Careers of the Future: Anti-Tracking Makeup Artist

Facial recognition will be coming to retailers. They will track shoppers, linking their face and other biometric information to purchases, to how they move around the store, to doing market research on whether they prefer to buy their beer from cardboard cutouts wearing bikinis or one-pieces, or whether they prefer the suit to be printed on the cardboard or have actual cloth tied over it (early studies show that in the latter case, 12-year-old boys will peek and be disappointed that the suit is still printed underneath, often saying ‘dang’ or ‘crapola’ as they walk away). Retailers will do this without permission, and it’s not clear how it will shape the future of not just commerce, but fashion as well.

One thing it might do is open the market for makeup artists, makeup, and facial appliances to mask against facial recognition. Of course, there will be makeup-applying robots to automate the process, but citizens will want to choose from human-designed patterns.

It may also result in more men growing out facial hair, causing a large dent to the market for shaving cream and razors. Still, one door closes and another opens, thanks to some insanely shoddy door-hanging work the universe had done while drunk during the photon epoch. Cosmology aside, the beards will be groomed and dyed according to the latest fashion trends. While these augmentations will again be performed by robots, the designers might as well be humans. The question remains whether those are feasible remedies for privacy from in-store tracking.

Others will move to online shopping, where we are tracked, but not so physically. An alternative will be an increase in in-store surrogate shoppers (equipped with VR-ready camera setups to feed real-time VR views so you can shop from afar). The surrogate may be tracked, but if the store doesn’t know who they are buying for, it won’t help them.

Stores could try to implement no-surrogacy policies, or lobby for surrogacy disclosure laws, but it’s unclear how effective either would be. If makeup and appliances are effective, stores may implement no-recognition no-shop policies, but it’s not clear those would be legal. If you genuinely did not have a recognized face, and weren’t masking, their denial of service could be a liability.

One issue is that stores believe it is impractical to have people opt-in to recognition. Many people carry small computers equipped with radio transmitters, which could easily be extended to broadcast (or handshake) to announce their willingness to be facially tracked. With the Internet of Things becoming a topic of interest, it is likely such technology will be added to these personal mobile computers anyway.

In any case, I look forward to the near future when it will be commonplace to see average people in public who look like something Picasso painted.


Future of Transport as much Why as Where

When looking at how transit will change in the future we tend to think of self-driving cars (soon to be just called cars) or bullet trains (or maybe a few of us still harbor dreams of jet propulsion sneakers). But the reality isn’t as clear as these simple technology stories seem.

These stories go something like:

Cool technology struggles to become practical, gain acceptance, and then takes over the world.

But the future of moving around is as much about why you want to go somewhere as where you want to go. For example, if you’re only going because you need to buy groceries, at some point it becomes easier to just bring the groceries to you. Or if you need to meet a friend or business associate, it may be more viable to either hold a teleconversation or to meet-in-the-middle.

Of course, we already do meet halfway, and Skype and similar systems are already widely used. But in the future you might be having that conversation while you’re going somewhere else. Or you might meet your friend who is already on the train by side-boarding without the train stopping.

All of this will make destinations and journeys start to blur a bit. Where you are stops mattering as much. Unlike commutes of today, where time to destination is so important, tomorrow it won’t matter as much if you take your sweet time to get somewhere. Being late won’t hold the same sort of stigma, because being somewhere becomes less a matter of physical presence.

Being there in the decades to come will be about awareness, and thus physical presence will be increasingly devalued. That’s not to say people won’t make the trip. It’s just where they go will be more about the why. Instead of being at the meeting, they’ll go to their kid’s game (which might be a video game). They can catch the meeting on the way.

That is, the why of meeting is shared awareness, not shared breathing space. In these early days of technology, physical presence often helps ensure awareness (more or less). But in the long view, attention can be held without sitting around a conference table. The why is more important than the where.

How will it work practically? Will you get in a cab and say, “take me to the Fùchūn Teahouse?” Or will you say, “take me to a Chinese restaurant with at least 70% rating?” Or maybe you won’t get in a cab, but you’ll order food. Nah, you’re in the mood for a dining experience. But maybe you’ll order food, delivered to a dining area that doesn’t actually have food prep. Maybe it will specialize in ambiance, the experience of a shared space, and the food is your responsibility. After all, maybe you want to eat Sugar Orbs cereal in a Chinese dining atmosphere. That’s your choice.


More Tech Than They Know What to Do With

DARPA has taken a step toward wider availability of the open source software they sponsor: DARPA: Open Catalog. Most major technology companies (including Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, etc.) have open source software they use and maintain. And lots of other companies (e.g., automakers) have some level of involvement in open source, too.

Why? Where does this wide spread come from? Obviously the players keep and maintain other software on a proprietary basis (both licensed and in-house). They keep some software close and closed because of a competitive advantage. Other software stays closed because it would be no value to others.

And yet, some software remains closed purely because of the cost involved in opening it up. That typically involves having people (both engineers and lawyers, at least) look over the source, vet it, clean it up, package it for public consumption. Some of those efforts will fail, resulting in loss, due to coupling between unreleasable and releasable source.

How much technology is being lost? Is that not an economic concern and a harmful characteristic of monolithic firms in an economy? We lose benefits because of the inefficiency of large organizations that have more tech than they know what to do with.

It’s not as obviously bad as some high-profile failures where time and budget overruns of projects costing billions eventually led to them being scrapped and gods know what happened to the tech developed on the public dime.

But it still hurts, and may be far more costly in terms of our special development. It is akin to firms competing outside of their core competency: that large tech firms develop tech that could stand on its own as a business, but is at best used internally and at worst overlooked entirely because they have no strategy to deploy it widely.

