Thursday, December 19, 2013

5 in 5

IBM recently published their recent 5in5 predictions for the near future (5 predictions for the next 5 years). The predictions look to me like logic consequences of the current technologies and approaches applied to a broader areas of use. The key principle is, that computer become smarter, cognitive and more adaptive to their context.
I'd like to share you my view on these five predictions.
  1. The classroom will learn you. Probably a good way of using the potential of a learner and supporting them in the best way possible. Applied to public schools this would be of great help to give our kids the best chances. But when I look at the current and past state the schools are in, I doubt this will become a reality at least for public schools in 5 years as cost pressure and strong conservative forces prevented major innovations in the public education system. At least physical punishment is forbidden in schools nowadays :). Best chances I see for private schools or even more adult education.
  2. Buying local will beat online. I doubt this will happen. The major constraint is time and the biggest advantage of online shopping is the separation of the process of buying from your location and time, allowing even customers with stuffed schedules to make purchases of whatever they want. Another downside of computerized shopping, as we could see with existing online shops like Amazon are the tailored offerings matching customer interests, needs and behaviors to maximize the probability to sell something in order to maximize the profit (because that's the basic intent), and people get used to that (because they obviously like it), might lead to a (consumer)life that's totally dictated by computers. People might trust, the computer is always right, and stop scrutinize decisions. Today, going to a local shop allows us to flee from computerized proposals and simply explore.
  3. Doctors will routinely use your DNA to keep you well. Might be great to detect and treat certain diseases. But what is is value of Death? That we value life. The question (even today) is, what should be treated because it preserves life and what not because it preserves dignity. The other constraint is, as long as there is the effective danger that state authorities capture and analyze these data and possibly derive executive actions from that, I doubt anyone will seriously put their personal "blueprint" into the cloud. An example of what real consequences a simple but erroneous computerized decision could create shows a case I read about recently. A harmless money transaction to pay a bill was blocked as its payment reason contained "Südanflug" (Landing Approach from South) which the banking computer systems - not being able to deal with umlauts - interpreted as "Sudan-Flug" (Flight to/from Sudan) and a raised a terror warning.
  4. A digital guardian will protect you online. Key question is, which decision has priority. Who may overrule whom? Some recent cases from the aviation industry are good examples, what could happen, when computer decides based on algorithms and sensor inputs, but does not capture the overall situation completely. One of those cases was a landing approach at the aiport in hamburg during stormy weather with heavy cross winds. On touchdown of one of the wheels, the computer switched to ground mode, limiting the maximum angle of the rudder, but that was needed to compensate the strong cross winds. The result was, one of the wingtips touched ground, but the pilots could resolve the situation by going to full throttle and take off again. If computers could ever capture the entirety of the users context, it might be possible to really help. But again, I fear the dangers of digitally capturing the entirety of your life as long as state authorities are able to misuse them.
  5. The city will help you live in it. Surely, the computer might propose things I might not find easily. The main driver however is still - pretty similar to point 2 - money, to maximize profits, i.e. by sending the people to places where it's most likely to spent a lot of money. So the computer will most certainly make suggestions based on my habits, location and probably my network. This might result in proposing the same bar over and over again. But I could have that even without a computer, and sometime I simply want to try something different. The goal should be to broaden the ken, not limit it, then it will serves a purpose.
Don't get me wrong, I'm quite looking forward of what the future will bring with all the existing and upcoming technological possibilities. But I'm also skeptic, what of it will really serve a purpose - to help the humans being better humans (which is desirable), and not what will maximize profits (which is the real driver behind A LOT).
So the key question is and will be, what roles will humans and machines play in the world. What is the value of an individual's life? When will the machines really serve us, freeing most of us from having to be "worker drones" and allowing everyone a life of self-determination, that is not constrained by the (un)availability of wealth?
I believe these question won't be answered by computers, but by society. So if computers get smarter and more able to learn, we should strive to make the same progress for humans, and we will achieve a lot more.
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