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Apple’s Latest Revelations

Four Revelations from Apple That Excite But Should Also Concern You Karlis Dambrans

Karlis Dambrans

Eugene Gan - published on 08/20/14

The new upgrades are the stuff of fantasy, but will they really improve the way we live?

Sometimes, it simply makes sense to step back to see the forest for the trees. When, at the recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced their latest operating system changes for the iOS and Mac platforms, the news was generally greeted with enthusiasm. Even that is an understatement. If you watch the YouTube clips of some of these announcements, you’ll witness a cavernous hall filled with thousands of stunned silent developers who abruptly explode in applause at each announcement. I’ll admit that I admire the innovations that Apple continues to make and in how they continue to follow Steve Job’s creative and innovative principles by creatively not following them: from Continuity and Handoff (the ability to effortlessly transition from one device to another, access the cloud, share files regardless of device, then seamlessly continue where you left off on yet another device) to design overhauls, to the Notification Center, Mail, Safari, Spotlight, and iCloud Drive, just to name a few. This time, however, it seems that Apple intends to extend its reach beyond mere operating system updates or functional upgrades. Several of the innovations announced even sound too good to be true. How about an automated home that anticipates your wishes, triggers appliances at your voice command, and activates practically anything you wish to control at the push of a button? You’ve likely read books and seen science fiction movies about living in smart houses with Jetsons-like efficiency and comfort, yet somehow held the idea at the back of your mind that this vision is merely a possibility at some distant point in the future. I wonder how many of us seriously believe that this is plausible not just in our own lifetimes, but as early as the next system upgrade on our existing devices?

This is precisely what Apple has announced: HomeKit, a home improvement suite of tools and apps that promises a smooth and seamless style of technology-enhanced living. It’s a technology that enables third parties to seamlessly integrate their home products so that you can customize how multiple devices function for you: anything from doors, locks, lights, and appliances, to windows, shades, home alarms, and security cameras is game. Imagine coming home after a hard day’s work. The security camera recognizes it’s you, unlocks and opens the door, sets the lights, shades, and blinds, adjusts the thermostat, gets the oven going, sets the bath, and turns on your favorite music. You don’t even need to expend the effort to do something as quaint as push a button. Change your mind and decide a different type of music is more in tune with your moods? No problem. Just tell Siri what you prefer, and Siri instantly communicates your preference to your music player. Apple is already working with home improvement specialists like Honeywell, Philips, and Netatmo to develop an integrated secure communications protocol to make this vision a practical possibility.

But there’s more to this picture. Apple also suggests that their new tech enhancements will help us manage our work lives as well. Increasingly, as more of us insist on using our own smart devices not only for personal uses, but at our workplaces as well, organizations have to contend with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) as the new norm. IT personnel and management are scrambling to come up with corporate policies that seek to protect company data use and storage. With cloud storage and seamless Handoff that allows for cross-sharing, collaboration with colleagues, and work performed on multiple devices, it becomes more of a challenge to separate out work data from personal data. Companies might not wish to have their corporate secrets leaked, and neither would individuals wish to have their personal files viewable by others at work. What if IT staff have full access to your BYOD devices—what’s to prevent unscrupulous unlocks of your personal files? Or what is there to stop your company from remotely wiping your company-managed devices if they fear their data have been compromised? 

Apple also aims to create seamless integration and communication between you, your healthcare provider, your other health-related services, and your health-tracking devices. This technology suite is called HealthKit, and it gathers pertinent data about you and consolidates it in one place, allowing this health information to be easily shared with your healthcare provider. To give one example of how HealthKit could be used, a health app coupled with a wearable wristband-like device could monitor your fitness levels and link with other health apps and institutions to provide you a more complete picture of your health. Your doctor might be automatically notified when something is wrong, be able to pull up real-time information about your health on his own smart device, and then choose to send you important alerts or advice.

As you might imagine, concerns abound. Privacy , especially since centralized health data on a remote server can be shared with other third-party institutions that might be more concerned with profits than about the individual’s well being. Sure, you might get some neat health metrics that you truly care about, with the addition of personalized health ads next to those metrics. How, exactly, will HealthKit be implemented? Can our current healthcare infrastructure feasibly support it? So far, details are lacking.

Next, there’s QuickType, essentially Autocorrect on steroids. QuickType memorizes your language style, nuances, and habits, and predicts what you will type next, providing word and even phrase suggestions. It does all this in the context of where you’re typing, recognizing both the casual tones used in Messages or the more formal tones employed in Mail. It’s even capable of analyzing your past conversations with various individuals and making different word and phrase suggestions based on the person with whom you are communicating. If this data is communicated to Apple’s servers, this raises serious privacy concerns – you don’t want your keystrokes shared with the world. If it’s stored locally on your device, then it becomes a question of what happens to the information when you upgrade to a new device: Will you have to "train" your new device again? Either way, consumers should demand that Apple be clear about how the data will be analyzed, used, and applied.

As a professor, I have an added concern about the use of QuickType, especially over the long haul. Will the unthinking rapid-tap use of QuickType create a uniform style of writing (and talking for that matter since it incorporates messaging as well)? Will we lose—or perhaps need to work harder at crafting—the creative touch, the personal and unique flair of the spoken and written word?

Siri, Apple’s popular voice-activated personal assistant, is also set to receive upgraded features. No longer will you need to lift the handset to your ear or press the home button. With a new hands-free functionality, Siri will be alerted to respond to you when you say: “Hey, Siri!” It will be able to recognize 22 dictation languages, integrate Shazam song recognition, and incorporate streaming voice recognition that will have Siri displaying search results to you even as you’re speaking. While the latter smacks of a rude interruption during one’s conversation, it’s the “Hey, Siri!” feature that I find most disconcerting. For Siri to pick up when it’s being called, it has to be constantly listening to all that you’re saying. What’s to prevent private conversations from being listened to as well?

These concerns aren’t limited to Apple’s smart devices or operating system alone; what these technologies seek to do is not specific to any device or manufacturer. Historically, many of Apple’s innovations are copied in some form by other manufacturers and quickly become the new norms in how we use our technologies. Certainly, the recent WWDC announcements are at once exciting and exhilarating. The fantastical futures we’ve consigned to imagination could be as close as our next device and operating system upgrade this Fall. But we need to weigh the "coolness" factor against issues that require our attention and clear thinking. Take a step back, and consider how your life is enhanced or impeded by the technologies you’ve adopted. Remember: Apple’s (and anyone else’s) technologies will fail or fly based on the very simple choices of how, when—or even whether—we choose to use them, or not.

Dr. Eugene Ganis faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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