I Know What You Did

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This blog post comes to you from a telecoms conference in Berlin. I won’t bore you with the conference proceedings – partly because this is a blog about writing, not transport networks for mobile operators, and partly because I’m not paying much attention myself – but I do want to share something that happened yesterday.

We had a little field trip after the morning speeches to a research lab where they’re playing with remote activation. They demo’d a couple of projects which were pretty cool. For example, the subject with a smartphone that had the test app installed left the ‘office’ (designated by an RFID tag) and the heater at their ‘home’ (other side of the lab, also designated by an RFID tag) turned on to make sure the house was the optimal temperature when they arrived. When they left ‘home’ to go back to the ‘office’, having left a light on, a text was sent to their phone asking if they wanted to turn the light off remotely.

It prompted a debate which I’ve heard before and find very interesting. Phones can be super-personalised to an owner’s lifestyle and interests. You can receive texts on the sports you like, or the TV programme you follow. Soon your phone will be able to control bits of your house remotely, according to your geographical position based on the GPS in your phone. But how much personalisation is too much? At what point does it become creepy? At what point does your phone know more about you than you do? Losing your phone at the moment is a serious inconvenience. If it controls bits of your house or car, the problem is magnified. And the question is getting less and less theoretical – there are places in the world where all new cars or buildings need to have certain next-gen tech built in as standard. Places in the UAE are already rolling out ‘smart cities’ – automated utility readings, smart healthcare, smart transport control systems, etc etc.

I’m pretty sure there are one or two people reading this who will disagree with me, and say the advances make things more convenient, or safer, or more economical, and I’m sure they are right. I’m not intrinsically against technological development – if I were I’d be in the wrong market – but to quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Luckily, if some of my delegates are anything to go by, this question of ‘how far is too far?’ does occasionally get asked. Besides, in a free market, theoretically something that is too invasive for people’s tastes won’t sell. And for some of the stuff, especially the advances in smart healthcare, it’s all good. But it’s a balancing act that needs to be kept in mind.

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