Trust When All Conspiracy Theories Are True

Your TV, phone, computer, watch and home robots are watching you even when turned off. Companies and governments are routinely monitoring your movements. Who will you trust?

I have a Golden Retriever. He has trust issues. Like - he trusts everyone. A pit bull can be foaming at the mouth and straining at the leash to bite him. He just bounces around happily and assumes they want to play. If someone on the street gives him a treat, he will roll over and enjoy a scratch before following them home. Nice dog. Not the brightest puppy in the litter.

Those of us helping companies create digital services work in challenging times. Most customers behave like my dog- they are willing to click past the security warning and expose their private lives in return for a small treat. Many companies in a depersonalized online age are more than willing to take advantage of this. Who is going to fix this mess- the government? Which one- I never know who I'm blocking when I put tape over my phone and computer cameras. And tape over the LEDs because we now know out-of-band optical signalling is another method used to offload information without triggering suspicion. Creepy but true.

My colleagues call my paranoid- a grumpy old man. I call them naive and hope they understand the risk to society before it is too late. As Wikileaks has shown, all conspiracy theories are basically true or fall short of reality (except the moon landings, my sources tell me those were mostly real). You think your information is anonymized before it is sold on the grey markets? Right. Researchers have contacted people to show them their own personally identifying data extracted from legitimate industry sources. And then there is what happens in the dark web.

In a past life I worked in a military weapons development lab. Each morning I would drive through several armed guard posts to a shielded building with no windows. We created future weapons systems using artificial neural networks. One point I can share with burns bright and clear: engineers in these secret government labs know exactly what they are doing. The general public has no idea how far ahead of the public imagination this is. We go to a James Bond movie and assume these things are fantasy. We think because of Wikileaks and script writers we know how deep the rabbit hole goes. But unlimited government budgets and the profit to made from corporate espionage help get a lot done. Most of that is still secret and yet to be understood by the wider public.

What can we do about it? If you ask for example ask AI experts about the future of work with Artificial Intelligence, half of them will paint you a rosy picture of leaning back on a couch eating grapes while robots do all the work, and the other half speak of robot overlords, mass unemployment and Skynet supervised by quantum entanglement spooky instant-action-at-a-distance spy satellites (those are already in orbit, by the way).

This difference in option between experts gives us a hint what we can do: there is no future but what we make. And with trust in government institutions low, it is up to us in the corporate world to make that better future that we want to leave for our kids. Trust is an honor to be earned. It is intrinsic in the many decisions that go into creating something. It can not be layered on later, an afterthought like icing on a stink sandwich.

That future, and how we create it, is what I will explore in future posts. In recent months several of us at Futurice have been digging into the detailed projections of how various digital technologies will evolve in coming years. This is both top down, big picture design thinking and bottom up engineering analysis covering the hairy details of what becomes possible using machine learning, moving post-cloud to distributed information systems, virtual and mixed reality business visualization combined with intelligence augmentation, robots and design-driven embedding of sensors, actuators and self-learning elements in everyday objects to create magical experiences that do not require programming. Certain themes emerge in the types of digital services we are now creating such as the importance of reliability and redundant, non-hierarchical information logistics, the absolute necessity of strong cryptographic protections placed by default in the hands of users and companies, and the trends in user interfaces toward natural, non-intrusive interfaces that relax and blend into the background rather than constantly pinging and vibrating and shouting out for endless engagement.

Even more interesting than these details is the bigger picture of who will embrace this positive approach to the world we will co-create. Which companies can we work with to build long term brand value through strategies which respect free will and privacy while effortlessly delivering value?

This will be an interesting journey. Join in the conversation. Please add your comments and concerns below. And let's do what we can to make the world a better place through mindful design and well-earned trust.

Some posts also appear on Medium and The Futurice Blog