On July 16th, 1945, when the world’s first nuclear explosion shook the plains of New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer, it’s creator, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
And indeed he had. The world was never truly the same after that, although mostly for the better. We now live longer, happier, healthier lives and are vastly less likely to die a violent death or to face persecution for our religious beliefs, skin colour or sexual orientation.
However, the immense power troubled Oppenheimer, as it did many other scientists who understood it. I can’t shake the feeling that today, as we unlock even more powerful technologies, we have lost some of that reverence. For even as technology opens up new worlds, it closes doors to old ones. We should choose thoughtfully and carefully.
The Power of a Click
I love the Web. I think what I like most is that it gives you instant access to just about anything in the world. We have more information at our fingertips than even a large institution had a decade ago. Whenever you get into a silly argument and come upon a basic disagreement about facts, it can usually be resolved with a quick Google search.
Yet even as we watch the world, the world is watching us. Go to just about any Web page or click on just about any link and you set off a chain reaction that travels at light speed through the ecosystem that Luma Partners has outlined in this chart (click to enlarge):
Much is what you’d expect. There are marketers and ad agencies on the left, publishers and sales agents on the right. However, buried in the middle, you can see data suppliers and aggregators. They track your online behaviour and collate it into a unified profile, which follows you around the web, advising marketers about things you’re likely to do.
It’s just a short hop from there to your location data that can be collected from smartphone GPS data, which in turn can be modelled by use of a Lévy flight model to predict your location at any time with a high degree of accuracy, even if your phone is off.
These predictions can be confirmed by the picture on your Facebook profile, which can be used with to find you anywhere on the planet with the help of the millions of cameras on our streets and facial recognition software. If that seems scary, the new iris scanning technology is even creepier.
I should note here that marketers, as a whole, do try to be responsible with our data. In practice, they don’t connect your online identity with your actual one. However, the ability is there and the genie is very much out of the bottle. Your full identity is only one cookieaway.
What Your Friendly Call centre Really Knows
We’ve all become used to hearing the phrase, “This call may be recorded or monitored for quality and training purposes” and it is somewhat comforting that our fates haven’t been left fully in the hands of a minimum wage call centre worker. It’s good to know that someone might be listening in to make sure we’re being taken care of properly.
But what if it is not a person listening in, but a machine that can analyse our personalityinto one of six categories that can determine how we will react to different approaches? What if that same technology was used to monitor our corporate e-mail traffic to detect when arguments might erupt?
That’s what the company Mattersight, whose technology has already been deployed to over 50,000 call centre seats. calls predictive behavioural routing. With the capacity to monitor millions of calls a month, chances are, you’ve already been analysed by Mattersight’s algorithms, probably several times.
Somewhere out there, a computer knows you. Not only your name and address, but at least part of your commercial activity and important facets of your personality.
In this age of frequent travel, airport security scans have become a familiar facet of our lives. It’s a minor intrusion given the intense need for security at airports. However, in the future, they might be scanning for a lot more than just weapons and explosives.
The same T-Ray technology is being deployed for medical imaging that can detect specific molecules in our bodies and diagnose conditions we might have or even certain aspects of our past behaviour. And that’s not all.
With the price of genetic sequencing coming down dramatically, we can soon expect a full DNA profile to cost no more than a simple blood test. That means that all of our genetic information, including insights into our health, our intellectual capabilities and other facets of our personality, will be available to anyone with $50 and a cotton swab.
Hacking the Body
And beyond our DNA, scientists are quickly gaining insights into the molecules that our genes produce. The ENCODE Project seeks to seeks to create a new understanding of how our DNA affects our body chemistry and will unlock many of the secrets of our most intractable diseases, cancer especially.
However, the same information can be used to target people of a certain genotype. Future white supremacists, for example, could develop pathogens that affect people with thesickle cell gene prevalent in people of African descent or Islamic terrorists could target those with the Tay-Sach’s gene particular to those of Jewish heritage.
Today, there is concern about breeches of privacy concerning our public and financial behaviour. What happens when we face similar security issues about facets of ourselves that were determined at birth?
The Eternal Arms Race
It is easy to get caught up in conspiracy theories by examining only one side of the equation. In truth, for every measure there is a countermeasure and the positive effects of technology far outweigh the negative ones. We are far safer, healthier and enjoy more freedom than ever thanks to the advances of scientists and engineers.
Still, as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen recently pointed out in an essay in theWall Street Journal, many widely available technologies, such as voice recognition, image recognition and big data mining can easily be deployed to repress entire populations.
Although, other technologies, such as social media, have been shown to be effective in subverting central authority, they are less helpful in helping to form the leadership and cohesiveness that is required to build a civil, productive society. Consensus, after all, is not a software protocol, but the product of vigorous debate amongst people who share values.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger quite rightly pointed out that technology is a process of uncovering. Nobody owns it. Once it is released it is here to stay and we will need to make our peace with it.
How we build is how we dwell.
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