Virtual intelligence could be a two-edged sword

Peter Morici

As Apple launches the 10th anniversary iPhone this fall, we should not only marvel at where the device has taken us but also consider where it is likely to go.

Smart phones have proven transformational products, much like Ford’s Model T or television. They put into our pockets mobile and immediate access to internet, personal computing, cameras and scanners, and cloud data and analytics.

With more than 3.5 million apps, these devices have revolutionized how we take and use photos, access music and videos, and many other mundane consumer and business activities. In the process, they have substantially disrupted business models in major segments of the media, retailing and personal and business services industries.

These devices have made markets profoundly more efficient — for example, comparison shopping by merely scanning a bar code. In turn, they transformed Amazon and Facebook from struggling enterprises into advertising, financial and research-and-development powerhouses.

Alas, those are only the beginning. Ten and 20 years from now, the cellphone may well be a pair of glasses or a small implant above the eyebrow with a tiny complex of video and audio sensors that facilitate virtual intelligence.

We have all stood on a crowded train station and recognized a face at a distance but couldn’t quite identify who it might be. With new facial recognition technology, our phones will be able to quickly process the image against a catalog of people we have met or just seen over the last 10 years or longer. An app will adjust the images — past and present — to account for aging, beards, makeup and the like.

It may even alert the user automatically: “Sally Adams from your 10th grade geometry class is across the platform. Do you wish to send a text?”

A fashion designer sees an intriguing pattern on a piece of Mayan pottery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An app identifies patterns in apparel currently on the market that are just a few iterations away and suggests new motifs to incorporate into next season’s offerings.

The same would go for a marketing executive or political campaign director noting unusual buzz around a particular Super Bowl ad or an unplanned turn of phrase by a candidate at a rally. Those will be analyzed in real time against recent buying patterns or polling data, permitting better design and placement of new ads within hours.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Facebook are working on direct interface between our brains and computers. Right now, the focus of neurotech is largely medical — reading brain impulses to reduce the frequency and severity of epilepsy seizures or restoring function to limbs lost to spinal injury. However, translating what we think — consciously or subconsciously — into action via devices in our pockets or worn on our faces is within our grasp.

Don’t believe? Think of all the things in Leonardo di Vinci’s sketches or Jules Verne’s writings that came to pass. However, like the flying machine and space travel, all this can be assigned to great evil as well as great good.

The Chinese government is testing in several cities a social credit system that notes behavior considered harmful to society — for example, shouting at another driver or overly aggressive bargaining with a government official — to ration access to credit, jobs and even schools for offenders’ children. According to an official planning document, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

In Shenzhen, a bicyclist recently raced to beat a red light, and her face appeared on screens above the intersection with a warning: “Jaywalkers will be captured using facial-recognition technology.”

Dystopian systems need not be confined to authoritarian states but could also prosper within regimes administered by Western governments and employers. Consider how universities are enforcing politically correct speech and ideologies among faculty and encouraging their colleagues and students to bully and harass conservative professors — and threaten their pay and tenure.

Imagine the consequences in a world dominated by Chinese commercial might. Or American government officials and employers — emboldened by a sense of moral superiority — able to monitor not just where you surf on the web or what you post on social media, but also what you think and dream.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2017 The Washington Times


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