Is Dumb the New Smart?

Originally published in IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine as DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2014.2361397

There is a disturbing trend these days to call everything “smart.” We have smart grids for power, smart homes and smart cities in which to live, and smartphones that can do so much more than just make phone calls. And further growth in smartness is promised all around. New smart watches and smart bands will evaluate our biological status and even our emotional state. Smart things will sense the environment and communicate with one another to establish and satisfy our needs.

All this data will coalesce via the Internet and a range of smart services living in the cloud to generate input for big- data analysis that will build an ever-more comprehensive picture of each individual in near real time. A historical record of our consumption patterns will establish potential services and products for us to consume and digital content and environments for us to experience, and these selections will be subtly presented to us as we consult our screens and interact with our omnipresent gadgets.

I’ve read things like this in science fiction novels, but this is becoming a reality. You’ll find several articles in this issue that will illustrate how this evolution is already under way.

A Question

So, here is a question to you, dear reader, do you really want your gadgets and networks to start anticipating your needs and wishes and preempting everything for you?

Do you want to arrive home to your environmentally controlled home with a TV program preselected to match your mood, a dinner ordered for delivery (by a smart drone) to match your daily calo- rie count and biological status, a shop- ping list ready for your approval, and a booking at the squash court for the next fortnight for you to approve?

Do you really want to watch personalized adverts while your virtual PA auto-answers all those unimportant e-mails (based on an analysis of the last seven years of your mail activity)?

Do you want to have your vacation weekend planning automated, your work schedule rearranged to suit your doctor’s appointment, and your car ser- vice coordinated at the same time so that it is ready as you walk from the doctor’s office? It does sound good, doesn’t it?

Why Stop There?

In fact, your gadgets and big data could fix you up on dates based on further analysis of your temperament, biological data, and a bunch of other stuff they know. They could then evaluate your long-term compatibility as a couple, helping you both through the break-up process if and when they decide it is necessary. Or they could legitimize your partnership if your profile overlap is within acceptable norms (as determined from analysis of the global population, assisted by big data, to ensure optimal partnership unions).

They could then help you finance a house purchase, select the house for you, and plan the interior decor that best matches you and your new partner’s tastes. For the hell of it, we could even allow them to plan and manage your family as well: schedule the divorce, engage compatible attorneys (based on their big data profiles), and decide who gets the kids (again, more big data). After all, they don’t have any human interest and will likely make better, smarter decisions than any human could.

Going Too Far?

But what happens when you hit the channel-change button on your remote and the TV flashes a message— “unsuitable content at this time.” You hit it again, and the TV flashes another message—“switching to channel 38 for optimal enjoyment.”

Now what was that movie where the computers all got interconnected and achieved sentience? That didn’t end well, did it?

So, let us rephrase the question: do you want the remote control to tell you what to watch, or would you prefer it just switched to the channel you selected?

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