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Posted: April 29, 2013

The futurist: More about eyes in the sky

Will this destroy the world as we know it?

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

As we add layers of precision and awareness to the equation, we begin to see increasingly intrusive capabilities begin to form. Here is a progressive list, going from crude observations to nano-detailed observations, of how this type of technology will evolve over time:

  1. Distinguishing between plants, animals, and humans
  2. Determining gender
  3. Defining age, ethnicity, height, weight, hair color, and other physical characteristics
  4. Doing basic health assessments, monitoring heart rates, blood pressure, skin temperature, etc.
  5. Scanning for levels of brain activity
  6. Remote indexing of stomach content
  7. Monitoring a person’s sex life
  8. Analyzing the chemical composition of a person’s sweat

Now imagine these monitoring capabilities first from 100 feet, later from a mile away, and eventually from a geosynchronous satellite orbiting the earth.

The Good

Even with a strong pushback from privacy advocates, niche uses will find their way into everyday use. Some of the first business models will form around creating early warning systems for people in peril. Here are a few use cases that will be used to advance the technology. 

  1. People suffering from heart attack, stroke, seizures, accidents, or other debilitating conditions triggering an alarm for a local emergency rescue team.
  2. Governments will develop non-specific systems to monitor the general mood of their constituency, tracking levels of happiness and anxiety. Rather than relying on traditional polling, these results will be very fast and information rich.
  3. Disease tracking will also be possible. Since many diseases involve human contact or are spread through being in close proximity with those infected, quarantines will happen quicker, outbreaks better contained, and public health in virtually all areas will be managed better.
  4. In the event of natural disasters, those in danger will be quickly alerted of impending dangers.
  5. Parents can use it to find lost kids and pets.
  6. Farmers and ranchers can use it to monitor their crops and livestock.
  7. Tracking rhinos, along with other frequently poached animals, and their attackers will be quite simple.
  8. We will know immediately whenever someone dies.

The Bad

Naturally images of big brother hovering over us come to mind with any technology like this. But big brother isn’t the only one that’ll cause problems. Here are a few possible ways things will go bad.

  1. Companies will find all new ways to spy on their competitors.
  2. Governments will try to use it to find tax cheats, those who owe alimony, and even track down unpaid parking tickets.
  3. Hypochondriacs, those suffering from paranoia, and other kinds of alarmists will have a whole new set of tools for clogging up the system.
  4. Political activists will devise new ways of systematizing their efforts, building coalitions, and making a statement.
  5. A whole new line of “satellite masking” products will be developed including everything from cloakable-clothing, to car-blockers, to building-jammers.

The Ugly 

Many of our latest technologies, designed with all the best intentions, go woefully off track in the hands of the wrong people.

  1. In the event of a war, this technology will be used pinpoint rivals even before they become enemies.
  2. Political hacks will take what is already an ugly process and make it even uglier. People with differing opinions will be discredited and have their reputations destroyed faster than ever.
  3. Reputation tagging will become commonplace. If you thought profiling was bad, once a person gets tagged with whatever label someone wishes to assign, it’ll become a far reaching cloud on their character.
  4. This is a technology tailor made for stalkers.
  5. There will be no place left on earth to hide.

Final Thoughts

Growing up,  we are constantly testing our limits. We are testing the limits of how much we can eat or drink, how little sleep we can get away with, how fast we can run, and even how many people we can date simultaneously.

Without testing our limits, we can’t possibly know who we are.

We are all terminally human, and our learning styles and thought processes vary tremendously from one person to another. As such, we need enough runway to fall on our face a few times before we understand our limits.

Limit-testing is our way of learning how to behave in the future, and extreme transparency has a way of making “different” wrong.

Transparency has an insidious way of encroaching on our space and exposing our foibles to the rest of the world.

The technology I’ve described above will eventually happen with or without our blessing. Today’s cellphone tracking systems have already started us down this path. The overarching trend is already well underway.

Is this a technology that will eventually destroy the world as we know it today, or will it lead us down a path to something better?

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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