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iBand: Faking trust with technology

A technology to remind you of someone's name when you shake their hand sounds like a great idea. But does it provide an unfair advantage, or worse, rob you of your humanity?

It reads like a bad advert in a cheap newspaper. "Want more confidence in social situations? Memory letting you down? Use iBand to improve your networking skills."

iBand is another bright idea from the MIT Labs -- a wristband or shirt cuff that stores information about people who have shaken hands with you and replays it when you meet them again (it remembers their particular shake). If you wear it, you won't forget another name.

Such a device sounds custom-designed for people like me. I can remember four-character hexadecimal checksums from twenty years ago -- but not the name of someone I've worked with for an appreciable part of my life. What's not to love about little voice in my ear chirping: "Michael Parsons. He's your editor. You've known him for three years. Oh, and you'd better make an excuse for that late article about seducing airline hostesses with a Nintendo DS Lite"? I should be the perfect market.

But I'm not. I hate the idea. I'll never wear one -- and I hope I never meet someone who does. It's cheating.

I don't mind that it's cleverer than I am. Technology by definition does things we cannot. A two quid pocket calculator finds the square root of Pi in the time it took Newton to dip his quill. You can't walk on the Moon without a spacesuit and $70bn worth of fireworks. And then there's Google. None of this feels like cheating: quite the opposite. It's what humans do.

No, the iBand is cheating because it's subsuming part of my humanity in exchange for fulfilling my base desires. That's the sort of deal the Devil offers. Admittedly, that's part of the promise for all gadgets: at one level, they're shiny bleepy toys that fill our lives with sparkle and magic and sort of make up for not having warp drive. But on another, they're the equivalent of baboons' backsides: if yours is bigger or more purple, you get more status and thus more monkey sex.

Actually, the baboons have it better -- better bottoms definitely make for bonus bada-boom, but to date nobody's shown that video iPod ownership helps in the bedroom. Blame Apple's marketing department, which has managed to create the link between MP3 player ownership and lithe young bodies writhing in ecstasy, without anyone noticing that it doesn't actually work that way. That's why gadgets are morally impeccable: they don't deliver on the personality modification they promise.

Which makes the iBand your own personal marketing department. It tinkers with the very things that make our social interaction work. It fakes the schmooze. "Oh, hello... Charlie! How's the double glazing business going in... Purley? And the kids? They must be... at secondary school by now." This wins votes, closes deals, gets more monkey sex. What it doesn't do is tell the schmoozed what the other person actually thinks, and thus leaves them at a considerable disadvantage. How much should they trust you? How much should they invest in the relationship? And what happens when you're the one being techno-bluffed?

All that's hard enough to sort out now without having to deal with computer-enhanced sincerity, especially for nerdy types who suspect that they've been left behind on the wrong planet by mistake. At least at the moment only a few people are genuinely charismatic, and of them only some are psychopaths. But the iBand or something like it will catch on. It's too devilishly tempting, and the people who will be most tempted will be those who really shouldn't.

In the end, it'll degenerate into yet another arms race. People will hack them, quietly feeding in incorrect information to confuse and baffle the wearer, and develop countermeasures to detect the fake. I particularly like the idea of smart glasses that amplify the subtle changes in facial skin temperature which reflect emotional state -- that'll be good until we get psychological shield brain implants. Until then, though, we'll have to rely on the old methods for discerning the true intent behind the smile. Forget chips: the grape and the grain are the best way of getting the truth. Just keep it off the cuff. -Rupert Goodwins