The democratisation of advanced technologies

I’ve been thinking about the implications of the democratisation of advanced technology. This is where technology comes down in cost so rapidly that machines that were once only affordable for large organisations or governments are suddenly available to the majority of citizens, en masse. The classic example of this is the advent of personal computing, in which we went from mainframes the size of houses to a PC in every house in the space of about twenty years. This stuff is both revolutionary and unpredictable — even the most radical predictions of the 1970s didn’t envision a world in which the way we live would come to be so dominated by 1 and 0s on a screen.

More recently, the advent of personal mobile technology means that someone in Kenya today has better mobile communications than President Reagan had 25 years ago. If they’re on a smartphone, they have access to more information than President Clinton did 15 years ago. Their Google is as good as Larry Page’s. The implications of global access to personal mobile technology are mind-boggling — we just have no idea what will happen once an additional 1–2 billion people gain access to the knowledge, markets, tools and services and communities available online.

I can’t get my head around something that big — so instead I’ve been approaching this phenomenon in bite size chunks, concentrating on some of the more specific examples of advanced technology coming into the hands of average citizens. It’s a trend I’ve been noticing a lot of in the last few months. For example, last year MobileOCT, an early-stage startup developed tools to turn a digital camera (including a smartphone) into an accurate cervical cancer detection device. The setup costs just $400, and has accuracy levels comparable to a traditional video coloposcopes that cost between $10,000 and $14,000. This price reduction is remarkable — even second hand machines cost in the region of around $3000. One of the biggest problems with these kinds of advanced medical machines is that they often break down. This is bad news if you’re in a country like Ethiopia for example, where a hospital “may have two CAT scan machines, but they’re broken and probably won’t be fixed in the foreseeable future.” Once your diagnostic machine is attached to a smartphone and is affordable for even small NGOs or local communities to purchase however, that’s suddenly no longer a problem.

It’s not just the health sector where this kind of thing is happening though. For tradespeople, technology is changing things all the time too. We’re starting to see the arrival of, for example, thermal imaging devices such as the FLIR ONE (seriously, who names these things?) which costs $350. Like Mobile OCT’s cervical cancer device, it attaches to an iPhone, and packs a full thermal imaging camera that sees variances in temperature on the infrared spectrum. In other words, for a few hundred dollars you can now see a live view of the world broken down by relative heat. Once again we’re looking at a price reduction of multiple factors. And as thermal imaging technology (traditionally used only by the military) comes down in costs, we start seeing all sorts of possible new applications.

With thermal imaging cameras, for example ship captains can clearly see channel markers, shipping lane traffic, outcroppings of land, bridge pilings, exposed rocks, other vessels and any other object that might damage a ship when undetected in total darkness. Installed on a ship, a thermal imager can save lives as well. Finding a person who has fallen overboard within the shortest possible time frame is of the utmost importance. Thanks to thermal imaging, the drowning person can quickly be located and helped out of the water. Firefighters have been using thermal imaging cameras for years in order to see in absolute darkness through smoke, as well as to detect hot spots in floors, walls and ceilings. Handheld cameras on iPhones suddenly makes that a whole lot easier.

Where it gets really interesting is when you start thinking about applications for the average citizen. For example, what happens when thermal imaging is available to homeowners as a security device? It might be a good thing to know there’s a heat signature in your front garden at 3am in the morning, but what are the privacy implications if we flip that and start training it on houses from the outside? If you’re a potential burglar or a nosy teenager with a thermal imaging camera, then what does that mean for what we assume to be the sanctity of our homes? As always here, technological development cuts both ways. There’s no point in talking about exciting applications unless you’re also keeping in mind how it could make things worse. That’s why it’s important to start these debates now, so by the time it becomes a problem we’ve got a more informed public who provide some kind of accountability so that policymakers don’t make shitty decisions about how to regulate these devices ten years down the road.

Overall though, I think the democratisation of advanced technology is a positive force for change. We’re already seeing this in another area; that of drone technology. Again, a similar pattern is at play. Shooting video footage from the air used to cost thousands of dollars; you had to hire a helicopter, get people with specific skills to shoot for you, and use expensive equipment.

Today, the same results can be achieved using your smartphone and a drone that costs a few hundred dollars. Not only is this allowing amateurs to shoot the kinds of footage that have never been possible before, it’s also putting tools into the hands of people who are trying to make the world a better place. Activists, for example, are holding farmers suspected of animal abuse to account by flying drones over their properties. You know you’re on to something when these kinds of people start threatening to shoot your drones down.