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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

PLS Speaker Says Status Quo Isn’t a Smart Strategy When It Comes to Artificial Intelligence

By Joe Garvey

As an example of just how pervasive smart devices are becoming, Amy Webb pointed out at her President's Lecture Series speech Tuesday night that Walmart is developing a shopping cart that can collect customers' biometrics.

"You put your hands on the cart and it takes a baseline read - what's your temperature, how much are you sweating, how hard are you gripping. And as you move throughout the store, it's looking for changes to see if you are suddenly stressed out, having a problem," Webb, a quantitative futurist, told an audience of 850 in Chartway Arena at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. "You're in aisle 18 and you're trying to look for the Cap'n Crunch cereal, your kids are screaming ... you're gripping the shopping cart so much, the shopping cart sends a ping to a store associate to come over and get you in aisle 18 before you blow a gasket.

"And also there's a lot of information that can be mined and refined and gleaned and then sent back to the people running the organization or the various brands."

Webb, whose latest book is "The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity," said what the big tech companies do with the biometric data our devices collect and who ultimately controls that information is critical to our futures.

Behavioral biometrics - what we're ordering online, how we walk, the pressure we exert when we touch our phones and hundreds of other activities - as well as the anomalies that our devices detect, "can be used with machine learning and deep learning to understand us to the point of authenticating us, nudging us into making better decisions, rewarding us in some way or punishing us," said Webb, whose talk was co-presented by the Norfolk Forum.

It's not just behavioral biometrics. A number of wearable devices - Webb cited frames for eyeglasses and rings - can capture data about our health. Lennar Corp., the largest home construction company in the United States, has partnered with Amazon to build smart homes filled with devices that are trying to understand our health by listening to us.

And then there are smart toilets.

"Isn't it possible that ... a urinalysis is performed not when we feel sick but every single time we go to the bathroom?" she said.

Webb said we should ask more questions.

"Who owns all of this biometric data?" she said. "Should I have a right in my own home or in my office to keep my emotions and mental state and other very personal biometric details about myself safe from persistent recognition?"

The future of artificial intelligence lies in the hands of nine companies - Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Facebook in the United States and Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent in China. The U.S. companies are mostly well-intentioned but short-sighted because of the pressure to please stockholders, she said. The Chinese firms are beholden to the government and are a growing threat.

Webb pointed out that as of Dec. 1, China started mandatory biometric screening, meaning that anyone who wants to use the internet has to submit to facial recognition and essentially be monitored. China also is rolling out nationwide a social credit score, which rewards or punishes people based on how their behaviors are "scored."

"Last year, according to the government's own data, there were 1.5 million people who couldn't get on an airplane," Webb said. "Seven hundred thousand people couldn't get on trains. Three hundred thousand or so people were eligible for promotions at work because they did great work; however, their credit scores were too low."

China also has launched corporate credit scores. "So for anybody who does business in China, this is going to affect your company, too," Webb said.

"This all matters because the whole geo-economic order of the world is in the process of being reshaped."

Webb laid out a chilling scenario if we do virtually nothing over the next 15 years. We won't own our data or have any idea what's being done with it. Individual companies' devices won't communicate with each other seamlessly and will make decisions about our daily lives that we may not like. China will wage war fought in code, not on the battlefield, which the United States is unprepared for. China also aligns billions around the world in a "'one China' economic policy, and the United States ends up locked out of trade," Webb said.

"Oh, and by way, that wall in Mexico? It got built, but it didn't get built by the United States," Webb added. "It got built by China - and it's full of biometric sensors, and the point of that wall is to keep us all locked in."

But it doesn't have to be that way. The key, she said, is to avoid the instinct to preserve the status quo and to replace uncertainty about the future with curiosity.

"I believe in my heart that we have choices we can make," she said. "We have the opportunity to build a future that we want to live in, that my daughter will want to live in, that her children will want to live in."

The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

Next up is Scott Harrison, who will be the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Speaker. His talk, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 19 in the Big Blue Room at the Constant Center.

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