG is an acronym for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. There are other acronyms out there, but I like FAANG because it reminds me what data-hungry bloodsuckers these hoover-like platforms have become. One thing eluded these vampiric corporates for some time; knowing how we feel during any particular moment in time. Fast forward to today, and Apple now sells a watch that is not only an alert system that works without your phone, but is also a heart monitor. Forget fitness - this puppy just went right to the doctor’s office and started tapping wildly. All is not right in the world when a company that makes phones knows more about your health than your doctor.

Technology and health have long been buddies, but the recent news from Apple is a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. We aren’t close to being chipped (although this is happening in Nordic regions), but we are letting wearables into our lives much more than ever before.

My issue is not with the devices themselves, but rather the hand that rocks the data. Do we trust Apple to do the right thing? Do we trust Facebook to do anything but that which makes them money? The answer is, it depends, but in reality these platforms and companies are capitalist systems that live to make money and not necessarily for the betterment of humankind. They have our trust because we are lazy and because they haven’t messed up too much.

The question is, how far do we go for the sake of data and signals? Can these companies ever be satisfied? Is the trade- off worth it? Arguably, a device that gives peace of mind and could save lives is worth it, but that value is subjective. Take this scenario one step further, and you lose the device and just ‘connect’. Elon Musk wants us to wetwire into the net, and a lot of people say he can do it. Whether we should we do it is another matter, for another column.

Priced upwards of $500, the new Apple watch does one more thing besides making you poorer; it makes ‘good’ healthcare a status symbol. Where this leaves the already disadvantaged and economically-challenged is essentially, yet again, as second-class citizens. Or at the very least, not in a good place.

From Ada to MyFitnessPal, apps are an increasingly important part of people’s daily lives. Some help people fix an immediate problem, while others are with people for many months. But what happens when the apps become valuable and are bought or invested in by larger - perhaps less fluffy - companies? Terms and conditions usually mean your data gets ported over. Of course, this doesn’t mean you get a bad outcome, but what if - what if - a ‘bad actor’ decided to use that data to model different scenarios or combine it with other data to help their disadvantage or make money from you in new ways? Insurance companies, banks and so on all have interests in consumer data for modelling and new product development. The future is about to look a lot less rosy unless you work in data science or start reading those Ts and Cs more closely.

Ts and Cs won’t save the appliance industry from Amazon though. Recently announcing a microwave with Alexa support and a dedicated popcorn button, Amazon showed the world that we really are just here to get into the Alexa ecosystem and buy, buy buy. Bezos and co will make this as simple as possible, and recently launching round fifteen new products and upgrades, it’s not hard to see how. If they aren’t made already, Amazon will make them through their subsidiary companies (as they did with the popcorn maker). This should keep manufacturing executives up at night and inspire a generation to always protect their six.

RECENTLY ANNOUNCING A MICROWAVE WITH ALEXA SUPPORT AND A DEDICATED POPCORN BUTTON, AMAZON SHOWED THE WORLD THAT WE REALLY ARE JUST HERE TO GET INTO THE ALEXA ECOSYSTEM AND BUY, BUY BUY.

While not always being amazing at making technology (Amazon have famously failed at eBooks, phones and tablets), Alexa seems to be bucking that trend. Around 50 million of the devices are currently in homes around the world, according to The Information. Google is selling their versions (with around a third of the market) like hot cakes, with price drops, promotions and lots of fluffy, consumer safety campaigns. Voice is quickly growing into our brains as a defacto behaviour.

The manufacturers are pushing it on us, and we are just lazy enough to grab it with both hands. Alexa has become, like Google is already, an eponym for voice control. The issue with this? Bezos and co aren’t known for their humanitarian desire to push the human race to greater heights. While Bezos has had his moments (recently donating a huge chunk of change to underprivileged kids), the man and the company are not shining beacons of much else other than making money and being incredibly valuable (recently seeing their value rise above a trillion dollars for the second time in history - Apple was the first). Yet all may not be lost - people just want their MTV, apparently. Data suggests that less than 2% of consumers who have a voice assistant actually try to buy things through it, and of those that try to buy things, 90% never try again. Time will tell if this behaviour takes off, but something tells me Bezos won’t keep that 2% at that level for long, once the pucks are in every home across the land.

My issue with both voice and smartwatches, is the new level of data they give companies that they could previously only have dreamed of. Your heart rate is one but your voice can also tell a lot about the state of you as a person, and both can be abused if a company is smart. These elements used to be personal, but are now freely available to companies who haven’t fully promised not to use it against you. Raised heartbeat when in a certain area? Could Apple deduce anything from that? Voice trembling when asking about pregnancy questions? Would Amazon start their pregnancy promotion cycle? The list goes on. We’ve just given Amazon the keys to our search behaviours without realising it. Whilst Apple seems to be laying privacy rhetoric on us, Amazon has no such compunction and seems hellbent on trying to get regulated. Where this ends is anyone’s guess at the moment, but you can bet it’ll start with ‘Alexa’.

 
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PAUL ARMSTRONG

Paul founded and runs HERE/FORTH, an emerging technology advisory. He currently writes for Forbes, Reuters, Evening Standard, Cool Hunting and Courier, amongst others. His new book ‘Disruptive Technologies; Understand, Evaluate and Respond’ is out now.