Firms competing outside of their competency means that, e.g., two ice cream shops may not compete on product quality and other metrics, but on something as foreign to ice cream as their ability to exploit tax loopholes. That sort of competitiveness on general business acumen rather than on niche values leads to ugly distortions of information and inferior products with irregular pricing.

Technology’s most disruptive roles have come when new ideas were leveraged against existing problems in unexpected ways. The constituent technologies of the electronic nicotine vaporizer have existed for decades, but only recently were combined to tackle an existing problem.

But that sort of disruption requires that potential entrepreneurs know or at least can find out about viable technologies. With large technology firms, the pool of potential entrepreneurs is limited to employees, consultants, and partners that are aware of the technologies available. That is a far smaller pool than the general pool of potential entrepreneurs.

Moreover, the privileged information regarding costs and profits of existing industries may thwart analyses that would indicate entrance opportunities, even when the technologies are known. We need to open more than just a few projects here and there, if we are to unlock the true progress that economics offers us.


Why the Large Don’t Lead

Big companies in the technology sector have apparently decided to stand against the N.S.A.’s overreach. Once it began to harm or threaten their profits and reputations, that is. They could have moved years ago, though. Why not?

Hollywood calls out against social problems of various sorts, such as the soon-to-screen The Wolf of Wall Street, but they stand fast as ever to their antiquated distribution model.

The big companies don’t take big risks. They fear losing their primacy. This reflects, once again, the exceptionalism bug. The notion that we are the ones, the only ones who can do what we do, we do it better, we do it right. Or else why would we be here? Why aren’t cockroaches the dominant species?

That seems to be at least one explanation for the U.S.’s decline in certain areas. Why we are playing catch-up in healthcare (again, the health insurance industry could have spearheaded reform efforts decades ago, but failed to bother), haven’t upgraded our train systems, and, yes, why our credit cards (see recent news on the Target store breaches) still use half-century-old technology (magnetic strips instead of smart cards).

When things seem to be going so well, we are awfully reluctant to change. What if it makes things worse? What if that worsening leads to systemic decline? What if we have to eat the grandkids just to stay afloat?

Worse, a dominant force may suppress up-and-coming competitors through anti-capitalist activities. It may prevent competitors from gaining a foothold long enough to displace the dominant institutions.

It took Mozilla to change the browser marketplace for the better. Internet Explorer might as well have been the tombstone of the web, and look at the relative vibrancy of the web today! We need these disruptive forces, at least so long as market leaders cannot lead.

We see the same trends in politics. The head of the party, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “How we gonna run reform when we’re the damn incumbent?” We’ve seen a shift in House Majority Leader John Boehner of late. But only because he is facing his political future. He is not sitting pretty, but must make some waves to stay afloat.

We saw the same thing with Microsoft’s browser. Only after they were behind could they actually move ahead. Much of Apple’s innovation comes because of their market position (strong, but not the lead). They have a loyal customer base (not every iThing owner, of course) that supports their vision. But even Apple follows on things where they are leaders, such as removing anti-consumer locks from music.

It’s amazing how twisted our language is. Leader seldom means that. It mostly means the king of the hill, too large to easily be pushed off. But the leaders remain. They go find new hills, they carry scars and blisters.

The renewable energy sector today leads us to a better tomorrow, while the entrenched energy interests (who could make major investments, both speeding the process along and positioning themselves for the next generation) sit atop the hill. Sure, they might buy some wind or solar on their way down. But they seem too scared to lead, just like the rest of the “leaders.”


False Futures in Technology

One of the big selling points for certain companies isn’t the actual product, but the cachet it carries. Some of that is and will be social exclusivity or stylistic. But some products have a futuristic quality.

The problem is that society can tend to gorge itself on false futures and avoid any real social progress. Futures where the only thing that changes is that our shoes buckle themselves, or we colonize other planets with our white picket fences.

It can be harder to see real future, in part because it’s so easy to forget the past. By the time I came around, and probably you too, segregation was gone. That’s a hard thing to know: that if I aged backwards through time instead of forwards, society would have developed segregation by now.

There is still progress on social justice, though, and it doesn’t come with a wall charger.

False futures like digital media with severely restricted markets. An electronic book reader would be a great thing, if the market were there for it. If the publishers competed on price, quality, anything but exclusivity and DRM.

The real future comes first in places where industry beckons it, as industry does not feel impeded like many individuals do, by laws made to prefer industry over people.

Drones are being touted as revolutionizing search and rescue operations. I have no doubt they will. Overall I do see drones and robotics as positives for the future, both for safety, but for efficiency and versatility as well.

But we need the laws and systems to avoid abuse, and we need to ensure that their use does not numb us to risks we shouldn’t take.

The same can be said for object printers or three-dimensional printers. As they grow larger, and we begin structural printing, we need to empower people with the tools to make sure the structures they build remain safe.

Taken together, within a few decades we may have the ability to build a new city in a matter of weeks without a person on the ground there.

But will that new city be subject to the same limitations we feel in society today? And will its newly relocated denizens still find the future in their mobile device or screen? In their ability to teleconference or have a robot vacuum their carpets?

I hope not. That sort of kick is false future to me. Technology that makes you feel like you’re in the future, instead of fading into the background, seems like a waste.

Literature and music can give you the same kick, without the high price tag. And it does a better job, because a song never crashes. A good story can take you places we will never go, places you are glad to visit but wouldn’t want to live in.

But as long as the device makers and technology companies have limited visions for the future, they will try to sell you a device to make you feel like you’re holding a piece of the future. All you’re really holding is a ticket to a false future.