Tech + Health

01.27.14

Your Gadgets Can Now Decide Everything For You Before the Thoughts Have Even Crossed Your Mind

Predictive tech is either the most revolutionary idea of a generation, or the end of thinking as we know it.

If knowledge is power, we’ve got a lot to be worried about.

Because forget musing on what drink you fancy, or which book you should buy to make you look kooky in artisanal coffee houses, or even when you should dump your whiny boyfriend: your gadgets can now decide all of those things for you, before the thoughts have even crossed your mind.

Indeed, our once innocuous gadgets now know us better than we know ourselves thanks to a surge of tech-sperts tightly enveloping us in their digital bosoms. We are being increasingly absolved of making decisions about, well, anything, because these inventions are only too happy to shoulder the burden for us. It would be rude not to let them, right?

At the crest of this cosseting wave is Amazon’s deliver-before-you-order system, which will see products make it to your front door before you’ve even had time to agonize over whether you can really justify $25 for that DVD. The company has applied for a patent to get the ball rolling, and will base what it sends out on things like a customer’s order history, product searches and even how long their cursor hovers over an item. In short, just a few years from now, we can have any of the vast (and easily air-borne) treasures from Amazon’s trove delivered to us by drones within 30 minutes of us not ordering them.

And people say inter-personal communication is dead.

On the one hand, this idea does sound kind of inspired—a bit like the eight days of Chanukah, except lasting for all of time and you get to pay for the privilege of receiving all the crap you don’t want. If Amazon can get the algorithm right, though, this could be a game changing leap forward for predictive tech, with the potential to save customers a huge amount of time and energy on their purchases. Just think: no more hours spent wasted in line—everything you could possibly dream of will just be there, greeting you on your doorstep like the obedient, useful child you always wished you had. Could a nine-year-old, for example, foretell your desire for a squirrel guard seed feeder and deliver it to you before you even realized you wanted it? Negative. But Amazon can. And it will. 

And if you thought a life full of well-fed birds was a good advert for predictive programming, a sentient home robot being developed at Cornell is set to blow your decision-free mind. Computer Science professor Ashutosh Saxena has been working on a machine that can aid man’s every whim, anticipating possible human actions and lending a bionic hand accordingly. As you’d expect, the science part is pretty darn cool: ‘Baxter’ scans its surroundings to create a 3D map of the objects in its midst, generates possible ways the person may interact with them and then calculates which is the most likely on the basis of similar actions that have gone before.

“Just think: no more hours spent wasted in line—everything you could possibly dream of will just be there, greeting you on your doorstep like the obedient, useful child you always wished you had.”

Saxena explains, “Predicting the future actions of humans is extremely challenging because of the extent of variability involved. However, certain scenarios and common habits of people may be predictable: each of us has a variety of habits and quirks in the way we perform our activities. For example, one person may put his contact lens in his left eye first, and another in her right, or one person may prefer to drink white wine with a seafood dinner. Our researchers are exploring how robots could learn these human preferences in home, assisted living and factory situations—anticipating the needs and future actions of humans helps the human-robot team to perform the task much more effectively.”

Now, while this all does sound a little Matrix-y, it also sounds seriously freaking amazing (from a technological perspective at the very least). On first glance, the entire advent of predictive tech seems kind of great – a welcome pre-ordained decision maker absolving us of life’s inescapable quandaries (am I supposed to decide which box set to binge on myself?). In fact, shouldn’t we be thanking these innovative new time savers? We need never think again! We’re being chauffeured around with the press of some magical buttons thanks to driverless cars, Baxter’s got the beer on ice, snacks are routinely posted through the letterbox and all the household items we could ever need just got delivered without so much as a click. Isn’t this just peak level human?

Well, maybe. But all of these inventions do beg the question—do we really need this stuff? I’m by no means an advanced individual, but I’m pretty sure that pouring a drink into a glass is still within my remit. In fact, isn’t all of this digital mothering/bartending just propelling us further into the black hole of adult babydom? And with more young people than ever before taking the (entirely non-humiliating) step of moving back home anyway, how many beings do we need to offer us meatloaf at any given point?

Not only do we have these impressive—albeit entirely superfluous—inventions, there’s now a way to predict your break up based on the ties between your Facebook friends. So, picture the scene: you’re chilling chez ma and pa with your robot pal who’s throwing tissues at you because, Facebook notification alert, you and your boyfriend are headed for splitsville in T-minus-24 hours. Oh, but don’t worry about it, season one of Joey has just popped through the letterbox! That’ll solve your problems. Or, y’know, compound them to the point of intolerable misery.

Anyway, the point is that while there are great benefits to be had by the businesses themselves (just how many people will bother returning inexpensive items that they don’t want to Amazon after they’ve already been delivered? Major kerching for Bezos), they could actually be pretty detrimental to us as humans who want to function in society.

Predictive tech is either the most revolutionary idea of a generation, or the end of thinking as we know it.