Thursday, January 30, 2014


I’m a great believer in technology, yet decidedly disappointed in what we do with it. For example, despite extraordinary technological advances over the last 40 odd years, real household earnings haven’t increased as far as most Americas are concerned—yet economic insecurity has increased massively. That means tens of millions live in fear—and millions are simply desperate.

How do I know? I walk and I see—and it touches my heart.

Yes, there have been advances in healthcare—at nearly twice the cost compared with other developed countries—but our lifestyles are not healthier. In fact, the contrary is the situation. We age sicker and we die sooner (unless we are wealthy).

Where housing is concerned, you would think by now we would have advanced enough to make sure that everyone was housed in a cost-effective, energy efficient way, but the Ancient Romans could give us a run for the money—and they seem to have paid more attention to their infrastructure.

As for how we govern ourselves, despite vast improvements in communications, we seem to have nearly made this country highly controllable—but ungovernable.

Why are we doing so badly? Other countries have made much more out of technology, and have a superior quality of life.

Here is how IBM Research thinks technological innovation will improve our lives within only five years.

  • The classroom will learn you: No student is alike. So why should we be taught as if one size fits all? Advancements in cognitive systems will give teachers the insights and tools to understand a student's development throughout their learning careers -- and tailor the curriculum to how each student learns. The systems, powered by sophisticated analytics delivered via the cloud, will draw on everything from test scores to teachers' notes. Teachers, for instance, could predict which students are most at risk and provide options on how to help them master critical skills.
  • Doctors will use your DNA to keep you well: Big data, analytics and cognitive computing will transform healthcare. They will help doctors quickly parse through the avalanche of medical information they deal with and tap into new sources, such as genomics, to diagnose and treat illnesses more quickly and effectively. For instance, computers could help doctors understand how a cancer tumor affects a patient down to the DNA level and present a collective set of medications proven to best attack the cancer. Also, the time it takes to pinpoint the right treatment could be slashed from weeks to minutes.
  • The city will help you live in it: Using sensors, smart devices, social media and cloud computing, cities will track billions of events. Whether it's tracking water system usage, traffic patterns, or looming snow storms to anticipate issues or crafting responses before problems develop, cities will learn to be proactive about reaching out and meeting their citizens' needs. For instance, mobile devices and social engagementwill enable citizens to strike up relationships with city leaders so their voices will be heard not only on election day, but every day.
  • A digital guardian will protect you online: All the different IDs and devices we have make us that much more vulnerable to hacks and fraud. In five years, each of us will have our own virtual guardian that, by learning about us, will know how we use different devices. This will help our "guardian" automatically spot patterns that could be precursors to a cyber attack or a stolen identity and advise us right away -- all while safeguarding the privacy of our personal information.
  • Buying local will beat online: Savvy retailers will use what makes brick-and-mortar stores so compelling -- the ability to try on a dress, hold a mixing bowl, or ask a sales person's advice -- to turn the tables on online-only stores. Using cognitive systems and augmented reality, merchants will equip salespeople and stores with the devices and equipment they need to anticipate individual customers' needs while also helping consumers consult with their social media connections about purchases. This innovation will magnify the digital experience by bringing the web right to where the shopper can physically touch it.

Do I believe them? I’d love to. However, unless we develop our political institutions, moral code, and sense of social justice as fast and as fundamentally as we advance technology, I have a horrible feeling that all these advances are going to make this potentially wonderful country a nastier, greedier, even more corporately controlled place—and the plutocrats will still be running it (or at least blocking significant reform).

I hate being this negative, by the way. I’m a thriller writer, and have a distinct preference for happy endings—albeit after gratuitous sex, plenty of action, a substantial body count—all judiciously sprinkled with irony and humor (and I throw in some interesting characters and exotic locations).

As I have said previously, I get my inspiration from real life. Only the happy endings are drawn from fiction.

The writer chuckled—and after a long day, decided it was time for a glass of wine.

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