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This is the question that keeps me up at night after seeing the news of Russian influence through social media, and the rapid rise of road deaths due to smartphone use. I wonder if the executives in these firms understand not only that dead customers don’t generate revenue, but also that some of the victims could end up being their own kids, spouses or parents.
I’m also convinced that they haven’t grasped the fact that hostile foreign influence or distracted drivers could shorten their own life expectancies dramatically. The likelihood that these problems soon could pose an existential risk to humanity is what I’d like to explore this week.
I’ll close with my product of the week: the just released Xbox One X, the game console to rule them all.
When I first saw the iPhone, I was appalled and, frankly, frightened. Until then, screen phones hadn’t been popular at all. They were more difficult to type on than phones with keyboards, and that had kept most users from picking them up.
My concern was that many kids (and I should have included, but didn’t, many adults) have ADD. In fact, I’m not sure ADD is even an exception with kids any more. This attention problem means they are very easily distracted, and a device that constantly tries to engage them and entrap them in that engagement could subject them to life-threatening dangers any time they are in motion.
Some of the early videos illustrating this were funny — folks doing things like walking into fountains, for example. However, the humor was short-lived. There has been a massive increase in cellphone-caused traffic accidents, often when people looking at their phones have walked into traffic.
On the social media side, there has been a massive increase in false news that has inflamed people, sometimes inciting them to violence. The proliferation of terrorist recruitment propaganda is troubling, but the rise of foreign-funded bots designed to create discord where it didn’t exist eventually could create divisions that could lead to civil war — or even trigger a war directly.
It isn’t just the everyday citizen who is misinformed. Our current president — and apparently much of Congress — believes a great deal of this fake news. Decisions that could make the difference between our life and death are being made on it.
Despite assurances to the contrary, it is clear the last election was influenced significantly by this activity, which means we have even less control over our government than we likely thought we had.
A partial fix wouldn’t even be that expensive. A small group from Berkeley (otherwise now known as the school that has gone to war with free speech) has created a tool that will alert you if a bot generating fake news is in your feed. However, it isn’t automatic, which is problematic given that we tend not to challenge things we want to believe.
Why Some Tech Companies Are Homicidal
I think it comes down to an excessive focus on quarterly results, which increasingly blinds these firms to the massive risks they are taking when it comes to our — and their own — long-term survival. You see, over the last decade ownership of companies largely has moved from individual investors to hedge funds, and hedge funds are focused like nuclear-powered lasers on quarterly profits.
What we now have is too much focus on short-term revenues and almost no focus on the long-term survival or success of the firm. This is why you don’t see anything very innovative out of firms like Apple. It’s also why you don’t see any concerted efforts to keep their customers from accidentally using their iPhones in a suicidal fashion, unless they are mandated by government.
Worse, with social media companies like Facebook, any revenue is beneficial, making them very reluctant to put in place a process that would reduce that revenue, even if it should come from Russia. To Facebook’s credit, Mark Zuckerberg personally has stepped in to begin to fight this trend (thoughI still think he may be in denial). However, he did so only after it became clear the problem was a national crisis that likely would result in legislation that could cripple firms like Facebook.
What These Firms Should Be Doing
Companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have a massive amount of information on us, which they monetize. They can determine where we are, they can determine when we are vulnerable to a pitch, and they can manipulate us into spending money on things we otherwise wouldn’t have bought. This means they also are able to keep us safe.
An armed attack often is preceded by threats by an attacker or searches on weapons or bombs, or for terrorist organizations. These can be flagged and reported. People who are texting while moving more than 5 mph likely are driving. At the very least, the phone could remind them to put it down, much as auto navigation systems ask whether we are driving before allowing use.
As we move to using our smartphones like keys, the smartphone platform owner should be able to tell that we are driving, and block texts and email until that behavior is over — particularly for kids, who have the greatest ADD problems.
If a couple of kids from Berkeley can develop an app that will identify bots, social media companies can as well. They can alert us that the “news” we are reading might need to be vetted, and they have the capability to do real-time vetting. Granted, some minor progress in being made, but these firms could do far more.
Let’s be clear — every cellphone tracks you. If someone with violent tendencies shows up at an event attended by lots of people, that person could both be flagged and identified as a potential attacker.
Realize that these firms know what affiliation they are and what pisses them off. Current-generation AI technology could flag them with a high degree of confidence when they were likely to do violence.
Rather than a decades-long fight over pointlessly trying to eliminate gun rights in an era when attackers in states that have gun restrictions are using cars instead, we should focus on identifying the attacker and proactively preventing the attack in real time, instead.
This isn’t a privacy issue — they already have the data. Rather than use it to mine us for money, they should use it to keep us safe. If they can’t see their way clear to do this for humanitarian reasons, they should do it to ensure future profits. Dead customers don’t spend money, and eventually these firms likely will be held accountable for the attacks they could have prevented.
As a race, we seem to suck at dealing with emerging problems proactively. For instance, in the recent church shooting, the focus is again on gun control when instead it should be on making sure other violent offenders who have been convicted in the military haven’t dropped through the cracks.
The success of 9/11 was due largely to government systems that didn’t talk to each other. The fact this is still an issue that causes U.S. citizens to die — almost two decades later — should make connecting these things a far higher priority than it clearly is, so I’m not just pounding on the tech firms.
Rather than foolish partisan fighting over pointless issues, we desperately need to step back, look at the mistakes that are causing our friends and family to die, prioritize and fix them. The tech firms need to get not only that dead people don’t buy their products or consume their ads, but also that governments eventually have a tendency to focus on the tools that contributed to the deaths. As GM found with the Corvair, that rarely ends well.
I was like a little kid when my Xbox One X showed up last week. This is truly an amazing console with performance that, on paper, rivals a decent PC game machine — but at a fraction of the price.
Xbox One X
Able to drive 4K HDR TVs, the picture that results (thanks to upscaling) is amazing. Granted, unless you have a 4K HDR large-screen TV, this isn’t very important — but this is one of the few products that can make the expensive TV you convinced your spouse you absolutely needed look like it should.
There still is a significant shortage of good 4K HDR content to stream (which tends to have our spouses challenging, sadly for good reason, our supposedly superior tech superpowers).
At US$499, this isn’t a cheap date — but given it came out very close to the holidays, if you want something for the Thanksgiving and Christmas break that is both relatively rare and stunning to play with, this is the best choice. I have often wondered about the logic of getting something that has more kids coming over to your house, though (this is what drove color TV sales after all).
Sadly, the console doesn’t do virtual reality yet — for that you would be better off with the PlayStation Pro. For many people VR so far has turned out to be more of a disappointment than a must have, though. Still, Sony’s solution remains one of the best — I just can’t yet point to a VR game that is a must-have.
In the end, the Xbox One X is simply the most powerful and exclusive console in the market, and that is good enough to make it my product of the week.
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