Can Google make us healthier?
Evgeny Morozov, author of ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’ speaking at Chatham House on 18 March
Virtually everything these days has, or is poised to have, a sensor. We are moving towards a world of smart technologies. You can see it in media coverage of ‘smart shoes’ which tell you when they’re about to wear out.
Almost anything can be made ‘social’. This means that decisions can be made with all of your friends in the background. So your friends can see what you do, and that can provide new forms of peer pressure.
From those two trends new types of problem-solving become possible.
Imagine how Google might go about tackling obesity. You stop at a restaurant wearing Google glasses which have been tracking everything that you’ve been doing and eating for weeks on end. You look at the menu. Nothing prevents Google from making certain items on the menu more or less visible or highlighting items that have more or less fat.
Here we really need to be critical as to what kind of politics we might be embracing, willingly or unwillingly, with these technological fixes. Selftracking devices do not solve a problem in the same way as policy would solve it. They solve it by putting the onus on the citizen to adjust their behaviour within a fixed system.
The limitation here is that we’re not thinking about reform of the system that created the obesity epidemic. We’re not thinking about whether you have access to healthy food. We’re not thinking about its cost. We’re not thinking about how to regulate junk food companies.
This is what scares me about delegating so much authority for problem-solving to Silicon Valley. It seeks to preserve much of the existing system in place without forcing us to think about the factors that are responsible for the problem. Very often these solutions will only be perpetuating the problems by offloading much of the responsibility for adjusting behaviour to the citizen and the consumer.
So the big question facing us, given how easy technology makes it to fix things, is: what kinds of things would we like to leave unautomated?
Will the Afghan army cope in 2015?
Robert Jackson, Director, The Changing Character of War Programme, University of Oxford, speaking on 12 March
We need to be honest about Afghan security. We may have to start licensing poachers as gamekeepers. And that may mean bringing people who have been insurgents into some sort of licensed local security force. The Afghan security forces have always been a mixed force, made up of regular and localized militia-like elements, and I think that’s what we need to start looking at.
Can Putin ever retire?
Fiona Hill, Brookings Institution, author of Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, speaking on 12 March
It is very difficult for Putin to step away because he has created a very complex system. Who is going to guarantee it in the future? But if Pope Benedict can buck 600 years of tradition, Mr Putin could surely come up with a way. After all, he created the system.