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Intimate technology

Artikkelen tilhører Internet, security and privacy, postet 28. mai 2014

Tore Tennøe
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Tore Tennøe

In Spike Jonze’s new movie «Her», the main character falls in love with an operating system. Are we letting technology become too intimate?

By Tore Tennøe, director of The Norwegian Board of Technology

A Norwegian version of this entry was published in Dagens Næringsliv may 19. 2014.

The concept «intimate technology» will perhaps be associated with sex shops. But there is far more at stake: Digital technology and sensors are not only finding their way into our bodies, they are also between us, around us and becoming just like us.

That computer chips are on their way into our bodies is not in itself a reason to panic. I believe most people will prefer having their colon examined by swallowing a smart pill equipped with a tiny HD-camera as a less painful alternative to traditional endoscopy.

But the technology also comes close to us in other ways. 2014 has already been declared the year when intimate technology will have its breakthrough – through health-apps, smart watches and Google Glass. If we are to believe the rumors, Apple will shortly integrate sensors and apps for a string of bodily functions such as pulse, EKG, sleep patterns and blood values in their iWatch.

This comes in addition to all the other things data from smart phones can tell us – such as who our best friends really are, our bad and good habits, our patterns of movement and what we are thinking about.

FaceValue is an example of a new technology for recognizing emotions. By analyzing 43 points in the face, the computer program is able to quickly and precisely read which emotions we experience when watching a commercial – or during a job interview. University of Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has started its own “persuasive technology lab”. Characteristically, persuasion of people by the use of computers has become its own discipline: Captology.

During the last decade the Internet has become a layer between us and other people. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram make it possible to be in constant contact with whomever we want, anywhere we might be. The whole point of Facebook is in a sense to expand the “sphere of intimacy”: We are being rewarded for using intimate capital in form of personal information to get attention from a steadily increasing circle of “friends”. Thus we are inviting the world’s largest corporations into our sphere of intimacy, which so far has been reserved for partners, family members and close friends.

What makes the operating system Samantha so hard to resist in the movie «Her» is the artificial intelligence and the machines’ ability to learn (in addition to being equipped with Scarlett Johansson’s voice). The technology is becoming more and more like us. It can make complicated judgments which we until recently believed only human beings to able to make, such as the self-driving google car, the Jeopardy winning computer Watson, or military drones which by themselves can find targets and potentially make the decision to attack. Even emotions can be given digital support. Today we already have apps for comforting babies and preventing arguments, or care robots such as the seal cub Paro, which is used to help people suffering from dementia.

Is this important? In a recent policy-report the Dutch Rathenau-institute claimed that politicians are heavily underestimating the force of this development. The distance between the technology and us is disappearing. While technology traditionally has been used to control our physical surroundings it is now directed inward, towards body, personality and soul.

Google Glass is not just another gadget, but an integration of technology and human being, with potentially huge consequences. So far, we have allowed the technology developers to get the upper hand – the machines know a lot about us, but we know almost nothing about the algorithms or business models that form their basis.

Technology with intimate knowledge of our habits, emotions and behavior patterns provides the possibility for manipulation and is fundamentally about what kind of society we want. During the 1990’s the ground rules for use of bio-technology were intensely debated. Now the time has come to do the same for intimate technology. These questions can be a good start:

  • Who should own the data about us?
  • Should there be a right not to know – and not be measured, analyzed and coached?
  • Should real human beings have a monopoly on love, parenting, care and murder?

 

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