Embedded technology – the computer or data-storing chip in a device whose user is not aware of the component – is an already established trend, but its more ambitious cousin the “wearable computer” is still some distance ahead.
Nevertheless, Wellington-based Accenture partner Mick Bell sees both as a significant element of future digital technology – and of particular relevance to government and automated payment mechanisms.
Singapore, for example, already has embedded devices in cars which can automatically charge the user a toll for using certain stretches of road, without their having to stop at a gate. This is used to control congestion in the city-state by imposing penalties for driving in congested areas at certain times of day.
Embedded technology also lends itself to tacking environmental and health concerns. A microchip in a factory chimney could not only monitor pollution but charge the company a penalty automatically for going over the prescribed limit. The electronic watchdog would automatically debit the company’s bank account and pay the money to the appropriate authority, Bell suggests.
Food caught up in health cautions like the recent soy sauce recall could be scanned on the supermarket shelves, electronically identifying themselves for removal. Any that escaped the check would be flagged as they passed through the checkout and replaced for the customer. Ingredients for food items could be tracked through the supply chain, Bell says.
Automatic recording of sales and purchases makes possible the real-time charging and refund of GST and similar taxes, freeing the business owner from the bother of filling in forms – and incidentally removing the useful time delay between earning and payment of such tax.
Bell acknowledges that moves like these might "sound a bit Big Brotherish”.
In a government context, Bell has spoken with e-government unit head Brendan Boyle and is well aware of Boyle's reservations about anything that could be seen as undue government surveillance. Boyle has told Computerworld, for example, that the idea of unique digital identifiers based on fingerprints, as practised in Singapore, would probably be at variance with New Zealand culture and their introduction would cause more trouble than it would be worth.
Bell says people’s perception of invasion of privacy are inconsistent. Customers accept the technology behind credit cards, Bell says, but usually only question their traceability when used on the internet. Offered enough of a “carrot” to yield information through electronic devices – and the most obvious incentive is convenience – the public will probably “opt in” to using such devices, he suggests. Even a garment which continually identifies its owner’s wearabouts through a wireless link might be enthusiastically acquired if suitable location-dependent services could be sold on the back of it.
Accenture has a research centre in France which is developing some of these innovations at least to the concept stage.
“But our real interest is in talking about these concepts with governments, so we can work with them when they decide to implement any.”