As part of BBC Radio 4’s recent series looking at big tech, Dr Madeline Carr was interviewed by Evan Davis on PM. Dr Carr is Deputy Head of the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at UCL, and is Associate Professor of International Relations and Cyber Security.
She also dedicates a lot of her working life to investigating cyber security, IoT, infrastructure and how policy can be shaped around emerging technology.
The interview begins with Dr Carr speaking about the potential for home-based tech and how it can be transformative, especially for those with health or mobility issues. The smart home has huge potential to deliver remote care, not just through a quick phone call, but by using tech to monitor vital statistics.
“Do people have a tendency to be excited by, or wary of, new tech?”
Of course, the answer is both.
Whilst some are compelled to innovate and automate, Dr Carr references Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to illustrate how there is a very real fear that, as a society, we create something technologically advanced, only to lose control.
Evan Davis recollects how he’d been warned about having internet connected monitoring in the home, and Dr Carr responds that this is indeed a rational worry. It’s something that people need to be aware of. Do we as a society need to exercise caution and engage in conversation before we see a move towards mass adoption?
As the world of IoT grows ever larger, Dr Carr and Evan Davis talk about whether connected devices in the home, such as ‘Smart Fridges’ open the possibility that we trivialise these discussions.
Of course, it’s not the fridge itself that’s the security concern, but the fact it’s a gateway to your home network, and we must also consider the provenance of the components, not just the finished product.
Then came a fascinating part of the conversation:
“Do you have a voice connected device?”
“It’s listening to you, of course it is, and we did get one in the house, and I was uncomfortable immediately, we had it in the house and I unplugged it. I had to. It’s listening. It’s listening all the time.”
Dr Carr is correct. But, it needs to listen to work.
But what can the tech industry do to allay the fears and paranoia that come with that fact? After all, this isn’t the first unpalatable truth that the public have been presented with.Should the market be focussed on wilful ignorance, trying to convince the consumer that they don’t need to worry, such as with the factory farming industry?
Or alternatively, as Dr Carr mentions, do we make sure that the brands in the industry stand for security in the first place.
With the continuing lack of security or infrastructure standards in the smart home industry in particular, there is not yet a competitive advantage for brands to adopt one security standard or another. But if the industry were to introduce regulatory alignment, would the brands that couldn’t afford to reach those standards go out of business?
Dr Carr speculates that we’d see a two-tier marketplace, where the more affluent could afford better security. Could it also risks stifling innovation and getting new and exciting products to market, especially if there is new and complex red tape?
What can the tech industry do?
These conversations should have been had 25 years ago at the dawn of the industry, but the answers to these questions, or even the process of discussing them, is what is holding the industry back.
Manufacturers, retailers and distributors should be engaging with the marketplace, and with each other, to help answer these questions.
In an industry where the consumer is king, might it be time for a great democratisation of tech?
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