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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

The creepy new world of tech innovations

In a furious pursuit of multiple ‘next big things’, are we losing sight of what kind of new world we may end up creating?

brunch Updated: Apr 13, 2019 23:23 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times
Tech that might seem incredible is actually going to freak you out
Tech that might seem incredible is actually going to freak you out
         

Think about this. All the innovation the world has ever seen. From the dawn of mankind. All of it put together. It pales in insignificance compared to the innovation the world has seen in just the last five years. Completely dwarfed. That’s because we are in the single greatest phase of breakthrough leading edge technology the world has ever seen. And it’s compounding at an astonishing rate. Artificial intelligence, robotics, self driving vehicles, flying cars, gene editing, Internet of things, electric transportation, hyperloop trains faster than airplanes, foldable screens, self-healing materials, fusion batteries – it’s a smorgasbord of jaw-dropping tech that literally ‘changes everything’!

But in this furious pursuit of multiple ‘next big things’, are we losing sight of what kind of new world we may end up creating? A very creepy dystopian future.

Here are some of the jaw-droppers around the corner that seem incredible, but if you add a little stillness into the thought process – they are all very (very!) creepy.

Face recognition

Nope, not the one on your phone that unlocks it (even though the principle is the same). This is FR on super steroids. It’s being used in airports, rail stations, stadiums and entire cities. China’s police force has advanced facial recognition surveillance with more than 170 million cameras installed around the country, and can recognise and pick up a person within minutes irrespective of where they are.

Face recognition is being used in airports, rail stations, stadiums and entire cities
Face recognition is being used in airports, rail stations, stadiums and entire cities

Taylor Swift has used it at her concerts to photograph every fan and cross-reference it with known stalkers. Security companies are using it at sports stadiums. All of this is being done under the famous guise of ‘better security for all’, but in effect this destroys every single law of privacy and human rights. Imagine your picture, data and all information about you available to anyone and everyone. Imagine being arrested for a major crime because the software screwed up. Try talking your way out of that one.

Deep fakes

In a world already brimming with fake news, there is a new dystopian champion. Deep fake. Videos so authentic, so real, so perfectly created that it’s impossible to tell that they aren’t real. Videos of people that can be made to say inflammatory, controversial and very hurtful things.

Deep Fake are fake videos of people that can be made to say inflammatory, controversial and very hurtful things
Deep Fake are fake videos of people that can be made to say inflammatory, controversial and very hurtful things

With perfect expressions, voice, mannerisms and body language. And it doesn’t need a special effects team and movie studio to do it. Software can do it and do it now. Imagine a ruling political party creating fake videos of the opposition leader, imagine a cricketer dissing his own team, imagine a movie star ‘confessing’ he’s slept with his married co-star. Imagine anything, and deep fake can deliver and spread it over social media and WhatsApp within seconds.

CRISPR babies

First, some knowledge dispensing. CRISPR (and yes, it’s pronounced exactly like you’re thinking – ‘crisper’ and thankfully it’s not about baby tempura) is the acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which at its most layman level is genome editing technology. It’s almost God-like in its scope, where scientists can change an organism’s very DNA. With this, sperm cells or eggs can be manipulated to completely eliminate all human genetic diseases, rewrite the chicken genome to eliminate the proteins that cause egg allergies, create fruits and vegetables that are resistant to all disease, edit soybeans so that they have a fat profile similar to that of olive oil – and a million other radical changes.

Genome editing technology is almost God-like in its scope, where scientists can change an organism’s very DNA
Genome editing technology is almost God-like in its scope, where scientists can change an organism’s very DNA

Absolutely astounding. And yet, it could well be catastrophic too. A short while back, a Chinese researcher announced he had used CRISPR to create human babies whose future offspring would be resistant to the AIDS virus. Still sounds good, right? Not at all! The risks, the danger of misuse, the chances of abuse by rich parents wanting perfect designer babies is too high. Even more, a wrong mutation could put the entire world at risk.

There are many more. The proliferation of Amazon Echo and Google Home-like devices, that are constantly listening to every word spoken in your home and office (this will not end well), simulated digital TV anchors that look and talk just like the real thing (I could be out of a job very soon), Google Duplex voice technology that can make calls (or receive them) and there is no way to know it isn’t a human on the other side having a conversation with you, wearable tech and humanoid sex toys (which sound and work exactly as it reads), genetic testing that may sound amazing but once your most important data is out there and hacked...

Yes, it’s a minefield out there. Innovation isn’t going to stop and shouldn’t. We just don’t need to embrace every new thing with such enthusiasm. A little more thought, a little more cause and effect thinking may well be needed. We are hurtling towards a creepy Black Mirror-ish world! It’s time to reconsider our open-arms invitation to every new next big thing!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

Techilicious appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, April 14, 2019

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First Published: Apr 13, 2019 23:00 IST

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