People are freaking out about technology.
What are they most scared of?
Wait... Should we all be freaking out?
We are currently living in a time where the development and exploration of technology is moving faster than it ever has.
When navigating the world of technology and its future, it is near impossible to avoid stumbling into the endless library of fears that has manifested alongside it.
While wandering the corridors of this athenaeum you may find yourself in the AI section; shelf after shelf of Terminator-esque scenarios and Elon Musk-fuelled worriment. Alternatively, you can turn the corner and have a gander in the Net Neutrality department, but just so you know, you might have to pay for entry to that section pretty soon.
Everything to come is exciting, but let’s be honest, unnerving. I have referenced Black Mirror many times in my writing (no, I don’t work for Netflix) because I can’t help but admire Charlie Brooker for exploring these dystopian scenarios in such an extravagant way whilst also keeping us aware throughout the episodes that these circumstances are entirely plausible and could realistically happen in the not-so-distant-future.
So, what are the aspects of this snowballing industry that unnerve us so much? Are these fears justified? And most importantly, is there an up-side that we’re failing to see through our sheer veil of unease.
“They know everything about us. They’re tailoring what is shown to each individual. They’re gathering this data and are going to use it against us, right?”
Well, no… not really.
In fact, companies are primarily using our personal information to tailor and improve customer experience.
Take Amazon for instance. The online retail giant has access to an enormous amount of its customers personal data; names, addresses, payments and search histories are all filed away in its data bank.
Let’s not state the obvious here, we’re all aware that this data is put to use in advertising algorithms but Amazon is also purposefully pouring this information into their customer relations. If you contact the Amazon help desk with a query it is very likely that the employee on the other end already has most of the pertinent information on hand. This allows for the extremely fast and efficient customer service that they are regularly commended for.
Netflix is yet another championing user of big data to improve customer satisfaction. The entertainment streaming company has a wealth of analytics providing intelligent insight into the viewing habits of millions of international customers. They use this data to commission their own original programming that appeals globally. They also purchase the rights to boxsets and films that they know will perform well with certain audiences. Personally, I have noticed a huge difference between what is marketed front and center on my Irish account in comparison to my US one; it’s clear that the individual country’s viewing habits are taken into consideration also. (Fun fact: Netflix accounts for over one third of internet usage in the US.)
For example, Adam Sandler has proven unpopular in the US and UK markets in recent years but Netflix green-lighted four new films with the actor in 2015, armed with the knowledge that his previous work had been successful in Latin America.
Aside from these examples that are sitting under our noses, there is one industry that could particularly benefit the most (company and customer) from the gathering and analyzation of Big Data.
It is a general rule that the less an insurance company knows about the risks they are covering, the more they have to charge.
The number of consumers that are now opting for PAYD (Pay As You Drive, which is a UBI, usage based insurance) and PHYD (Pay How You Drive) has doubled since 2013. These plans use applications such as Waze to gather information; distance travelled, speed, time of day, weather conditions, whether the driver using their phone a lot, if they’ve parked their car in a dodgy neighborhood etc.
They then use this information to tailor a premium that is entirely unique to that user because they have thus formed an extremely accurate prediction of risk. Put simply, this incentivizes safer driving. In turn, the pricing becomes much more competitive. Then, since the amount of claims being made are lowering, companies start to develop a less risky and more profitable set of customers. This is because the amount usually spent in claim payouts is significantly reduced. Both the company and customer benefit hugely.
This premise is expected to eventually extend to health and life insurance by potentially linking with apps such as FitBit to effectively incentivize wellness. Perhaps in the near future we will see an insurance plan that encompasses all aspects of our life in one neat package. Car, home, health and life insurance quotes based on big data, custom tailored to our lives.
“Artificial Intelligence will get too intelligent. They’ll take our jobs. They’ll form an army and wipe out mankind!”
Elon Musk is adamant and vocal about the fact that this jobless future is imminent. In my slightly less technologically enhanced view, there is no concrete foundation for this assumption. In fact, a recent rigorous study on the impact of robots in manufacturing, agriculture and utilities across 17 countries found that robots did reduce the hours of lower-skilled workers but they didn’t decrease the total hours worked by humans; they actually boosted wages. In other words, automation may affect the kind of work that humans do, but at the moment, it’s hard to see it leading to a world without work.
Numerous sources have confirmed that AI will eventually be capable of conducting science experiments and perhaps even of developing more AI – all without human input (okay, that’s a little scary). However, there is perhaps less need to be worried about evil robots destroying us all and should be more concern surrounding the fact that it’s very possible AI will progress beyond human comprehension; the technology’s behavior diverging from our original intended goals.
We can, at least, take comfort in the fact that it’s up to the creators to build these robot programs with human values at heart. Much of the work in this field is focused on refining a rewards-based training system and programming robots to ask for guidance from people when needed.
Basically, AI is only as good as the data we feed it. For the time being, it is serving as a complementary accompaniment to the human work-force. No need to batten down the hatches… yet.
This issue has less to do with robots making decisions for themselves and more to do with the decision-making process that we will provide them with. With AI becoming more and more introduced into the world of warfare, the conversation surrounding the morality and ethics of AI in these circumstances has predictably become huge. Taking humans out of the question of life and death is an enormous issue, too enormous to explore in a paragraph. I have consequently chosen to write about it for my next piece so stay tuned!
“The internet will slowly and surely become privatized and we will have to pay for everything!”
Dramatic. But, to be honest, not far off.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term Net Neutrality, it is the principle that Internet Service Providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
For example, in a future without Net Neutrality, Verizon may sign a deal with Netflix to monopolize usage of the service, leaving Xfinity customers without. This would be especially problematic in neighborhoods where only one of these providers is available. This could conceivably also spread to smaller services, perhaps even charging add-on fees to Internet plans for commonly used sites.
This issue has been consistently bouncing back and forth between the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and the courts for over a decade now. Despite the FCC insisting that their intent to ‘police’ net neutrality will benefit everyone, all they are realistically doing is endeavoring to hand the power back to privatized companies and deflect attention away from rules that are currently preserving our online freedom.
In fact, after four months of debate, the FCC will stop accepting feedback this week on its proposal to kill net neutrality. Once this comment period closes, the FCC will review the feedback and use it as guidance to revise its proposal (which if passed, would reverse the Title II classification that guaranteed net neutrality two years ago). If you wish to comment upon this matter while there’s still time, click
So, there you have it. I have only very briefly touched upon these three topics but I think it’s safe to say that some of these fears are certainly exaggerated in sensationalized media and online. Yes, the prospect of things advancing quickly and the industry possibly losing control is daunting, but at the end of the day we need to embrace the power and improvement that technology is bringing to our lives.
The definition of technology is ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry’, and although we now associate that word primarily with electronics, humanity has been using the scientific knowledge they had at that particular moment in time to solve problems. If gathering data can help us save money and improve our consumer experience, and AI can drive us more safely around than we can ourselves, why shouldn’t we be excited?