Voices in the Machine

Richard Lutz queries just who really benefits from ever newer levels of digital technology.

Consider this: You come home from work. You’re at the door and you have a briefcase in one hand and a bag of food in the other.

You voice-activate to turn off the alarm and open the door. You use your voice to turn on the radio and the lights, turn the oven to 180 (you’re hungry!) and tweek up the heating a tad because it’s a bit cold outside. 

It’s all, of course, engineered by the doo-dah on your phone. But consider this: That nifty trick of voice activation, brought to you by Google or Amazon or some other mega giant, is also collecting all the commands for every room, including the space you protect as extremely safe, private and secure.

You are being monitored, you are being filed away. Your commands are for sale. You are not using voice activation so much as voice activation is using you. Abusing you. It is the ultimate cost of ‘free’ technology.

Take an alarming article in the Financial Times last week that sets this scenario up better than I can. And it should. It’s written by Roger McNamee who was once close to Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame) and now casts a sceptical eye on where communications technology is going.

Use of vocal commands, he says, is a blatant danger. “In order to work,” he writes, “the Internet of Things products listen to everything around them. If we buy enough of these devices, the IoT will be listening to every aspect of your lives”.

That means all our information will be for sale. Is for sale. And we will never really know why or for what.

Think how lies are whipped up about Hillary Clinton; how dark analytics were used to collect information during the Brexit campaigns; how most social media sites gather in personal data or, how it’s sold on to anyone with a credit card.

Voice activation is only one ingenious part of this worldwide trend of misuse. And no-one, except those who grab the cash, controls it, says McNamee. In other words, we’re being bamboozled by gizmos as the digital pirates steal from us, rampage through our privacy and pillage our lives.

Let’s skip to another author. Yuval Noah Harari has written a book called Sapiens, which not only peers into the past to see where our human family came from but also eerily guesses where we’re going. He warns about the unthinking, blinkered misuse  of science that will create, not a better world, but a more dangerous one.

“The (scientific) revolutions of the past two centuries have been so swift and radical that they have changed the most fundamental characteristics of the social order,” he writes.

And what of the future? Harari grimaces. His final chapter is actually called The End of Homo Sapiens. He warns that our very inventiveness, with no governing cap, may harm us.

We are breaking the laws of natural selection through genetic engineers; we have created digital viruses that outwit protective programmes; we are connecting the human brain to inanimate decision-making computer.

And, I guess, he would agree that we are selling our personal information to line the pockets of the internet tycoons who sell to unknown purchasers in surveillence, the black arts of political marketing and irresponsible, if not illegl, abuse of information.

Harari says: “The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking.” And he adds enigmatically but potently, “…the real question facing us is not ‘What do you want to become?’ but actually ’What do we want to want?’. “

Now that may sound a bit rarified and high mindedly philosophical. But McNamee is more pragmatic. He calls for immediate regulation. He says IoT creators want to  “..gather data less to improve the customer experience on a device than to create new economic opportunities for themselves”.

No-one is in charge except those making a fast digital buck. He warns: “Google and Facebook behave as if they are not accountable to anyone.”

Of course, all this is of immediate importance. We all use data. We all use Google. We are all getting hooked on voice commands.

And the worldwide surge in internet usage is phenomenal. India, for example, will have 700 million online users by next year. That is more than ten times the whole population of the UK, according to author Manjit Kumar, who takes a close look at online development in the east.

He does see real benefits to unregulated advances. Voice recognition, for instance, means those who can’t read or write now have internet access. And for the rural poor, that has helped their lives.

But he ends his own article in the FT by quoting Steve Jobs at the 2007 launch of his iPhone: “Every once in a while, ” he told his audience, “a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”

A decade later, whether that is for the good or the bad is still up for grabs.





4 thoughts on “Voices in the Machine

  1. I noticed the first time I taught Chinese students in Edinburgh that they all had elastoplasts over the camera and microphone on their laptops, long before the well publicised video showing Zuckerberg himself did likewise.

  2. It’s not just big business we need to worry about re ‘big data’, but our own government ministries and organisations.

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