Tech round-up for September 26: John Hancock and fitness tracking, NCIX and customer data, robot workforce, new Echo devices

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This week, a look at how technology is disrupting our world in the most interesting (and potentially terrible) of ways: insurance firms monitoring customers, robots taking jobs, companies being frivolous with customer data. All that and an Alexa-enabled microwave.

Insurance company issuing fitness trackers to policy holders

John Hancock, a life insurance company in the U.S., is adding to all its policies a feature called Vitality that requires participants to report their living habits, including diet and physical exercise.

The benefit to the individual is that by living better they can save money on insurance premiums. The benefit to John Hancock is that they may have to pay out on fewer policies because they’ve got healthier customers and the longer customers live, the more they end up paying in premiums.

It’s the kind of intervention that could, in all honesty, bring about a reversal of the physical decline in western cultures.

Here’s what we know:

  • Spending on prevention is far more efficient than spending on health care after people get unwell
  • People benefit from increased physical activity in more ways than over physical health; they also benefit from improved psychological and emotional health

But this precedent is not without concern. Because we also know:

  • Corporations have no conscience and when given an opening like this will find ways to exploit it to their own ends
  • People will find ways to “game” the systems so they can get the benefit without having to expend the effort
  • Fitness trackers don’t actually measure fitness, but the activities that can lead to fitness

What we don’t know:

  • What is John Hancock going to do with all of the personal information they collect on their policy holders? That data will be tied to an individual, it won’t be anonymous.

The Vitality program is also being offered by insurance companies in Britain and South Africa.

John Hancock is owned by Canada’s Manulife. There has been no word on whether the company is planning something similar for Canadian customers.

The dangerous case of NCIX data servers

If you’re a tech person, odds are that you purchased something from NCIX at some point. During the company’s heyday – prior to the surge of internet retail – it was one of Canada’s leading tech retailers.

By the end of 2017, though, the company was gone.

But last month, Travis Doering stumbled onto a Craigslist ad offering up the NCIX database servers. Doering discovered that the servers had never been wiped, and still contained employee and customer data.

If you purchased anything from NCIX in the 2000s you should be extra vigilant. There’s a good chance that your data, including credit card numbers, is out there.

Robots are coming for your jobs, and that’s okay

The World Economic Forum released its 2018 The Future of Jobs Report last week, and to hear most media covering it you’d think that we’re all doomed. “Machines will do more than half the work!”

The document does predict that robots, or some form of automation, will be doing many of the tasks that people are paid to do today.

But it also suggests that as a result of all this change and disruption, there will be double the number of jobs for people in total.

So we may lose two jobs, but four will be created. And they will be jobs we can’t even comprehend right now.

This has happened before in human history. The Industrial Revolution was only one example.

What is required for this to work in the favour of humanity, however, is education and training. We need to make sure we’re prepared for this new future. And that means teaching our kids how to think critically.

Amazon putting Alexa into new Echo devices and anywhere else she’ll go

Coming to Canada early next month are five new products from Amazon designed to get Alexa into our homes.

The company has redesigned the Echo Dot ($70), Echo Plus ($200), and Echo Show ($300) speakers. New features include a built-in temp sensor in the Plus so it can interact with smart thermostats.

There’s also an Echo Sub ($170) to provide the bass you’re missing from your other Echos.

The brand new item is the Amazon Smart Plug ($35) and while other companies are selling plugs that give smart home functions to your everyday devices, Amazon has something they don’t: Alexa.

You can get a Smart Plug and tell Alexa to turn on your floor fan. Or anything else you plug into it.

Amazon has also created an Alexa-enabled microwave. While not available in Canada – yet – the appliance’s very existence shows that Amazon is willing to do what other tech companies have been reluctant to do: become device manufacturers in order to get services in use.

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