The Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning are two of the hottest technologies of our time. They have made possible things that were totally inconceivable a few years ago, and promise to continue transforming our lives in ways that are unimaginable at present. Smart appliances, cars, homes, cities and smart-about-everything are making our lives faster and more efficient.
But are we considering the tradeoffs? Are we ready to embrace the dramatic changes that will overcome our lives in a few years? More precisely, are we ready for machines starting to decide for us and us becoming dumb people who rely on smart things to carry on with their lives?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be paranoid. I’m a tech guy (obviously), and I have more wearables and connected gadgets than most average people do. But I do like to ponder from time to time and think about where things are headed and what should be anticipated in the future. Here I’ve reiterated some of the changes that our lives have gone through as a result of the development of IoT and Machine Learning, which we might have taken for granted, plus a preview of what the future might look like (a lot will change of course, and whatever I mention here is only wild speculation).
Security and privacy concerns regarding IoT are paramount issues of course, but I’ve covered that topic thoroughly previously, and I wanted to dedicate this piece to the philosophical side of things, about the balance of power between man and machine. The conclusion, I’ll leave it to you.
Smart devices are robbing us of thinking power
At first glance, I really like some of the ideas that are being proposed by the combination of Internet of Things and Machine Learning: smart light bulbs that know when to turn themselves on and off; smart kettles that will make sure you’ll have freshly made coffee at the exact time you want it without having thought about it; smart fridges that will do the grocery for you; smart locks that will recognize you and unlock with the tap of a phone.
There’s a central idea to the functionality behind all of these devices. A number of sensors that gather information about their environment and its occupants. The information is fed to a cloud application which analyzes the data and makes assumptions about user behavior, or rather “learns” the habits of the humans, and it adapts the functionality of the IoT ecosystem to match their preferences, improve comfort and efficiency and reduce costs and waste. That’s what makes them smart… and us dumb.
So I will never have to worry about leaving the lights on and footing a larger electricity bill at the end of the month. I don’t have to worry about having to buy milk on the way home and being forced to make a detour when I get home and open the fridge to find none. I don’t have to worry about leaving the door unlocked because my smart lock will automatically lock the door when it senses that the house is empty.
While all of this is good and necessary, I find the idea of a machine doing all the thinking in my place quite disturbing. I look at my own junior days and remember all the small trials and challenges that made me the man I am today. The time I forgot my set of keys inside the house and ended up being locked out for several hours; the day when I almost set the house on fire by forgetting to turn off the stove; the experience I had with a magazine-and-card store owner who asked me if I lived in a barn because I’d left the door open on a chilly winter day. I’m quite fond of those memories and they happen to be some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
The future generations won’t be experiencing any of that. They won’t meet many of the mind and social challenges that we’ve faced in our lives because the thinking is being done for them by machines that have been learning about them even before they were even born.
Smart devices are robbing us of control
The second issue that I want to touch upon is control. As devices, machines, appliances and gadgets (and whatever else you call them) become smarter, they’re going to start deciding and acting on our behalf, without our intervention. Some of the cases have already been mentioned above.
One of the starkest examples are self-driven cars, vehicles that navigate and displace without being guided by humans. These vehicles are already going through their final stages of development and will be ready to hit the roads in earnest in the next few years. There are many advantages to having smart, autonomous cars, the most prominent being the added level of safety and security and a dramatic decrease in road incidents.
But vehicles will become just another tool, a utility. You’ll have to kiss goodbye the feel of the leather covering of the steering wheel screech beneath your thumbs, the feel of the engine rage beneath your feet, the feeling of cruising on the precipice of disaster as you’re doing 90 mph on a highway.
You’ll have to kiss goodbye the power of control.
IoT and Machine Learning are already taking away control in many other areas, such as smart TVs that decide what to show. In most cases, we still have the power to take control and change the course of action, but it will only be a matter of time before we become used to machines making decisions for us, and we will no longer be offended from having to hand over the control to the machines.
Yet again, in the case of future generations, there will never be a basis for taking offense because they won’t have ownership of that control in the first place and they’ll be born in a world that is run by machines.
Smart devices are robbing us of our mobility
There will come a time when we will no longer need to leave the confines of our homes, because everything is being taken care of by IoT. Goods will be automatically purchased and delivered to the home by drones (this is already happening). Garbage will be collected and disposed by robots and self-driven cars. All the jobs that require physical presence will be carried out by robots, and the meager tasks left to humans will be done remotely. Offices will lose their raison d’être because everyone will be working from their homes.
I won’t need to go to the doctor, because all of my vital signs and health data is already being collected by connected wearables and loaded into the cloud, and the doctor (if there will be such things as human doctors in the future at all) will be able to diagnose me without the need to attend to me in person. Even surgeries and treatments can be done remotely by microbots implanted in our bodies.
Combined with the power of the fast evolving VR technology, IoT will enable us to travel to distant locations, feel things, meet people and do a lot more without ever setting foot outside our homes. The lines between what’s virtual and what’s real will be blurred.
My home will be more than my home. It’ll be my playground, school, hospital, office, church, palace.
My home will be my prison.
For future generations, leaving the sanctuary of the smart home will be a perilous journey that many will not dare to make. A lot of people will be born, live their entire lives, and eventually die within the same building.
There’s a lot more
There are many other areas where this discussion can be stretched to, such as how machine learning will rob us of our jobs and even identities. I’ll leave that to your speculation and hope you’ll share your thought with me in the comments, because this was about as much as I could stomach writing about.
I nearly freaked out as I wrote this post because it started to sound like The Matrix becoming reality. But I know that a lot of the negative reactions that come to my mind stem from what I’m used to and my reluctance to embrace fundamental change in human life. The same feelings must’ve overwhelmed previous generations who had to accept automobiles and airplanes becoming the main ways to commute and travel, things that we take for granted today. Hell, there was a time when people weren’t even willing to accept that planet earth is spherical in shape (is it?).
Maybe accepting these changes will be much easier to accept by future generations who will be born to them. But for me, I still can’t decide whether I like to live in the world that I’ve just written about.