It’s that time of year again so we sat down with our tax attorney to file our papers with the authorities. We’ve used the same guy for years now, but this year it was slightly different. Instead of going to a physical office we Skyped over the laptop in the kitchen. After a number of different rented spaces our tax guy decided to go completely virtual to save on rent and make the experience more convenient for his clients. So far, so good.
I had a few thoughts. What happens to the commercial real estate market as more and more professionals make this move? What happens to our tax guy when artificial intelligence advances beyond the Quicken level to be able to do more complex and nuanced negotiations? What happens when many more of us are wholly dependent on electronic intermediaries who have ever more influence over the economy and political process? And what happens when (not if) the internet/cloud/cell phones fail in some critical way? Sooner or later… we’re all going to find out.
Last month we were in Colorado to be with a family member who was dealing with some health difficulties. Electronic systems are rapidly being adopted by the medical industry in an attempt to boost productivity and cut costs. By definition, productivity is the process of getting more work done while using fewer workers. The higher efficiency that comes with automation can 1) Raise the wages of remaining staff, 2) Goose “shareholder value” for the companies that provide health care, or 3) Deliver better outcomes for patients at a lower cost. In theory all of the above would be nice in equal parts. In practice, greater levels of complexity introduced by technology redistribute resources to larger more remote entities. And complexity itself is fabulously expensive.
Back home from the hospital technology was ready at hand. Oxygen tanks that run out every couple of days and need to be replaced by delivery trucks were quickly swapped out for a small machine that concentrated oxygen on demand.
Press your finger against the flash light on a cell phone and an app will tell you your blood oxygen level. This in no way replaces a nurse, but the cumulative effect of automation makes more and more of the low level routines more manageable outside an institutional setting.
How many of us have Fitbits? The data flows from all these little interactions are being collected, collated, and picked over by all sorts of interested parties – most of which we will never know anything about.
Back home in San Francisco newly installed cameras provide high resolution real time video from multiple locations around the house in Colorado. Night vision and motion detectors send an alert when raccoons are in the fish pond, a package is being delivered, or additional health concerns arise. Of course, the manufacturers of this technology (and anyone else who can gain access to the system) agressively mine this activity for “metadata.”
A trip to the shopping mall revealed a curious twist I hadn’t expected. The mall now charges a nominal fee for parking. In reality if you make a purchase in the mall the fee is waved so parking is still free for most people. But the dynamic parking management system is doing a lot more than meets the eye. As we left the mall and headed to the car the parking payment kiosk told us where our car was. We parked in a random spot and never interacted with the system heading in. That’s when I realized the cameras have software that read license plates and then match information from the Department of Motor Vehicles data base with credit card numbers. I started to wonder what else these systems were doing…
The car is fitted with a transponder that’s used to pay tolls and other automated electronic transactions. It makes all sorts of processes faster and more convenient, and vehicles with transponders get a discount and preferential access compared to those that don’t.
Public roads are fitted with cameras all across the metroplex. These are used for traffic management, public safety, and general maintenance. Central offices can observe conditions on the ground and respond accordingly. Most of these systems are installed and operated by private companies that offer contract services to municipalities and utility companies. They all have side businesses that use the information for other purposes. And all of these systems can be hacked.
People opt in to gated communities for the superficial security and privacy they offer. But the transponders, cameras, and other interconnected systems designed to keep undesirables out also provide an enormous amount of detailed access to just about anyone on the planet with the right skill set to tap the data flows.
Human security guards are already being phased out of many positions in favor of automated equipment and software. Once continuous data is available from a wide range of locations the companies that manage these systems look to diversify and broaden their market share with innovative product lines. What could be gained by connecting security camera video with data from Fitbits, cell phone conversations, and health records? I assure you an army of very smart people are working on such models all over the world right now.
Our rapidly increasing use – and dependence – on technology is transformative. But there are risks as well as opportunities. New high paying jobs are being created all the time, but the people who are qualified to take those positions are very different from the old jobs that are being made redundant. Leverage is magnificent when things work well, but it bites you in the ass when it fails. Our political and social institutions aren’t capable of sorting these things out in a rational manner, so we’ll be dealing with them by other means. Buckle up.