Failure undermines our faith, slows progress

Predicting what will happen in the future is easier than predicting when it will happen. Our economic system — unless and until it changes — makes some transitions so attractive as to be inevitable. But the human factors slowing or speeding that transition are much harder to predict.

Faith in technology, and our inevitable fallibility in its application are two such factors. Two stories in today’s papers illustrate the potential of these factors.

Smart, but inaccurate

The first story in today’s Sun and Telegraph, browsed while preparing the newspaper review on BBC Radio Manchester this morning, highlight the poor performance of many smart meters. Smart meters are supposed to replace all of our utility meters by 2020, but the programme has seemed to stumble from inception onward. Security issues, budget over-runs, delays, and now this: some meters over-read consumption by a factor of six. They struggle to cope with low-energy bulbs, LED lights and dimmers. Some of the meters included in the study, though not necessarily the worst offenders, have been installed in the UK.

This will undoubtedly undermine people’s faith in what should be a highly positive programme, with the potential to cut people’s bills, increase their smart consumption of energy, and tackle our collective carbon footprint — as well as releasing pressure on an over-stressed energy grid. The result? 2020 not looks even more optimistic as a deadline.

Call centre criminals

In The Times this morning is the story of a scam being perpetrated against TalkTalk customers. This is a more targeted version of the Windows Support scam, where you receive a call claiming to be from tech support having discovered a problem with your machine. They walk you through a few steps designed to convince you that your machine is afflicted, then convince you to open up your machine to remote control. You are then locked out until you make a payment to restore access — or worse, your banking, payment and identity information can be stolen from your machine.

There’s only anecdotal evidence of a link to the 2015 TalkTalk hack that captured the data of 157,000 users, but it seems plausible that this is the source of the targeting data. The result? More stories scaring people off the internet and making online banking and shopping less appealing for the remaining percentage yet to take advantage. And it is an advantage: prices are often lower online.

Tech isn’t the threat

Technology carries both opportunity and threat. Sometimes the threat is intentional. Sometimes it is accidental. If we are to realise the opportunities technology presents then technologists need to demonstrate great responsibility in its application — something that is not always in evidence. That’s problematic at best when handling people’s personal data or energy bills. It could be catastrophic as we start to deploy more wide-reaching and powerful technologies like AI.

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