Friday, January 18, 2008

Rise Of The Machines?

Never Mind “Cyberdyne Systems”Here Comes Microsoft!

An IT friend e-mailed me this and I frankly thought it was a spoof...a joke.

It ain't.

Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of remotely monitoring a worker’s productivity, physical wellbeing and competence.

The Times has seen a patent application filed by the company for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees’ performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure. Unions said they fear that employees could be dismissed on the basis of a computer’s assessment of their physiological state.

Technology allowing constant monitoring of workers was previously limited to pilots, firefighters and Nasa astronauts. This is believed to be the first time a company has proposed developing such software for mainstream workplaces.

Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “unique monitoring system” that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure”, the application states.

The system could also “automatically detect frustration or stress in the user” and “offer and provide assistance accordingly”. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health.

If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.

I knew that automation would someday come to replace a lot of things, but seeing the office snitch go the way of carbon paper and eyeshades is just wrong. Scrambling a nosey WiFi signal out of spite just doesn't have the same zip as cornering a backstabbing weasel in the Men's Room and threatening to cave in his skull with the stainless steel hand dryer, or sneakily Tabasco-ing his Vitamin Water as revenge for diming you out about your two-vodka tonic lunch with the hot vendor.

Although I must say, a cyber-Linda Tripp beats all hell outta having to pass a flesh and blood one in the hall.

Kidding aside here, my IT friend and I had a brief but very animated discussion about this. “The thing'll be able to tell if you had a lunchtime drink—or two and digitally rat you out. It'll report on your very move during the workday and how you feel—whether you get agitated before big meetings, or at what time your energy dips. It'd probably be able to break shit down fine enough to give readouts to a superior as you talked to him on the phone. Your smiley voice couldn't hide a blood-pressure spike or teeth grinding...or lies about progress and deadlines. I mean, what does a lie-detector report on? The same stuff. Think that kinda data wouldn't find its way to people come performance review time? Everybody jokes about how 'evil' Microsoft is and says that's what Cyberdyne was based on. 'Ha-ha.' You laugh that shit off and then you hear a story like this. What can you say? This is the kinda bullshit that'll make people in my biz root for the employees for once. If I put a thousand 'fuckins' in front of the word obtrusive that wouldn't say the half of it.”

I thought about it. Would some control-freak of a boss pull an employee aside to tell them that perhaps they shouldn't have a sip of champagne at the in-office functions because the data indicates that it “depresses them and hinders their productivity by as much as eleven percent?”

I want to say fuck that...and then I realize that thirty years ago I marveled at my AMT Star Trek “Communicator” model and laughed at the idea of a communication device being that small and working as it did.

And then I look on my desk at my RAZR phone and realize it is the Goddamned communicator—right down to the flip lid and location beacon, and then sadly further realize that the idea of a control freak boss or corporation abusing a program like the one being patented isn't just a possibility, but a stone-lock definite.

Never mind the feasibility of the set-up itself. I'd almost forgotten that NASA astronauts were monitored on that level while hundreds of thoiusands of miles away in space. Monitoring Ethan or Sara Cuberat a from few feet away would be a piece of “sleep-inducing-if-eaten-after-3:00-pm-so-maybe-you-should-skip-it-when-you're-on-deadline” cake . Big a tech geek as I am, I cherish my time “off the grid” when I walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with my cell phone off, avoiding public tran. The tetheredness of many of my friends to all things communication-oriented is anathema to me. As is the idea of people in general giving so much of themselves to “the job” that they practically live there anyway as opposed to home—now umbillical-izing themselves to their paymasters while there...literally.

I suppose the obvious joke is that if the set-up is two-way—in essence, a feedback loop—the boss man could rig the son-of-a-bitch to zap the shit out of you should your energy flag. eh? Seems the logical, controlling next step.

For some reason, I just can't muster up the laugh I want to about that.

Is it wrong for thoughts of “The Matrix”, the pictured dystopian “Deathlok”, and The Terminator movies all-encompassing and fateful “Cyberdyne” to come to mind? I don't think so. Granted, the worrisome implementation of sentient artificial intelligence is not quite here, but again, that over-dependence on and tehtheredness to the siliconed, transistored world should give us more than pause.

Being jacked directly into one's work computer is something that should make your blood run Chicago-in-January cold.


At work the other day, I went to the Men's Room and found myself at the sink finishing up.

No knobs to turn. Just that small “Hal 9000”-ish light near the faucet for the electric eye motion-sensor that prompts the water.

Couldn't get the damn thing to go. Went down to the next sink. Same thing. Got down to the fourth sink and finally got the water to run. By this time, there were two other co-workers futilely “Ed Norton” pantomining to get the other sinks to work as I had been.

“This one works.” I said.

“Jesus Christ.” one of them said. “Half the time I come in here, I can't get the water to work with these...things. I have trouble with a faucet with knobs on it time out of ten. Can't even wash my hands. Ridiculous.”

The other guy wanly said. “It's the battery. There's a little battery in there, and when it gets low, it'll light sometimes, but it just won't trigger the flow.”

“But no knobs to use when that happens, right?”, the first co-worker said, gesturing at the bare stem of a spigot.

“Yeah.” the other laughed.

“New York, 2008, and I can't wash my hands half the time because of a friggin' ten cent battery? Now I know why people go off the grid.”

And with that he walked out, grumbling.

As I walked out behind him, the remaining co-worker said, “Never really thought about that. Kinda fucked up you can't even wash your hands without a little computer being involved.”

In the words of a noted idiot embracer of all things computerized running every aspect of our lives, “In-deed.”