By Geoff Colvin and Ryan Derousseau
February 15, 2017

In this morning’s news, three problems that technology is unexpectedly solving and one problem it unexpectedly isn’t solving.

-Airlines are getting better. If the cognitive dissonance of that statement makes you dizzy, let’s acknowledge that the overall airport-airline experience can be miserable. But last year, U.S.-based airlines achieved the lowest levels of lost luggage, canceled flights, and bumped passengers in decades, the U.S. Transportation Department says. Luggage is safer because airlines have invested in technology that tracks every piece. Flights were less likely to be canceled partly because of fewer major storms last year, but also because weather forecasting is more precise, enabling more planes to get into and out of airports even when weather is bad. You’re less likely to get bumped because airline software keeps getting better at predicting how many passengers will check in. Your chances of getting bumped last year: 1 in 16,129.

-Voice, video, and conference calls are getting better. This is surprising because so-called “unified communication” for business is an arena of ferocious competition among highly innovative giants – Google, Microsoft, and Cisco. Yet for users, considerable pain remains. Now Amazon is removing some of it with cloud-based software called Chime. I was particularly envious of a feature that lets a conference call administrator figure out whose radio is blaring in the background and mute that person’s mic. Why didn’t one of those other big companies figure that out?

-Heart disease is getting worse. We’re in an age of medical miracles – researchers have just demonstrated tech that gives amputees “intuitive control” of artificial limbs – yet a new report from the American Heart Association is depressing and alarming. Cardio-vascular disease is increasing much faster than previously forecast. By 2035, the AHA now says, 45% of U.S. adults will suffer from it. AHA president Steven Houser says heart disease “is on a course that could bankrupt our nation’s economy and health care system.” Why hasn’t medical technology stopped it? Because it’s a so-called lifestyle disease; we mostly cause it by the way we choose to live, and even tech isn’t keeping up with our self-destructive habits. But if heart disease is getting worse, at least…

-Care for old people at home is getting better. Intuition Robotics announced yesterday it had raised $6 million to help it develop its ElliQ “autonomous active aging companion.” This is one of several robotic devices, including an impressive one from IBM, being designed for the mushrooming market of old people living alone at home. The surprise is that while these devices are still far from lifelike, they’re already close enough to be genuinely accepted and comforting to their intended users.

Three good surprises, one bad one. The only lesson is that technology will continue to surprise us, for better and worse. Mostly better.

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