20 Sep 2016 16:54 IST

Tech advances are greatly improving lives

And if the cost is sharing personal details with big firms, that is a trade I am willing to make

The internet has demonstrably changed our lives for the better. While we cannot imagine a day without apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, emails and maps, behind-the-scenes technology advancements are enhancing life in extraordinary ways.

The simplest example is the way companies keep our devices and apps up to date with software pushes. If you choose the “Auto Update” feature on Windows, you never need to worry about not having the latest version of your operating system. Security patches, driver updates, functional improvements, bug fixes and even performance enhancements are all quietly pushed to your machine in the middle of the night from Microsoft’s cloud.

A continuously updating operating system is a powerful defence against constant adware, malware and other virus threats. It is infinitely better than the world we found ourselves in just a few years ago: of debating which service packs were right for our computers or buying anti-virus CD software which would only update when the company released a new CD.

Artificial intelligence

Some cloud technology enhancements are so helpful that they are downright scary. Three weeks ago, I bought an airline ticket online to travel from Dallas to India. As soon as the travel agency sent me an email confirming my trip, I noticed that Google’s computers made Gmail calendar entries for my departure and arrival dates.

On the day of my departure, I was all packed and getting ready to leave. Unasked for, I got a notification from Big Brother Google that my flight was indeed on time, that there were no major bottlenecks in traffic and that it would take me 28 minutes to get to Terminal E, so would I leave at 1.45 pm please?

Disconcerting familiarity

In truth, it is disconcerting that a company knows so much about me. It already knows when and where to I am travelling. It knows where I live because I have set the “home” indicator in Google Maps (even if I hadn’t, Maps estimates via GPS that the same place I keep returning to at the end of each day is probably my home).

Google already knows I was making a connection in Houston, so it applies the standard check-in time for domestic flights, adds the commute time from my home to Terminal E, where United flights depart in Dallas and tells me the safe time to depart from home.

Know it all

Or take Google Photos, for instance. One of the biggest headaches we face every day is when our phones ominously warn us that we are running short on storage space. So how do we decide which pictures and video files to keep? It is bad enough that we get so much junk each day. Where do we find the time to sort the good ones from bad?

Strange as it may seem, Google’s answer is to keep them all. Google Photos will automatically backup all pictures on your device to the cloud and, scarily, even sort them into folders. It found 15 pictures from a family trip of ours to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, and created a folder called, “Trip to Agra - Oct 2012”.

A new feature called “Movie Maker” will even stitch together these related pictures into a short movie clip, add background music and dutifully inform you when it is done. There is no limit to the number of pictures or videos you backup. And, I forgot, it will automatically delete the source photos from your computer memory once they are up in the cloud!

What is fascinating is that all of this technology is “free”. In a jab at the world’s political class, which devotes all of its time to identifying segments of society on whom it can shower taxpayer-funded services in a constant quest stay in power, Google has deployed these tools in the most democratic way possible: to everyone around the world, without restrictions on class, gender, race, sexual orientation or national identity.

Advancement at the cost of privacy

Back in Dallas, my wife drove me to the airport to see me off. Lighted signs at the parking lot told us how many parking slots were free in each aisle. We turned into one that said three slots were vacant. Looking down a long alley, we spotted a green light hanging above an empty space that was hidden from view by a big SUV. We pulled into the slot and, on getting out of our car, saw that the indicator overhead had already turned red.

Such small advances in technology added together, lead to a giant leap in enhancing the quality of our lives. And if the only cost is that I should agree to share some of my personal details with large companies, that is a trade that I am gladly willing to make.