Last week was the annual Future In Review conference, which looks at how trends in science, technology and economics are shaping the next three to five years.
It's a fascinating event, one that raises many more questions than answers — leaving you with much to think about and ready to ask the next question, the one that will (hopefully) give you the answers you're looking for.
One of the trends that this year's event addressed was the rise of augmented reality devices, and the growth of ubiquitous sensor networks. We're building a world where processors are going to be everywhere, in the shape of paint-on sensor networks that use energy harvesting techniques to power mote computers, and where the Internet of Things blends cloud and compute in devices we're wearing.
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this trend is Google Glass. It's not the first augmented-reality wearable-computing device (I first saw one at a party in north London in the late 90s, where the wearer found his chord keyboard increasingly harder to use, the more of the host's family-made limoncello he drank, culminating in his inability to log in to his device at all), but it's certainly the prototype for the first commercial, consumer version. That's a big step for any project, coming out from the lab and into the street.
Vint Cerf was wearing his Glass at the event, and in conversation with Larry Smarr about the early history of the internet, he touched on the social aspects of Glass — comparing its face-to-face camera with being recorded under the table at a meeting — while describing it as an instantiation of the ubiquitous computing work of pioneering computer scientist Mark Weiser.
What became clear is that Google sees Glass very much as a prototype still, and is using it to understand how people might use such a device. Smartphones may have put computers in pockets, but they're not truly ubiquitous computing, as we have to pull them out to check them, switching contexts from the world we're in, to the world of the screen. Glass is designed to avoid that context switch, with information an "OK Glass" away.
Cerf wasn't the only person thinking about Glass. Science fiction author David Brin has touched on the social implications of devices like it in his novels Earth and Existence, and in his book The Transparent Society. In Earth, ubiquitous computing devices have changed the way society is policed, making individuals — and organisations — more accountable for their actions. As Brin talked to fellow writer and futurist Brenda Cooper, it wasn't surprising that their on-stage conversation would cover Glass.
There's an interesting question at the heart of Google Glass, and of Brin's thinking about the evolution of a transparent society. What exactly is the purpose of Glass? Is it to be yet another probe for Google's machine learning system, looking to add additional contextual cues to the questions we ask? Or is it a tool for opening up society, providing a channel for what Brin calls "sousveillance" (a term he coined in conjunction with wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann), where the underdog looks back at those in a position of power?
Organising all the world's information will include things we don't want to be organised — and Glass is an ideal tool for capturing that information. When we ask Glass a question, we're not just showing Google where we are, or how fast we're going, we're also giving it sensors that (if not now, in the prototype, but in the future with devices with more memory and greater bandwidth) will let the system see just what's around us — how crowded a street is, who we're talking to, whether it's dark or light, wet or dry. Google might know not just what we're asking, but also why.
Even so, Brin remains hopeful, citing recent legal decisions in the US that make it lawful for citizens to record police officers in public places. Glass may be just another probe for Google, but the street, as Brin's fellow science fiction author William Gibson noted, will always find its own uses for that technology.
If a Glass video convicts a corrupt police officer (much as the omnipresent dash cams in Russia have begun to recivilise the country's road anarchy), or helps provide evidence that uncovers commercial conspiracies, will that balance the tables? Brin suggests that these tools are a choke chain on vested interests, giving the rest of us the power to pull back on the levers of authority.
Brin sees sousveillence as a tool for looking back up at the governments who are looking down on us, Big Brother-style; he's told us in the past that the worst problem with this is Little Brother — everyone spying on everyone around them, which he suggests can be dealt with by people developing social conventions to go with the new technology. But government isn't the only institution watching us any more. How far does it give us a tool for looking back at those who make the technology we look with?
Does Glass make Google, or any of the other networks that collect information from you and use it to derive context, any more transparent to you? The complexity of the modern world means that the levers of power are increasingly invisible. Was a decisions that affect you made by people or algorithms, by elected bodies or corporations?
We're at an intriguing point in the history of computing, one where the shift from visible devices to invisible has begun. It's not a post-PC world, it's one of ubiquitous and ambient computation, where cloud computing and pervasive sensor networks begin to change the way we interact with the world around us.
Devices such as Glass are just an interim step on that inevitable journey, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong time to start discussing the social impact of it and the wearable computing devices that will follow.
Brin hopes they'll remind governments and the powerful that they're dogs not wolves — and maybe the world that results will be a fair trade for our becoming the ubiquitous eyes for machines that are looking for better ways to sell us things. We have important choices to make, and we need to be sure we're not just walking blindly into AI-mediated corporate feudalism.
In tomorrow's ubiquitous computing world, who watches the watchers? Hopefully it'll be us, and not just the never-sleeping machines.