Kozlowski: High tech makes science fiction reality

By Mark Kozlowski

Finding out somebody’s age is often a good deal of fun, because it is impolitic to ask… Finding out somebody’s age is often a good deal of fun, because it is impolitic to ask outright. Yet people can usually be induced to date themselves. My mom, for one, finds out the age of the IT guys at work by sneaking up behind them and yelling, “The card reader’s down!” and noting their reaction. Now, we young farts might consider ourselves above this game of age betrayal. After all, we have experience with all the latest technology. We don’t have much age to betray. Yet we definitely date ourselves. We can tell you about zip and floppy disks, and can reproduce the sound a dial-up modem makes. Today’s average high-school freshman can’t.

One way I date myself is by thinking of the Internet as a static resource, to be used on a desktop computer plugged into a wall someplace. Yet, as today’s smartphones demonstrate, this is no longer the case. The Internet is remotely accessible, and will soon become so in surprising ways.

An article in the Sept. 2010 National Geographic Magazine discussed the concept of “augmented reality,” or AR. It is now possible to wear a pair of glasses that project an image of the outside world before our eyes. The glasses then superimpose information gleaned from the Internet about what we are looking at, such as an arrow toward the nearest gas station, where a constellation will rise in the sky later or a review of the restaurant we are busy looking at. The first glasses retail at $600.

The glasses might exacerbate some very real problems we are starting to have with higher technology. We all have friends who don’t know how to read a map because they just follow their GPS everywhere. What happens when the battery runs out? These friends are stuck. What happens when the GPS is wrong? Then we hear stories about people driving off cliffs. It is important to be able to read maps, or be able to navigate using a sextant and chronometer at sea. The higher technology makes such skills seem almost unnecessary, which they are — until they’re really needed.

AR might lead to many losing their grips on actual reality. Need to find a restaurant? Used to be that you either asked somebody or looked in likely places, such as around universities and hotels. Is it safe to walk down a particular street? Without instant crime statistics, one has to pay attention to atmospheric cues. With AR, it is tempting to let the computer be situationally aware for you, and tune out. By feeding people information, AR systems might make them less aware.

Too much information is bad for other reasons. If you are focusing on a task that requires acquisition and processing of information – driving, for instance – it is not helpful to see that Tony’s Bar on the corner is warm, cozy and reasonably priced. The distraction that results from the irresponsible use of these AR systems would pose a threat to public safety. It would not be surprising if some municipalities were to ban the use of AR glasses while driving.

Personal safety could also be threatened by such devices. The images you see in the glasses are not the real world with things superimposed on them, but rather a virtual reproduction of the world. This virtual image has to be governed by something, and that something is a computer. We’re all aware that computers are fallible devices: They can run sluggishly or crash. A sluggish computer attached to these glasses could be disastrous as the user would see the world with a lag. The lag might not be noticed until it was too late.

Other risks come with the very thing needed to make AR happen: a connection to the Internet. This means the glasses can be hacked into and controlled remotely. What’s to say that in a few years AR can be turned into virtual reality in an instant, without you ever knowing that something was wrong? Less Hollywood-like and more mundane is the problem that a hacked AR system lets the hacker see the world through your eyes, so to speak. And what do we see every day? Personal identification numbers, combinations, passwords, what websites we view and what stores we frequent — valuable information indeed.

This is not to say we should bring out the pitchforks and destroy the technology immediately. AR is a really neat concept. It would make life much easier. It could also help the disabled and elderly: So long, bifocals! The deaf could be helped by projecting text of a conversation on the glasses, enabling them to “hear.” Take this one step further, to a translation app, and the language barrier is reduced. Imagine, real life in a foreign country with subtitles! All practical considerations aside, AR is just cool. It’s almost science fiction. But we should be aware of the very real drawbacks to the technology, and act accordingly.

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