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Data & Intelligence March 12, 2019

Will your home become a smart prison?

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Photo by Ben Houdijk Photography via New Dutch Wave

This is just one of many questions that emerge when reading through the Future Todays Institute’s 2019 Tech Trends Report. Futurist Amy Webb, the founder of the Future Today Institute (FTI), released her 12th annual Tech Trends Report during the SXSW 2019 convention. The 381 pages of the report symbolise high pace and importance of technological developments in today’s world where corporations have to stay on top of adaptation out of fear of becoming the next polaroid or VHS business case for future generations. However, if you don’t have the time to read all of it (although it is very interesting) Amy explains a few of the trends that stand out: how privacy is dead and whether your house is smarter than you think.

Privacy is dead

Over the course of the last year, significant progress has been made within the field of facial and vocal technology. This has enabled the emergence of products like the Byton car in China which works simply on face and voice recognition, no key needed whatsoever. Likewise, patents have been sought on emotion recognition systems which could help drivers control road rage or other heightened emotions while driving to increase safety levels. This new era of emotional intelligence recognition is also reflected in SMART home technology. So a proposal for the next version of Alexa is that she should be able to recognise our behaviour and emotional state, which will then help her personalise the service offering better to the needs of the owner.

Sounds great, right? But considering the comprehensive regulations over the last couple of years in terms of data privacy (think GDPR) how are we as a society going to handle the data which is now going to be collected about our behaviour, emotions and mental state?

FTI also predicts the continued growth of technological wearables. The near future holds the potential for a wide range of “smart” products like Smart shoes, smart belts and smart yoga pants which will detect and record your movements in order to compare it to baselines with the goal of nudging you towards walking, sitting or yoga’ing better.

However, we as consumers, individuals, parents, corporations, managers etc. need to ask ourselves: who actually owns our biometric data? And who holds the responsibility to keep it safe?

Your house is smarter than you think

After hearing about the first trend, one is prone to ask: why is this happening and where does it end? According to Amy Webb, the reason why we are seeing an increase of smarter equipment being used in everyday life is that we have grown tired of talking to people but have an increasing desire to be able to speak to machines.

A great example of this is the launch of the Amazon Basics Microwave which allows you to heat up your food using solely your voice rather than using a manual control panel. This doesn’t seem like a game-changer for the consumer, but for Amazon as a business, this changes everything. Previously their data insights were limited to pre-purchase. Now, whenever someone prepares food, Amazon has access to your demographic information, what you ate, when you ate, brand preference and more. Adding to that the layer of biometric data from the first trend, Amazon may eventually also be able to understand which mood people are in when eating certain foods and what prior behaviour makes people more prone to eat specific things.

Your home is already, at this point, generating data which your smart devices use it in real-time to complete tasks and processes for you and just generally make your life easier. But the next phase is already starting to emerge. In 2018, Amazon teamed up with LENNAR, the largest homebuilder in the US, in order to build Amazon smart homes, where everything from security, cooking, lighting, energy etc. runs on a smart service to make life easier and better for its occupants. And the best thing is if anything breaks you don’t even have to report it because all the systems will already know.

The looming question now is: where is the line between a home that is helping you and a home that is more like a prison without any privacy? Let’s take it one step further. Imagine initiatives such as Google healthcare, Google brain or Amazon health care plans. Your smartwatch has discovered that our health is at risk because you’ve gained a few extra kilos and decided that in order for you to live your best life you need to go on a diet. When you then decide you want a batch of popcorn your microwave might refuse to start (for your own good of course) or when you decide to drive to work your garage door might refuse to open forcing you to take the bike instead.

The question remains: what is the outcome of our emerging smart technology? This is how Amy Webb foresees it:

Optimistic Scenario (0% chance)
“Our devices work across platforms and are truly interoperable. Our families intermingle with Google, Amazon and Apple easily. They help us save time and energy. We are nudged into better, healthier lifestyles. Smart homes are safe and fun!”

Neutral Scenario (30% chance)
“We continue on this path without big changes. We soon realize that we can’t change our home/office/school operating system the same way we do our mobile OS’s (even that is hard). We’re frustrated, spending more money than we want and have very little choice.”

Catastrophic Scenario (70% chance)
“We are living in either a Google, Amazon or Apple home – and so is all of your data. You don’t understand how decisions are being made about and for you. Your smart house makes decisions that you wouldn’t. Your home is a smart prison and there is no escape.”

The important thing to remember is that the above scenarios and likelihoods are based on the assumption that we don’t take action, and that means that the future isn’t predetermined for us. But it also means that we have to start deciding how much personal data gathering and smart technology we are willing to accept in our lives.

Important Adjacent Trends

A common mistake when looking through the Tech Trends Report is that you tend to only look out for the trends that seem to have an immediate effect on your business. Amy exemplifies why you should broaden your horizons and consider both trends directly related to you and those of other industries. Why should Walmart care about underground farms in Japan and China which have proven to be much more efficient than traditional farming methods? Or a trend concerning extreme weather phenomenon’s like firenadoes?

The above questions are the first indicators of a change to the global food supply chain. When you combine it with the knowledge of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and the launch of their new grocery store creates a plausible future outcome where food is grown from engineered seeds at indoor plant factories housed right next to said store. This means cheaper groceries as transportation costs are eliminated and there will also be no risk of extreme weather, such as firenadoes, hurting the production chain. That could then mean the end of large chain grocery stores.

However, the above is only the first layer of adjacent risks from the outlined trend. If Amazon begins to tap into the opportunity of underground farms on a big scale, then there would no longer be a need for long-distance shipping, which means an end to both traditional farms and trucking companies. But it doesn’t stop there, if there is no longer a need for import/exports of crops between nations then it could lead to Amazon accidentally reshaping global markets.

That’s why, when reading reports like these, it’s important to take a closer look at trends across all sectors. After all, considering the butterfly effect when looking at future trends may provide you with some interesting insights.

Wrap-up

So, it is smart to not only look at what will immediately affect your business but also global trends as you never know how those will end up intertwined in the future. However, if you remember nothing else, keep this in mind: you have very little privacy as the world becomes more and more connected but now is the time to ponder how much we truly want to share.

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