HHH: A Trio of Terrifying Tech

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

Hi there, Henry here! Last year, on this hair-raising holiday, I highlighted a double dose of dreadful technologies to scare the smart pants off you. This time around, I’m going to escalate the eeriness up to eleven by trick-or-treating you to a triple threat of alarming innovations. Today’s highlights are:

  1. Smart Dust
  2. WiFi Recognition
  3. Digital Clone
Animation of an old timey black & white movie with grim reaper type looming over text coming towards screen that reads: "PREPARE TO BE SCARED!"

1. Smart Dust, what’s that?

Black and white photograph of a hand throwing up dust.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s real and just around the corner, soon to be billowing our way. Computers can be made the size of a grain of dust and light enough to float in the air. These clouds of smart dust can monitor the environment, gather data, and even take photographs.

The microelectromechanical (that’s a mouthful) systems (MEMS) may end up being self-powered too, harvesting energy using passive WiFi and the heat from our bodies

Animation of a man mouthing the word "WOW!" as a starburst is superimposed over his head as if to say "MIND BLOWN."
Mind blown.

Here are more powers the potent particles may possess:

  • Detect light, vibrations, acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound
  • Help with energy efficiency and environmental comfort in buildings
  • Measure air quality
  • Monitor crops and status of equipment
  • Assist with health and medicine: e.g. doctors can diagnose without surgery; inhale smart dust instead of having an endoscope inserted

Of course, the dark side of the dust is that these undetectable particles could be used to track us. It’s not hard to imagine them being used for security, wirelessly monitoring people and products.

One day soon we may be seeing signs up that warn us:

“SMILE, the DUST is WATCHING.”


2. WiFi Recognition, what’s that?

Cartoon of Superman having X-ray vision to see Lois Lane through a wall.

WiFi recognition is when WiFi and radio waves can track our physical movements and emotional states. Transmitters send out signals, and as we move through the signals, a device can see the signals bouncing off us and onto other objects. This allows the device to effectively see through the wall and track our movements. And the device can even tell we’re feeling freaked out by that. More on its empathic powers in a bit.

Here’s something appropriate for the season: MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has invented a way to recreate our skeleton via WiFi. Spooky!

Goofy dancing skeleton illustration.
Perfect for Halloween

It actually looks like this:

There are myriad uses for WiFi recognition. If health metrics are collected by our router, imagine it communicating with our smart home and automatically adjusting the appliances accordingly so we lead healthier lives. Or imagine a baby monitor that also collects the infant’s vital signs. It could also know we’re snoring and what state of sleep we’re in, thereby helping us with our sleep habits. Thanks for the health hacks, all-knowing WiFi!

Another MIT CSAIL creation, EQ-Radio, can detect emotions by collecting breath and heart rhythms from WiFi signals.

Maybe our emotionally intelligent WiFi routers will see how angry we get when they stop working and begin to apologize for once.

Image of a man getting mad at his WiFi router

3. Digital Clone, what’s that?

Photo of a man seeing his reflection in glass only it's facing the wrong way.

Generally we think of digital clones as the ones used in special effects in TV and movies: a fake, computer-generated version of, say, Tom Cruise, is made to appear hanging onto the side of a plane. Wait, that’s a bad example since I think Tom Cruise does a lot of his own stunts. Anyway, there’s another kind of digital cloning that doesn’t need a body to be represented. A personal chatbot or mebot is a deployable AI version of you. They learn from you and then represent you online. Conduct an interview, ask them anything, and your digital clone will behave just like you. Your friends can ask it questions if they don’t want to bother you or might be embarrassed by the line of inquiry. Now you no longer need to reach out directly to a person for certain pieces of information. For example, you could ask a clone:

  • Do you have any food allergies or special dietary needs?
  • What was your famous chocolate cookie recipe again?
  • How are you feeling today? (If health metrics are involved and your partner is the clone, you could determine, without bothering the real person, what their current stress level is and see if they are up to visiting the in-laws.)
  • What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Or where did you buy that dress? Works great for celebrities who can’t possibly answer every random question from fans.

Library Role:

All three of these technologies are likely to cause a shiver to run down our spines. That’s okay. It’s good to be scared. It means we’re aware. It’s our job as library staff to heroically face down the horrors and negative side effects of potentially problematic emerging technologies on the behalf of our communities. When that tech with ethically questionable capabilities appears, look it right in the eye and seek to better understand the monster lurking inside. Remember: knowledge is power. And libraries can make a difference ensuring that our students and patrons are well-equipped and informed to make the right choices, have protected free speech, right to privacy – all that good stuff. We can’t do that if we put our heads in the sand.

So keep your heads up high, heroes!

And HAPPY HALLOWEEN, everyone!


P.S. My recent webinar on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and libraries is now available for your viewing pleasure! Just click below to be taken to the shortcourse page that contains the archived recording link. Remember to log in and enroll if you want to receive 1 CE credit.

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