The poignancy of a 2016 New York Times opinion piece, “Our Immigrants, Our Strength”, from three major city mayors, themselves of immigrant origin — Bill de Blasio, Anne Hidalgo and Sadiq Khan — is striking. The piece emphasises the global sense of insecurity and argues that policies embracing diversity and inclusion can make cities safer places. In our volatile world, consumers are anxious to stay safe and well. The focus is on personal safety and that of loved ones. There is a greater leaning towards home and mobile cocooning. Consumers also experience hope, mixed with a tinge of distrust, in the promise of artificial intelligence and tech to keep us from harm in an uncertain world.
Goods and services — anything from smart home tech to insurance, organic food to travel upgrades and investment in education which help consumers feel they can buy back control as pilots rather than passengers — will hold a strong appeal. For consumers, personal safety extends to the need for protection from the elements and environmental threats. Late summer saw further debate over the “Facekini”, a colourful full-face mask worn by some Chinese bathers to shield themselves from the sun’s harmful rays, tanning pigment, algae and jellyfish stings. Mobile phones can operate as early warning systems on emergencies, from extreme weather to the spread of the Zika virus, via sites such as the Google Public Alerts page or Twitter alerts.
Businesses are benefitting from offering solutions that respond to consumer concerns about the negative impacts of air pollution. Rising sales of products, such as air purifiers and pollution masks, prove the commercial potential of product innovations tackling the consequences of air pollution head on. With consumers keen to protect their skin from air pollutants found to cause premature skin ageing, leading brands are already offering consumers products shielding them from air pollution, such as Dior’s One Essential City Defence SPA 50.
The allure of home and mobile cocooning
In 2017, consumers are keen to fortify their homes as a place of security and refuge. The traditional weekend staples of food, entertainment and romance are now available on demand via digital devices. Billed as a digital guard dog, crowdfunded home security device Cocoon listens for strange sounds in a house when its occupants are out, and alerts their smartphone with a video clip if it detects anything unexpected. “The device is all about making people feel safe in their homes”, Sanjay Parekh, co-founder of the start-up told Telegraph Online.
However, while new home technology is giving some consumers piece of mind and security, other voices are starting to surface regarding its hidden dangers. Jacob Silverman is the author of recent book “Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection”. In a mid-2016 opinion piece “Just How ‘Smart’ Do You Want Your Blender to Be?” he identifies the home as the new frontier in a rush to digitise the world. When most household items have been technologically upgraded and rendered “smart” — for example, lighting systems — he warns that rather than an upgrade, this online access is “A stealthy euphemism for ‘surveillance’”. The same applies to sharing our preferences with personal assistants like Amazon’s Echo. Mr Silverman’s main gripe is that smart devices reverse traditional models of ownership. Running on managed software and being connected means companies can control them from afar. Dealers have begun installing “starter interrupt devices” on cars bought with loans, for instance, so that they can remotely kill the engine should the borrower delay payments.
AI and tech as panaceas?
From July 2017, a small robot selling for US$600 will help consumers manage their health. “Your Personal Home Health Robot” combines face recognition, video conferencing, machine learning and automation in a personal health assistant that can dispense vitamins and medicines to help users stay well. Its creators, Pillo Health, claim on the project’s Indiegogo crowdfunding page that it can connect users with health professionals and order refills. Lola Cañamero, head of the Embodied Emotion, Cognition and (Inter-)Action Lab at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK is working on a robot companion to help diabetic children cope with their illness. For her, robots are efficient and likeable service providers, but they are still robots, not replicas of humans.
There is growing ambivalence over the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to bring safety to consumers rather than more control over them. In mid-2016, physicist Professor Stephen Hawking warned that AI, disguised as helpful digital assistants and self-driving vehicles, is gaining a foothold. Speaking on the Larry King Now show, he warned that advances would not necessarily be benign. In a new book “Technology vs. Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine”, Gerd Leonhard concurs and warns that “digital obesity” could be the next pandemic. He reminds us that in our rush to upgrade and automate everything, from computers to wearables to brain-computer interfaces, we must pause to ask if human control over our lives is safeguarded.