The quest for smartness

Does a thinking refrigerator border on overkill, or is it a necessity?

Published Date
06 - Dec - 2016
| Last Updated
03 - Jan - 2017
The quest for smartness

The whole Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, which we’ve been on the cusp of for quite some time now, is certainly fascinating (apart from being majorly overdue). The idea that billions and billions of sensors will talk to each other, share petabytes of data, and electronic brains will churn this data into meaningful information that will silently steer our lives, is a future worth looking forward to. 

A major component of this impending shift is the idea of “smart devices”. 

For the uninitiated, smart devices are just regular devices with the gift of sentience bestowed upon them. No I’m just kidding; they aren’t sentient just yet. What they are, however, is smart. Meaning, they have some sort of processing power (embedded system) and the ability to connect to a network to share the data that they crunch. 

Devices have been getting smarter for quite some time now. We’ve been seeing chips being melded into an assortment of things right from shoes, toasters, refrigerators to even water bottles, sex toys, and even toilets. I can’t seem to remember whether the smart sex toy was a device purely for kinky pleasures or a genuinely useful remedy to help those suffering from incontinence. Ah well, maybe it was both. The point is the “smartification” of things around us has already begun. 

The smart air purifier will probably never be as revolutionary as the smartphone, but the question I’m trying to ask is: do all devices need to be smart in the first place? And if the answer is yes, are we willing to barter our privacy and sense of control over our individual lives just so that these devices become smarter? 

What most people don’t realise is that in order for these digital minions to serve their flesh and bones masters better, they need to keep track of every little thing that we do. Depending on how smart the device is, its continuing mission is to collect users’ information, track behavioral patterns and eventually predict our needs even before we realise them ourselves. So a frequent example given is that of a fridge reminding you that you are running low on milk. That’s just the most base level operation smart devices can do.

When smart devices start talking to each other and sharing this information with a cloud hive mind, they will be able to perform almost alarming feats.

Hypothetically a smart lighting system that’s plugged into the grid can get data points from your texts or emails and dim the lights in anticipation of an upcoming date. Scary? Or useful?

If machines are learning about you, the corollary is that so are corporations. Data is afterall the new oil of this era. This was the privacy barter that I was hinting at earlier.

While researching the story about millennials we came across an interesting insight: 36 percent of millennials are actually ok with bartering private data in order to make their devices (smartphones in this case) know them better. 

Smart devices also put a new spin on the boundaries of what you can do with devices. On one hand it’ll be simpler for manufacturers to build in a kill switch, on the other it might actually be easier for people with know how to find newer ways of modifying smart devices. Similar to the way open source pioneers fought for the right to modify their printers’ source code to suit their needs better, there might be a new modder movement in the future: one that is more accessible considering coding literacy and readily available microcontroller interfaces that might be baked in for maintenance and firmware updates. 

On the flipside, smartness and surveillance have a positive angle. Imagine a sensor rich smart watch strapped on your kid’s wrist that immediately warns you about heightened stress levels; that helps you track your loved one’s’ location at all times. No parent I know would object to a smart device like that. 

Hypothetically even if a fine balance were to be achieved between what we surrender to smart devices and what we gain from them, interesting questions will get raised about what it means to be a human in this impending smart-connected era. Are we losing our autonomy? Are we outsourcing our ability to think?

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below… while you still can.  

This article was first published in August 2016 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit's articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit e-magazine app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit's previous issues here.

Siddharth ParwataySiddharth Parwatay

Siddharth a.k.a. staticsid is a bigger geek than he'd like to admit. Sometimes even to himself.