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EditorialsUpFront 11/19

UpFront 11/19

Many years ago, whilst living in Seattle, I joined a boat trip around Lake Washington. A vast lake with a channel out to sea and the San Juan Islands beyond, it also hosted the home of Microsoft boss Bill Gates. Inevitably, the tour highlighted Bill’s house on the water’s edge. The guide excitedly related the story of how guests to Bill’s house were introduced to a piece of technology that would ensure that lights; heating and music in their rooms were programmed to their taste. I never visited the house so wasn’t able to verify the story. However, the anecdote came to mind many times over the following twenty years as I tracked news about smart homes and the devices that were designed to make our lives easier. A few years ago I purchased an ‘Alexa’ device and amused friends with requests for music, the weather or answers to historical questions. Guests joined in too and enjoyed hearing answers to their requests through the speaker, (men, for some reason, seemed to enjoy asking ridiculous questions that they knew couldn’t be answered). However, despite our enjoyment of the ease with which we were able to listen to music or the radio, we soon agreed that there was something slightly uncomfortable about having a microphone listening to every conversation in the room. So it wasn’t long before we unplugged ‘Alexa’ and banished her to a drawer where she still lives. Considering it had been a few years earlier that a tech friend had confided in me that it was possible to hack into a mobile phone and listen to conversations in the room around where it was placed, I should have realised ‘Alexa’ would have the same ability. But now that Google boss, Rick Osterloh, has suggested that we should alert visitors if we have a smart listening devise fitted in our homes, I’m glad ‘that woman’ (as ‘Alexa’ was referred to when we didn’t want her to answer), has been unplugged. Of course, the problem doesn’t necessarily go away. Most smartphones these days are capable of listening to vocal commands. But there are beneficial uses of ‘snooping’ technology, not least the recent discovery of a cancer tumour by a tourist visiting the thermal imaging room at a tourist spot in Edinburgh. Although that particular camera wasn’t purposely set up for cancer screening, there are a range of screening techniques currently being investigated that include a nasal swab, a breathalyser that can detect hallmarks of stomach or oesophageal cancer, and lavatories that test urine for signs of bowel cancer. Who wouldn’t applaud early detection advances, but a smart toilet? Will we be advised to warn guests about the loo?

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