A tech company that cares — now that would be innovative

Somewhere along the way, companies started confusing the idea of making our lives more convenient with making our lives better.

What we need from the tech industry now is accountability, not thinner phones

Cashier-free grocery stores might make our lives easier, but will it make our society better? (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

You know what would be truly innovative? If a tech company started caring about how their products shape the lives of those who use them.

The tech industry has always promised us better quality of life. But somewhere along the line they got off course, confusing the idea of making our lives more convenient with making our lives better.

New features and functionality used to be enough to sell gadgets and get people talking. But the world we find ourselves in now, counting down to 2017, isn't the same world of a decade ago, where we once waited with bated breath to see what Apple had in store at their launch events. Gadgets were aspirational, and there was an excited hopefulness around the potential of social media to bring the world together — maybe even to make us better, smarter, kinder versions of ourselves.

But at this point, we don't really need thinner phones, or more megapixels, or new bots to take our coffee orders. What we need from the tech industry now is accountability: to care about how their products affect the lives and livelihoods of the people who use them, for better and for worse. That would be innovative.

Ripples in retail

Let's take stock of some of the most recent tech announcements. Amazon, for starters, has announced a plan to revolutionize grocery shopping. The internet behemoth, which is already piloting bricks and mortar bookstores, just announced Amazon Go, a real-world grocery store with no checkout. No line, no cashier. You just take what you want from the shelves, and the items appear on your Amazon account, like magic. That magic is powered by an array of sensors and artificial intelligence, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and machine-learning technologies, all of which monitor you as you move through the store, the same way they track your online browsing as you click across the internet.

While we all marvel at what many are calling the "future of retail," it's worth taking a moment to consider the human repercussions of a grocery chain with no cashiers, no one bagging groceries, and presumably — if the robots that stock Amazon's warehouses are any indication — no humans to restock shelves, either.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has just announced a new voice command ordering system that uses artificial intelligence to enhance its current mobile ordering app. With the new feature, you just need to say your order to your phone instead of swiping through the app's menu, or — how quaint — chatting with the barista. And while Starbucks coffee shops still employ cashiers, automated ordering hints at a potentially precarious job situation for the people taking your order in store.

This is where we got off course. At some point, the industry started thinking that the gold standard of innovation was convenience and automation, instead of using its exceptional resources, intelligence and talent to really make people's lives better.

Job losses

A few months ago, market research firm Forrester predicted that by 2021, robots will take six per cent of U.S. jobs. Looking a bit further ahead, a study by the Brookfield Institute predicted that a whopping 42 per cent of Canadian workers are at risk of seeing their jobs derailed by automation in the next two decades. It appears that what started in the automotive sector, with self-driving taxis and transport trucks, is about to hit retail and hospitality in a big way.

Potential job loss isn't the only area where the tech industry has conveniently turned a blind eye to the aftershock of their innovations. The scourge of fake news has been facilitated, in part, by human editors being replaced by algorithms, and that fake news can result in real violence. We saw that with the recent "pizzagate" debacle, when a North Carolina man decided to "self-investigate" an online controversy, firing off an assault rifle in a Washington restaurant.

For decades, the tech industry has been singularly focused on growth. But now, its focus should include social responsibility. We are becoming increasingly aware of the powerful impact that new technologies have on politics, the economy and real people in their real lives; it can influence voters with fake news, shape the information to which we have access and create waves of unemployment in "disrupted" industries such as retail, hospitality and transportation.

The tech industry needs to be accountable for the ripple effects caused by the disruptions it so often proudly boasts about. Sure, it's easy to confuse "better" with "more convenient," but there's certainly room for both when we talk about meaningful technological innovation. Now that we know what a future of unprecedented convenience might look like, maybe it's time to switch the focus to actually making consumers' lives better.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section,  please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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