Thursday, 28 February 2002 09:00

Life in the information-gathering age

Written by Dick Strom

Someone has said that you know you're getting older when your hair migrates from the top of your head to take up residence in your ears and nose. Age does have a funny way of sneaking up on us. 

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Dick Strom

As a teenager pumping gas and doing general mechanical repairs in the 60's, I considered my employers - at the time, in their mid-thirties - to be old fogies. But in spite of their old age, I learned my most valuable people-skills from these men who knew how to capture and keep lifelong customers… lessons on what customers appreciate, or won't tolerate, in service providers.

Comparing notes with others our age, Bobbi and I are quite typical as care-givers to our three remaining 80+ year elderly parents. And if there's one lesson age has taught us, it's to try to live each moment of this life as if whatever tomorrows we're granted on this earth will be less to be desired, for indeed that may well be the case.

Bobbi's mother, formerly a 100+ wpm court stenographer and student of Latin who planned on filling her golden years with reading is now in the latter stages of Alzheimer's and is terribly frustrated at having lost all comprehension of written language. Physically in good shape, she has no memory of the present, while her husband remains mentally sharp though physically deteriorating. My 87 year-old father was busily keeping up his five acres home last year, but severe osteoperosis has since limited him to a forced daily walk of one mile or less. Getting old isn't for the faint of heart… and retirement won't necessarily be what we envision.

Though we feel privileged living close enough to visit each of them several times each week, take care of many of their matters, and have them over each Sunday for a home cooked meal and conversation, care-giving does take it's toll. A slight imbalance of medications in Alzheimer's patients, we've learned, greatly affects their common sense and disposition which, in turn, adversely affects that of all around them. And getting them moved into a comfortable nearby retirement home, making sure they each get the correct daily combination of prescribed medications, and the like, eats up a lot of our time and resources. But not all siblings are able to be, or are willing to be, directly involved in their parents' care.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

Enter Big Brother technology. According to National Public Radio's August 15, 2001, Morning Edition, "As they get older, many people still want to stay independent for as long as they can, even if that means getting some help. There are about 76 million baby boomers heading toward retirement, and there may not be enough nurses and aides to help them all continue living at home. So researchers are designing techno-houses (that) know what room you're in and what you're doing. (These houses will) make sure you take your medicine and get enough exercise… and remember things when you forget."

Still in its experimental stage under direction of the Georgia Institute of Technology, this Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory "house," with tiny cameras throughout, is connected to a central computer system. Through "blob tracking" (computerized identification that you are a person and that you're moving around in this house) this system tracks activities going on in each room, information that could be automatically sent via the Internet to the person's children, 80%+ who make the major decisions concerning parents' welfare.

Other researchers are working on implementing into this near-future house the ability to verbally make medical recommendations when the occupant voices concerns about physical problems perceived… "a computer program that could answer medical questions out loud." For instance, when the pollen count is high a person with chronic asthma might mention aloud that he's a little short of breath, to which the pre-programmed computerized house, having already monitored the person's respiratory rate, would verbally suggest medication changes, based upon his physician's suggestions under varying conditions.

The benefits that such capabilities may afford the elderly would seem to be many. Possible positive results may include a reduced need for doctor visits, reduced dependence on adult children and others, and the like. But obstacles to this kind of technology, were it implemented as simply as installing a bracelet or watch, will surely include reluctance of the elderly to change (my father, a machinist by trade, lacks confidence in using his VCR), and their resistance in heeding smart-house advice.

I agree with one researcher in this smart-house project that "…all these gadgets together run the risk of becoming Big Brother (in that) they might collect very personal things."

The events of 9/11 broke down the resistance of many Americans to extreme identification and monitoring methods. Airports are presently experimenting with devices that will eventually "profile" every traveler for physical features they may share with felons. Though I'm all for reasonable airport security, I can't help but wonder if this isn't just another way, enabled by a local tragedy, to take away more of our rights. Also, I have to wonder if this kind of information, in combination with all the other information collected about each of us, will be used against us when it fits the need of someone willing to pay in order to invade our privacy.


Crash data black boxes

The automotive industry is no stranger to the presence of government and big business intervention and control. Computerization has broken down nearly every imaginable barrier to implementation of the wildest reaches of inventor imagination.

A Connecticut rental car company is presently in litigation over the protests of more than 20 renters who claim the company's policy of fining renters for speeding, "tracked by an on-board system that monitors speed and location via satellite" is unethical and invasive.

I'm not convinced that the privacy of public citizens should play second fiddle to corporate asset protection and information gathering. Maybe future rental car advertisements will include "… and for an additional $6/day we'll deactivate the OnStar on your rental."

As reported in the Sept 2001 CollisionWeek article, Auto Insurance Claims to Use Black Box Analysis Technologies, Injury Sciences LLC has agreed to integrate their WrExpert accident and injury analysis software with Vetronix Corporation's Crash Data Retrieval System (CDR) to perform "a comprehensive, scientific analysis of auto insurance claims… using information from a vehicle's 'black box' combined with information typically found in an auto insurance claim file. With the Vetronix CDR System, crash data can be downloaded to a PC from a vehicle's airbag sensing and diagnostic module ('black box').

According to Jim Zaleski, President of Vetronix Corp, "Once you have a clear understanding of what happened to one vehicle involved in an accident from our CDR System information, WrExpert can give you insight into what happened to the other vehicle and its occupants."

One goal of the system is in identifying "claims that have comparative or contributory negligence issues as well as to fight fraud."

Who will harvest this black-box information, and under what circumstances, is an unsettled (and unsettling) problem yet to be dealt with. But the published goal is to provide its users a greater understanding of what happened in the accident, and how severe the collision was to the other vehicle and its occupants. An additional stated goal (the sugar-coating needed to garner public approval) is "the ability to apply engineering and scientific analysis to new and existing data streams to make the claim evaluating process more objective."

In short order the verdict will be out on what is the real objective of this and many other such information-gathering, storing and reporting services presently stealthily being installed in our lives.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, moderncol@aol.com