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Behind the Headlines: Artificial intelligence, voyeuristic mattresses, and pink-eyed Terminators

Behind the Headlines: Artificial intelligence, voyeuristic mattresses, and pink-eyed Terminators

Friday, September 27, 2019

It sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke: “What do artificial intelligence, voyeuristic mattresses, and pink-eyed Terminators have in common?”

The answer is even more amazing: Boris Johnson.

That’s right. While he was away from parliament, the Prime Minister delivered a, well, rather strange speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In fact, he seemed as confused as his audience as he delivered one of the most astonishing speeches on technology, artificial intelligence, and voice search I have ever heard.

I like to think I have a reasonably good grasp of all things digital—especially in the realm of voice activation, per our recent white paper—but even I wasn’t prepared for the dystopia Mr Johnson would have you believe lies ahead of us.

“When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past—print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age—I think of new tools that we acquired but over which we, the human race, had the advantage, which we controlled. That is not necessarily the case in the digital age.”

He also made the case that “it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google”, although our aforementioned research found that the search giant isn’t yet the most accomplished mind-reader: while it excels at local search queries, Google Assistant struggles to interpret questions that require logic and reasoning—despite having access to a virtually unlimited amount of data.

Cloudy with a chance of surveillance

Concerns about privacy and data also came up, with the revelation that “your mattress will monitor your nightmares”. I actually laughed out loud when Mr Johnson referenced data not being stored in the “innards” of the devices (let me know if I’m getting too technical in my terminology here) but rather our every move, thought, and action will be recorded in “…some great cloud of data that looms ever more oppressively over the human race, a giant dark thundercloud, waiting to burst.”

Two women looking up at a brick wall covered in surveillance cameras.

I asked one of our Senior Web Analysts, Gavin Bowick, what he thought about this frankly terrifying weather forecast. This was his response:

“To continue Boris’s analogy, the problem is not the rain—it’s how the rain is directed, harnessed, and used, The same goes with data. From the lives saved by the collection of location-based data during a cholera outbreak in 1854, to organisations today such as DataKind ( using data to drive humanitarian projects around the world, data can be used to drive significant and positive differences to our lives. While it is critically important that data is collected, stored, and used responsibly, I am excited by the projects, research, and breakthroughs that data-led research and analysis will uncover.”

But Gavin’s optimism isn’t shared by Mr Johnson, who instead suggested we could be heading towards divine intervention (“any scientific advance is punished by the Gods”) and stated that we face a choice between “an Orwellian world, designed for censorship, oppression and control, or one of emancipation and learning.”

Indeed, a fair point, and worthy of consideration. One would hope that the freedoms of information sharing, empowerment, individual growth—and especially marketers respecting users’ privacy—would allow us to drive each other forward as a people, using the internet as a unifying medium for us to communicate our ideas.

Hasta la vista, AI

Mr Johnson went on to expound on artificial intelligence: “AI… What will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an aging population? Or pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?”

Depending on the day of the week—and what’s been in the news cycle—this could well go either way, but I like to remain optimistic. I see the incredible advances in tech every week, I see the infinite possibilities in the world, and I get excited.

SpaceX rocket launch

I see the news about Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, racing with others to launch the first truly connected network of satellites orbiting the Earth, and I can’t help but be excited. Imagine, just for a moment, a single network wherever you travel. Regardless of where you are on the planet, you can connect to the same network, with the same package/deal, with the same passwords and access that you have at home—and with faster speeds too!

I also see Google Stadia allowing people to access an entire universe-worth of games in the palms of our hands, gamers no longer restricted to lugging around (often heavy) gaming tech to be able to stay, play, and compete online. Now we can use any phone, and tablet, essentially any device with a screen and an internet connection to stay connected with our friends, clanmates, and loved ones around the world, enjoying the very latest in video, gaming, and entertainment at the touch of a button.

I see all these things, and I don’t see an Orwellian nightmare-scape hanging over us—I see a world of possibilities.

As for the future, will it be the end of days as Mr Johnson warns us, or will it be a techno-utopia? I, for one, can’t wait to find out. I’ll be hoping for the best, but either way, I’ll see you there!

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