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A Line in the Silicon (by Paul W. Smith)

Draw Line in Sand BW
During the siege of the Alamo in 1836, Lt. Col. William Travis is said to have drawn a line in the sand with his sword, imploring those who were willing to defend the fort to step across.  While the story itself has since been debunked, it was good enough to insert the phrase “a line in the sand” into the popular lexicon.  Originally intended to force people to choose sides, crossing a line has also become a familiar metaphor for going just a little too far.  Politicians famously draw both types of lines, and then usually end up regretting it. 

Most of us would step across a line to proclaim that we support the benefits of technology.  There are far too many to list here, and some are more critical than others.   As recently as 1800, the average lifespan was 40 years.  Today, about 50% of the population is over 40.  Were it not for some of the benefits of technology, half of us would be dead. 

Technology is clearly beneficial, until it goes too far.   Crossing that other line has sparked debates ranging from medical record keeping and DNA databases to artificial intelligence and machine autonomy.  Technology allows us to gather huge masses of data (Forbes says we generate 16.3 Zettabytes/year) and continues to find new ways to utilize it.  Although it’s convenient to ask Siri for the closest Italian restaurant that’s open late, it also concerns me that she knows where I am, and where I have been.  The line between utility and privacy can be tough to draw.

Not long ago my wife and I received word that a friend of ours (who is about my age) had a heart attack.  It turned out to be one of those “good” heart attacks – one that you recover from completely and that prompts you to make some healthy life changes.  Shortly after he left the hospital, he called me with a bunch of questions about my Apple Watch.  Since he has a physically demanding job, his cardiologist had suggested some form of continuous charting and as it turns out, there’s an app for that. 

Digital medicine has plenty of data to work with, and the devices to collect and analyze it are coming out faster than scientists can evaluate them.  There are passive devices to remind you to take your meds, and there will soon be active ones which can monitor things like blood pressure and glucose levels and signal the user accordingly.  Telemedicine, using the increasingly sophisticated smartphone camera to provide a remote doctor with images, is under preliminary evaluation for eye and skin conditions. 

There is some comfort in knowing that you can always turn off your smartphone or watch, but that may soon be changing.  Last summer a vending machine company called Three Square Market gave its workers an opportunity for a unique employee benefit.  Volunteers could have an RFID chip implanted under the skin, allowing them to log on to computers, open doors and even make purchases at the company’s vending machines.  Eighty percent of the employees took advantage of the offer.  Oddly enough, these are predominantly the same millennials who tape over the cameras on their laptops and worry that Alexa is always listening. 

This is not an isolated example.  Some Chinese companies use sensor helmets to scan worker’s brain waves, detecting stress, fatigue and even emotions such as anger.  (avoid the guy with the flashing red light on his head).  Big companies like IBM, Target and Bank of America have offered their employees Fit-Bit activity trackers, which are great for monitoring personal fitness goals, but can also share everything they learn in the cloud.  Amazon has been granted a patent on a wristband that can track workers locations in the warehouse, read their hand movements, and buzz to warn them when they are about to pack the wrong item.  Factories have come a long way from the days when a foreman with a stopwatch would observe employees at work. 

Monitoring has moved from the pocket to the wrist to under the skin, but technologists are not stopping there.  An engineering team at Tufts University has come up with tiny sensors that attach to the teeth.  Data on sugar, salt and alcohol intake, for example, can be recorded directly on your smartphone, along with biomarkers indicating how your body has responded.  Another group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology has also been working on a mouth-based system - theirs is focused on monitoring sodium intake for the 36 million US adults who suffer from high blood pressure.  Since sodium is ubiquitous in the modern diet, this may turn out to be a life saver for some.  As the database grows, algorithms are being developed which can generate much more specific information, refining the results from salt and alcohol to potato chips and beer. 

Surveillance has many benefits, and data which encourages healthier diet and exercise, or makes us more efficient in our daily work activities, is probably a good thing.  It remains to be seen where our culture, which changes much more slowly than our technology, will draw the line.  Some of us will be OK with implanted RFID chips and tooth-mounted food sensors, while others will continue to disable location services and cover laptop cameras.  For the line on technology there is no going back, but the line on its limits is still being refined.

For me, the beer and potato chip sensor crosses the line.

PWSmith-Logo InvenTPM Logo

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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