Homo sapiens – are we ready for the smart age?

Alistair David Morton, Engineering Director at Attention participated in the Design Smart Products conference held by DELTA and Danish Design Center on the 21st -23rd of April 2015. Here he has written about the excitement and concerns around smart products.   

New horizons are opening up with smart products

…So we’ve reached the end of a two day conference arranged by Delta and the Danish Design Center on designing smart products. It’s made me realize, that we’re truly entering a new age.  Horizons are opening up with the increased freedom to create glorious technical possibilities, smart products, products that will interact with users in new ways. Many of us have heard the stories of small start-up companies, with new ideas for smart niche products, that are empowered by crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Crowdcube. Customers are pre-ordering products based on prototypes and ideas, with new market segments developing at the same rate as new products roll off the assembly line. Vaavud’s co-creation with Attention is just one example of that. Smart products, products that record and process information, giving the user an enhanced and new experience, are becoming more and more common. Even products that are traditionally not ‘smart’, like regular mountain bikes are becoming smart, because of add-on GPS units and cadence monitors, resulting in new training possibilities through communications-based applications such as Endomondo.

Who owns all the information that smart-products measure?

Hiding behind the excitement of smart products are the dark clouds of information misuse.   The question for me is, are we as humans ready to open ourselves up, to be scanned and monitored, allowing strangers and companies to view our strengths, weaknesses, desires and much more. Ultimately we risk losing ourselves and our cherished identities in an era of information overload.

DSC_alistair
Alistair David Morton introduced studio visitors to Attention, a place where smart products are developed

During the conference I spoke to a Phd student who was conducting an information-gathering exercise for one of the Copenhagen universities. She told me about a study where students were given a smart phone as part of a program to ascertain how their behavior around the campus affected their learning. After receiving the phones the only questions students were asking were: “Will I get a new phone, if I drop this one in the toilet?”No concerns on how ‘Big Brother’ would be recording their every move… The survivors of the dot.com epoch like Amazon, Apple and Google have passed a critical mass and are becoming the corporate giants operating behind closed doors, still creating new and interesting products but intruding more and more into our personal lives, photos of our homes, records of our internet searches, lists of our purchases; pushing into the grey zone of personal data collection.

Are we toddlers in a smart age?

Listening to Euan Davis from Cognizant gave me an informed glimpse into the future, where the products we have imagined in sci-fi movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise will be influencing our lives. For example, a smart tennis racket to help you improve you serve and game. Or a smart house where the lights, locks, heating and entertainment systems will interact with our presence or absence. DSC_DELTAEuan explained that his future studies showed that we are in the infancy phase of the smart-product movement, we still have growing pains and puberty to get through during the next decade. Coupled with journalist Henrik Føhn’s vision of the future, which includes super computers in the palm of our hands, as well as in our clothing and vehicles sending information to 3rd parties as about our habits and vices, it seems to me that as humans, we are clearly entering a new age where we risk basing our rational decisions on data manipulated by corporate giants.

Do we need a UN for personal data?

Perhaps the most sobering part of the conference was the closing competition, where all the guests were asked to suggest a smart product.  The winner picked by the judges was a not a shiny happy gadget but a much needed concept. Jacob Sikker Remins from Science Friction gave us all something to reflect over, he proposed that In the same way we have the United Nations to protect us against human suffering, disease and famine, a similar body could be envisioned to protect the abuse of our delicate personal information. An independent body would act as a hawk, hovering above the companies that collect data, perhaps adding their seal of approval to smart products. Branding them as secure, like the ecological logos on our premium loafs of bread. Making sure that our data was protected and used in ways that did not violate our individual human rights.

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