Aug
11

Not so Smart Objects

By

Adam Pope playing Zaphod Beeblebrox in an Amateur Production of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy,
By Hypermusic (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One morning in Glacier National Park years ago, I walked through a campground past a teepee. In the next campsite you could see through the picture window of his RV a guy reading the paper and drinking coffee as the news played on TV. People who can’t enjoy nature without their experience being mediated by an internal combustion engine always puzzled me. Getting out into the woods for them means ATVs or dirt bikes. Going for a swim means personal watercraft. Quiet simplicity seems foreign.

Then again, tech junkies shouldn’t talk, constantly checking our phones and computers. Connectivity, baby.

How much tech is too much? How much anything is too much? It is almost un-American to ask.

Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, wonders if Smart Objects, the Internet of Things, is a dumb idea. A hacked car (or cars) or airliner, for example, would be a safety nightmare:

The Internet of Things is also a privacy nightmare. Databases that already have too much information about us will now be bursting with data on the places we’ve driven, the food we’ve purchased and more. Last week, at Def Con, the annual information security conference, researchers set up an Internet of Things village to show how they could hack everyday objects like baby monitors, thermostats and security cameras.

Connecting everyday objects introduces new risks if done at mass scale. Take that smart refrigerator. If a single fridge malfunctions, it’s a hassle. However, if the fridge’s computer is connected to its motor, a software bug or hack could “brick” millions of them all at once — turning them into plastic pantries with heavy doors.

Wired magazine is all about Smart Objects and biometrics:

FOR ALL THE talk of smart objects, most of the stuff in our homes is remarkably dumb. Objects just sit there, inanimate and indifferent to the person using them. But just wait. According to Alex Rothera and James Krahe, it’s only a matter of time before even the dumbest of objects are embedded with a magical sense of interactivity. Eventually, the designers say, our stuff will be able to react to us based on data transmitted right through our bodies.

That will be magical. And if it sounds like something right out of Disney, you win a stuffed mouse. Wired asks, “Have you ever wished that your T-shirts could tell you the optimal water temperature for removing that pesky mustard stain?” Actually, no. No, I haven’t.

But the Internet Protocol for Smart Object (IPSO) Alliance has. ISPO just announced semi-finalists in its third annual IPSO CHALLENGE. Congratulations to the ten semi-finalists. With the Smart Toilet of the future, for example, no more tedious choosing Number One or Number Two buttons when flushing. Your Smart Toilet, the Department of Sanitation, the entire Internet will know just what you have done.

It is all beginning to sound too close for comfort to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Sirius Cybernetics machines with Genuine People Personalities (“GPP”). The Vulcan Science Academy describes where this is headed:

Marvin, the paranoid android, by far the most beloved character in the guide is a super intelligent robot with ‘Real People Personalities.’ This means Marvin thinks and feels everything that a human would, and he is utterly depressed by it. As computers get more and more advanced and artificial intelligence lies just beyond the horizon, this may be a serious problem soon facing humanity. Marvin has the mind of a human but the insight and intelligence of a super-being, and it is clear that his feeble human traits cannot handle such immensity. Computers are sure to one day gain this type of personality, will we soon have a crisis of ethics on our hands as these poor souls fight with their own consciousness? Or will we once again be ignorant of the suffering due to preconceived ideas and debate as to whether the computers really feel it?

Once we’ve given them Genuine People Personalities, will we be morally obligated to expand Medicare Part D to cover digital antidepressants for our toasters?

A single phrase characterizes the need product engineers feel to pack as much into an electronic product as technically feasible: “feature rich.” It is not enough to have a watch provide accurate time when it can do so much more. Yes, I can have a coffee maker that is also a timer, an alarm clock, satellite radio, and that starts and warms up my car on cold mornings. But all I really wanted was a cup of coffee.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Comments

  1. Dave Cushman says:

    For those who were supporting the product, rather than selling it, I remember the process as “feature creep”