Our Frightening Future, Brought to You by Microsoft

Motley Fool | Jan 18, 2012

By Alex Planes

Hey, look! Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) found a way to squeeze more functionality from the motion-sensing Kinect. Since many news-driven writers (including yours truly) are rushed and lazy, we often repeat pop culture references: You can open your files in Windows 8 by pointing at them aggressively, just like Tom Cruise in Minority Report!

But get this: Microsoft isn’t only jumping on board the Tom Cruise future-semaphore bandwagon. One new Kinect application is a creepy foot forward into the film’s more troubling technological advancements — specifically, its omnipresent and ominously precise biometric sensors. It might be good for the company’s bottom line, but quite threatening to the average person’s privacy.

A great algorithmic leap forward

The Kinect needed a certain level of hardware precision to work — but its software was the real breakthrough. That bleeding-edge programming package is so detailed that the Kinect’s next iteration is rumored to read lips and detect emotional cues when paired with more accurate sensors that track nuanced facial movements. The device is already accurate enough for Microsoft to use it to create a mall advertising system that that changes content based on who it thinks you are.

Why does that sound so familiar?

Aggressively targeted advertising

In the video, everything Tom Cruise passes changes to what it thinks he wants based on his personal information, which is accessed with eye scans. We might cringe at the unflattering personalized ads on Facebook. The filter bubble — a term for what you miss when Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) customizes its search results based on what it knows about you — has the potential to keep us in the dark. But as intrusive as these systems are, you can still opt out.

The only way to “opt out” of Microsoft’s individualized ads is to avoid places that use it. As long as these locations are on the fringe this isn’t a problem, but by 2054 (when Minority Report is set) things might look quite different. To build interest, Microsoft will do everything it can to further the personalization for passerby. Kinect-ed advertisements could send more detailed info to ad viewers’ Windows Phones. This might be done with devices that are enabled with near-field communication, raising major privacy issues — though the privacy issues raised by using biometric scanning in public for marketing purposes are probably somewhat larger.

Not quite science fiction

It’s hard to swallow the idea that biometric tracking could be this good this soon, but we’ve already seen plenty of signs that the film’s other signature technologies are fast becoming reality:

  • Responsive gesture-based computing is already on its way. Microsoft built Kinect compatibility into Windows 8 and has lent support to a Kinect-centric start-up accelerator.
  • Personalized ads? You’ve been reading this article, I hope.
  • An eye-scanning system developed by nonprofit research firm SRI International can read irises from up to three meters away, and can process up to 1,800 people per hour.
  • MIT and the University of Arizona created a semi-real-time holographic video system late in 2010. One of its key components was, unsurprisingly, a Kinect camera.
  • Google’s already proved that automated cars work well enough to be street-legal.
  • Electronic paper pioneer E Ink earned a billion dollars in revenue last year, and Universal Display‘s (Nasdaq: PANL  ) flexible organic LEDs featured prominently at Samsung’s CES booth earlier this month.

Many of the real-world analogues to Minority Report technologies could trounce Spielberg’s imagination by 2054. But Minority Report wasn’t really about any of these things. They were well-designed window dressing to the film’s main theme: Grievous crimes can be predicted and stopped with perfect accuracy before they happen.

There’s nothing to fear if you’ve got nothing to hide

“Precrime” technology might be furthest away from reality, but not due to any lack of trying. IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) boasts of its predictive crime-fighting solutions, which include blanketing a South Korean city with cameras and hooking them up to analytical programs. Data mining software from the jack-of-all-tech-trades also helped Richmond go from the fifth-most-dangerous American city to the 99th. It’s easy to imagine IBM upgrading from cameras to Kinects, or at least pairing visual cues with biometric analytics. It’s not a trio of all-seeing telepaths, but it’s a start.

Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. already use predictive analytics to reduce crime rates, but none of these work on an individual level. Scale up the resources, though, and solutions start to look more menacing. The Department of Homeland Security’s secretive pre-crime system uses biometric readings to detect potential ne’er-do-wells based on (among other things) emotional cues and physical attributes. Government researchers could probably save some taxpayer money by grabbing a few Kinects for the next build.

Why are we running?

Microsoft’s only doing what any sensible self-interested company would by seeking out new business opportunities. Combining Kinect capabilities with advanced analytics on a widespread scale could help the company overcome the PC’s slow decline and present a major recurring revenue stream, given significant global adoption. But how much intrusion will consumers — citizens, really — accept?

I found enough evidence to predict that targeted advertising will get pushier this year, and it looks as though Microsoft is going to prove me right. I can’t say I appreciate, from a privacy standpoint, the way this prediction is coming true, but such applications should have seemed inevitable. Without understanding how it works, the Kinect is essentially a magical stick that knows exactly what you’re doing and can tell if you’re sad. How could that not have wound up as a powerful marketing tool? I only hope it doesn’t become something much more dangerous in the name of security. By the time we find ourselves in that web, it’ll be much too late to opt out.

2 responses to “Our Frightening Future, Brought to You by Microsoft

  1. You are absolutely right, in the near future the technology will all of a sudden make a giant leap and we have to get used to it. Already the guys like Pranav mistry’s sixth sense technology is becoming a reality I believe..

  2. We don’t have to get used to anything. Nothing is inevitable. We are the masters of our own destiny.

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