Saturday, February 23, 2013

Are "smart" gadgets going to take over our lives?

In an article called "Is Smart Making Us Dumb?" (or, in the more comprehensible heading at the top of the browser window, "Are Smart Gadgets Making Us Dumb?"), Evgeny Morozov writes this in the Wall Street Journal:

A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up? ...

BinCam looks just like your average trash bin, but with a twist: Its upper lid is equipped with a smartphone that snaps a photo every time the lid is shut. The photo is then uploaded to Mechanical Turk, the Amazon-run service that lets freelancers perform laborious tasks for money. In this case, they analyze the photo and decide if your recycling habits conform with the gospel of green living. Eventually, the photo appears on your Facebook page.

You are also assigned points, as in a game, based on how well you are meeting the recycling challenge. The household that earns the most points "wins." In the words of its young techie creators, BinCam is designed "to increase individuals' awareness of their food waste and recycling behavior," in the hope of changing their habits.

BinCam has been made possible by the convergence of two trends that will profoundly reshape the world around us. First, thanks to the proliferation of cheap, powerful sensors, the most commonplace objects can finally understand what we do with them—from umbrellas that know it's going to rain to shoes that know they're wearing out—and alert us to potential problems and programmed priorities. These objects are no longer just dumb, passive matter. With some help from crowdsourcing or artificial intelligence, they can be taught to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behavior (between recycling and throwing stuff away, for example) and then punish or reward us accordingly—in real time. ...

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company "is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place." Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google's notion that the world is a "broken" place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how "reality is broken" but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, "smart" is Silicon Valley's shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

But there is reason to worry about this approaching revolution. As smart technologies become more intrusive, they risk undermining our autonomy by suppressing behaviors that someone somewhere has deemed undesirable. Smart forks inform us that we are eating too fast. Smart toothbrushes urge us to spend more time brushing our teeth. Smart sensors in our cars can tell if we drive too fast or brake too suddenly.

These devices can give us useful feedback, but they can also share everything they know about our habits with institutions whose interests are not identical with our own. Insurance companies already offer significant discounts to drivers who agree to install smart sensors in order to monitor their driving habits. How long will it be before customers can't get auto insurance without surrendering to such surveillance? And how long will it be before the self-tracking of our health (weight, diet, steps taken in a day) graduates from being a recreational novelty to a virtual requirement? ...

To grasp the intellectual poverty that awaits us in a smart world, look no further than recent blueprints for a "smart kitchen"—an odd but persistent goal of today's computer scientists, most recently in designs from the University of Washington and Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.

Once we step into this magic space, we are surrounded by video cameras that recognize whatever ingredients we hold in our hands. Tiny countertop robots inform us that, say, arugula doesn't go with boiled carrots or that lemon grass tastes awful with chocolate milk. This kitchen might be smart, but it's also a place where every mistake, every deviation from the master plan, is frowned upon. It's a world that looks more like a Taylorist factory than a place for culinary innovation. Rest assured that lasagna and sushi weren't invented by a committee armed with formulas or with "big data" about recent consumer wants.

Creative experimentation propels our culture forward. That our stories of innovation tend to glorify the breakthroughs and edit out all the experimental mistakes doesn't mean that mistakes play a trivial role. As any artist or scientist knows, without some protected, even sacred space for mistakes, innovation would cease.