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Is Google Glass failing our children?

This post was written by Mark Arbedour and first appeared on the Epic blog on 21st February 2014.
google glassFollowing on from my initial exploration of Google Glass, I was keen to see what my kids would make of this device. As anyone who has seen a toddler using an iPad will know, some technology is just so intuitive that kids take to it like ducks to water. So I wondered what challenges Glass would throw up for a child, and whether they would reflect my own challenges and frustrations in getting familiar with this device. Sharing Google Glass with my daughter, who is nearly nine, turned out to be just as exciting and eye opening as I had hoped, but what really surprised me was the rather sobering reflection it led to, about just what kind of future we are leading our children towards.

Learning the ropes

After a short demo on how to use the voice controls, I let my daughter loose on Glass. It seemed that she picked up the speech and touch interface quicker than I did. After 20 minutes she was telling me the weather for the rest of the week, looking up King George IV facts, taking photos and recording videos. Echoing my own problems, she had trouble with the voice recognition. King George the Fourth repeatedly brought up results for King George Falls, an impressive waterfall in Australia. On the plus side, the beautiful waterfall photos in the search results were simple for her to scroll through.

Ultimately though, she thought the device was totally cool and was excited about the prospect of walking around while looking at the web. I explained the idea of augmented reality, that if she was walking around wearing these then she would be likely to see ratings and reviews while going past restaurants or shops, for example. This really excited her as the potential of Glass really hit home: a personal shopping assistant!

The dark side of Glass

We talked about how Glass might be used in school and about the privacy issues with hidden cameras. She concluded that Glass could be both good and bad at the same time, making the example that they could be used to catch video of robbers in a bank raid for the police, but they could also, more ominously, be used by strangers outside school. We agreed that maybe Glass could make a sound or flash a light when taking photos or video.

My daughter also wondered out loud if everyone will be wearing these in five or ten years’ time. Will they become the norm in the classroom, the high street or the workplace? One thing I don’t doubt is that this incredible technology, whether in the form of Glass or some other wearable device, will play a key role in our children’s futures.

Responsible development

My daughter’s experimentation with Glass reminded me that as software engineers and technologists, we have a responsibility to safeguard people, especially the young and vulnerable, and to try to ensure that technology evolves in an ethical manner.  But it feels to me like we are collectively failing in that duty. Google Glass and its augmented reality services are closely tied into excessive and invasive personal data collection, and its spy camera technology does nothing to alert subjects that they are being recorded. This needs to be challenged.

Often technology moves so fast that discussions around ethical impacts only take place once it is already in use, as is the case with Google Glass. If we do nothing, we risk failing the entire next generation of internet users, for whom wearable technology will be the norm and whose online lives are only just starting to take shape.

Pioneers, founders and architects

Inside the Glass box it says:

“You are a pioneer, a founder and an architect of what’s possible. You are a Glass Explorer. We have an exciting journey ahead of us, and what happens next starts with you.”

There are ten thousand Google Glass ‘pioneers, founders and architects’ out there, whose feedback and ideas are already helping to shape the technology landscape for the next generation. I sincerely hope that this army of pioneers, and the wider technology community, will try to influence that future for the better. One where our children will be free to use technology to create, learn and explore, rather than just to consume and be exploited for their data and images.

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The original version of this post appears on Mark’s blog, Open Thoughts.