Wearable technology: next big thing?

It's man and machine, not man versus machine.

As the hype around wearable technology gathers momentum, and the first working examples of such devices are released to the world, business leaders are beginning to consider the impact that they might have on the enterprise. Mostly, such considerations are focused on the fast-moving sectors of marketing and e-commerce; however, I would argue that the influence of such technology could potentially be much greater.

What wearable technology represents is the ability to augment the capability of the human brain with that of a computer, and to allow the two to work more closely than has ever been capable in the past. With ideal connectivity and supporting infrastructure, the technology offers the ability to search and display any information that is available to the enterprise right in the eye-view of a worker. Not only that, but because the technology can see what the worker sees, and hears what they hear, artificial intelligence at the back-end could potentially suggest information that would be useful to the actual task in hand.

At its most extreme, that represents a hybrid of man and machine, with the capability and creativity of the former augmented by the knowledge and computational power of the latter. In some industries, this could have an impact that is not just incremental, but also transformational; in fact, it could be so significant as to completely destroy the business models upon which some sectors are based. The productivity gains are potentially so great as to have a perceptible impact on the economy at a national, regional and even global level. 

This applies equally from the highest to the lowest skill levels in the economy. Consider, for example, the management consultant, tasked with improving a company’s overall profitability – as she makes her way around that company, not only everything she hears, but everything she sees can be recorded, analysed and then compared with the information she already has about the company. Not only that, but the same would be the case for the other member of the team – and, as they work, all this information could be automatically compared to the proprietary economic models that the company holds. Equally, consider the customer service assistant who, as he or she looks at you, can have all the information about your history with the company presented in their eyeline, as well as information about you available publicly. Online retailers already provide service in this way, but the ability to replicate that personal experience offline would give high-street retailers a powerful tool to enhance the experience of their customers.

The possibilities are endless, and other industries that could benefit include the law, accountancy, medicine, engineering, logistics, retail and many more. Yet the two examples above, however, should have aroused the critical instinct in any alert reader. Even with what has recently been a dramatic reduction in the instinct to privacy amongst consumers, most would find these situations somewhat less than natural. Much as all the technologies in these scenarios already exist, combining them in the manner suggested could well be considered unsettling by a majority of the general public.  Furthermore, there are notable technical difficulties, particularly around connectivity, and the storage of information in such a way as to facilitate near-instant access.

Tackling the legal and privacy issues will almost certainly take priority – while societal attitudes are changing fast, for a long time there will remain a significant minority who do not share these attitudes, and businesses will have to be sensitive to that. That means developing business processes, policy and compliance to seek consent where possible, and doing everything possible to prevent misuse of the technology. The real-time nature of the assistance that wearable technology can provide means that connectivity is similarly crucial and businesses will need to make sure that every link in each and any network they use is as fast as possible. That will need to be complemented by a new approach to the IT infrastructure on which corporations store information, with disk technology and management software designed to minimise response times, allowing information to be recovered without noticeable delay.

Social media, data analytics, mobile devices and cloud computing are already recognised as disruptive technologies, with the potential to transform the way in which businesses can be run. Wearable technology is the next step in that process, which can bring all these technologies together, in real time, in a personalised manner and with minimum user effort. However, the obstacles for early adopters to overcome are many and significant, and the process of its development as a tool for business will not initially be rapid. That means that there is time for businesses to properly consider how their industry might be affected and to prepare to take the opportunity that these technologies offer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ved Sen is mobility practice head, UK and Europe at Cognizant Technology Solutions.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear