Technology

Sarconi: Samsung and Google initiatives demonstrate technology’s untapped potential to make practical change

The optimist’s view of technology is that it will improve the overall quality of life.

Whether it’s pocket-sized devices that allow people to communicate across the globe or a wristband that monitors the user’s physical activity, there is a belief that advancements in the industry will ultimately solve humanity’s problems. It already has in many ways, but there’s still much to be desired when it comes to integrating other types of technology into daily life.

But change may be on the horizon, and it starts with making the road safer and easier to drive on. Samsung announced earlier this month that it will begin testing a big rig that has four weatherproof TV screens attached to the back that show the cars driving behind it the road ahead — an innovation that has been coined a “transparent truck.

First introduced in June 2015, the Safety Truck is set to hit the road first in Argentina. Samsung picked the country in particular because the region and South America as a whole have had major problems with traffic deaths and are looking for ways to cut down on them. Samsung says that one Argentinian dies every hour from a traffic accident, and, according to the 2013 World Health Organization’s global status report on road safety, there are 19.2 road deaths for every 100,000 people in Latin America.

Samsung’s efforts aren’t revolutionary and will not eliminate all traffic deaths in the future, but it is a practical solution to a serious issue. Even if it only saves one life, that’s a life that wouldn’t have been saved otherwise.

The Safety Truck shows technology’s true potential to make a tangible change in the world by solving problems which surpass material ones — such as making our devices faster, thinner and more accessible — and require a fraction of the effort.

It’s really quite a simple idea when you think about it: put a camera at the front of the truck and connect it to four TV screens at the back. There are no algorithms involved and little technical skill required. With some basic instructions, I could probably set this thing up.

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that companies should solely focus on creating products that make planet Earth a safer, more efficient place. You need money to do that stuff. But Samsung is a great example of a company that is using its profits to create practical change.

They are not the only ones, either. Google is in the same “Good Samaritan” boat. The company recently announced that it has provided 100 homes in a public housing complex in Kansas City with free Google Fiber, Google’s brand of Internet connection.

This is part of a bigger federal government initiative, called ConnectHome, which aims to bring high-speed broadband to low-income areas across the United States. Giving people Internet is a different approach to social progress than making roads safer, but it’s all part of realizing capacity for change technology holds.

This capability to change the world isn’t lost on the leaders of tech, either, and may be part of the reason Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are so philanthropic: they see themselves as agents of progress.

Sometimes, however, it seems ulterior motives are in play. Take, for example, Facebook’s Internet.org, an endeavor similar to that of ConnectHome on a global basis. At face value, Facebook’s mission of providing people in underprivileged countries with free Internet seemed like a pretty nice thing to do. The only problem is that Facebook is only providing certain parts of the Internet to users. One of those parts is, believe or not, Facebook.

But due to public backlash for these restrictions, India announced last week that it terminated the program due to net neutrality concerns.

The difference between Facebook’s initiative and what Google and Samsung are doing is all about motive. Or, more accurately, perceived motive. Samsung and Google are receiving good press, but that seems to be about all they get for their charitable efforts.

It’s a tricky line for these companies to walk when they have products to sell and investors to keep happy. But they may also have a real interest in changing the world for the better.

Hopefully, more companies will look at the positive intentions behind the Samsung Safety Truck or Google Fiber and think, “We can do something like that with our products.”

Technology is like everything else in this world: it can be used for either good or evil. The industry fancies itself a force of good, but it needs to start focusing on practical ways to help people instead of trying to give them a slimmer phone.

Paul Sarconi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at pjsarcon@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @paulsarconi.

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