Topic: Science & Technology

Ethics and the Talking Billboards

A memorable scene in the Steven Spielberg thriller “Minority Report” showed Tom Cruise’s character walking past commercial signs and displays that spoke directly to him, addressing him by name and customizing their message to personal information, accessed by a retinal scan. (Later, after Cruise had replaced his eyeballs, the signs thought he was somebody else.) It was a creepy scene, and like disturbing scenes in earlier futuristic films such as “A Clockwork Orange,” reality is getting uncomfortably close to emulating it.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a Paris-based company called Quividi has developed technology that may soon have billboards talking to the real Mr. Cruise. They are fitting billboards with tiny cameras that assess the gender and approximate age of passers-by, and also record how long they looked at the billboard. These details go to a central database. Eventually, the data will allow graphic displays to change according to the onlooker, targeting potential customers by demographic features, including race. They might even talk to us.

As usual in the case with new technologies, critics are stepping forward to declare the process a violation of privacy and ethically objectionable. Hmmmm. Okay, class: what is wrong with it?

Is it an invasion of privacy? In the Phillip K. Dick world of “Minority Report,” the retinal scans hooked into a giant database that revealed all sorts of personal information. We can all agree that is an invasion of privacy. But the Quividi cameras do no more (and quite a bit less) than every individual’s brain when he or she passes someone on the street, noticing age, gender, race and other visual cues. Why is it an invasion of privacy when cameras do it and just an everyday occurrence when people do it? The short answer is: it isn’t.

Is it sneaky or deceptive? Maybe. It would be ethically preferable for any such billboard to announce that it is “reading” onlookers, in case they don’t want to be “read.” If the companies using the Quividi technology actively tried to hide the fact, that would be wrong. And if there is evidence that a significant number of people want to know that they are being scanned for customized messages, a notice meets the ethical standard of candor

Is the technology the first stage of far more sinister intrusions, as in the film? Whether it is or not, that doesn’t change the ethical equation for this use of the technology. Most technology has both good and bad uses, and there are always people who argue that the risk of wrongful applications justifies labeling the technology itself as unethical. This phenomenon is explained by a lack of trust, based partly on fear of the unknown and partly on the lessons of experience and history, for if there is an application of technology, good or bad, to be tried, someone will probably try it. Airplanes have transformed the world through rapid transportation, and they have been used to kill millions with bombs. Guns save lives and kill school children. The internet provides instant information and also instant hate and porn. The bad applications don’t make the legitimate applications unethical, and the technology is exactly as ethical as the manner in which it is used.

Will most people find customized billboards creepy and annoying? Good question. If they do, advertisers won’t use them. If they don’t, then there isn’t a problem. Personally, I find Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olberman, Katie Couric, and Geraldo Rivera creepy and annoying, but their very existence isn’t unethical, nobody makes me watch them, and if enough people agree with me, they will go away

We are left with the key ethics question that so often focuses our ethical analysis: What is really going on here? The answer is surprisingly simple and benign: with the Quividi innovations, advertisers are applying new technology to the exact same problem merchandisers have been trying to solve since Ug tried to sell his new invention, the wheel: How do we make potential purchasers of a product or service they need or would like to have aware that we can provide it?

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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