JOSE, Calif. — Like legions of hyperactive butlers,
many of the brainy gadgets being developed for the
Internet of Things will anticipate our needs and make
choices for us — without being told what to do —
marking a momentous transformation in our relationship
we turn more of our decision-making over to the devices,
they will evolve into our personal confidants and
counselors, determining everything from the time we wake
up and clothes we wear to the music we listen to and
route we take to work. In the process, experts say, our
reliance on these interconnected tools will far surpass
today’s dependence on smartphones.
autonomous assistants are widely expected to help us
stay healthier, take better care of our loved ones, live
more comfortably, become more environmentally
responsible, and boost our productivity by freeing us
from an endless array of mundane, everyday tasks so we
can concentrate on the most important ones.
social scientists and others worry these computerized
devices might make decisions that are seriously flawed
or that we otherwise dislike, leaving us feeling less in
control of our lives. More troublingly, their ceaseless
surveillance could result in an excessively conformist
society, some experts fear — especially with
government and other entities exploring the use of these
intelligent machines to identify and deter
we’re not being tracked, we’re more free to
experiment, to be our authentic selves, to read new
things, to be different kinds of people," said Neil
Richards, a law professor and privacy specialist at
Washington University in St. Louis. But such omnipresent
monitoring, he believes, "menaces our society’s
foundational commitments to intellectual diversity and
University researchers believe society may be profoundly
impacted by Internet-of-Things machines endowed with
"artificial intelligence," generally defined
as humanlike capabilities. So in December they began a
centurylong study of the technology — with findings to
be published every five years — in part to assess the
implications "of systems that can make inferences
about the goals, intentions, identity, location, health,
beliefs, preferences, habits, weaknesses, and future
actions and activities of people."
such effects is crucial, experts say, because the
technology is rapidly being adopted. About 13 percent of
consumers already have outfitted their homes with a
smart thermostat, security camera or other device,
according to an Internet-of-Things study in August by
consulting firm Accenture. Within five years, it added,
that figure will likely hit 69 percent.
of just doing what we command, many of the devices are
being empowered with sophisticated software and
microelectronics to act on their own initiative as our
Pith makes a smart furniture fabric called BackTracker,
which the company says "nags" people to
correct the way they sit if their poor posture might
cause them back pain. A computerized fork from Hapilabs
in Hong Kong admonishes users with lights and vibrations
when they eat too fast. And Atlanta-based Monsieur
claims its "intelligent bartender" not only
remembers which alcoholic drinks its owner prefers, but
"knows when you’ve had a long day at work and
offers a double instead of a single."
just for starters, according to this prediction from
Santa Clara chipmaker Intel about the technology that’s
bed knows when you wake up. It tells the radio to switch
on so you can listen to the traffic and weather report
or music it knows you enjoy. It tells the coffee machine
to make a fresh pot. When you prepare for the day, your
toothbrush notifies you that it’s time to see the
dentist and it schedules an appointment based on your
availability. Your shower adjusts its temperature based
on your preference and when you go to the bathroom
mirror, it reminds you to take your vitamins. As you get
dressed, your closet mirror helps you choose an outfit
based on the weather and what activities you have
planned. As you leave the house, a display on the way
lets you know you forgot your wallet."
Czerwinski, a Microsoft research manager and cognitive
psychologist, said it’s conceivable some machines
might function for their owners as a kind of
psychotherapist, noting that people will get so close to
their devices, they’ll think, "What would I ever
do without this?" not unlike the relationship
depicted in the movie "Her."
heighten such emotional attachments, some consumer
robots are being given lifelike human features, and
researchers at the University of Hertfordshire, in
England, are developing versions "capable of
expressing anger, fear, sadness, happiness, excitement
machines making decisions for people stirs mixed
the self-driving cars being developed by Google and many
automakers. Of more than 15,000 vehicle owners surveyed
this year by market researcher J.D. Power, only about 1
in 4 expressed interest in having their next car
chauffeur them about. Among those looking forward to
that is 61-year-old Deryl Stanley, vice president of a
club whose members customize classic cars.
day I’ll be 90 years old and need to go to the doctor,
pick up some groceries and drop off some laundry,"
he said. "It sure would be nice to go out to the
garage, punch in where I want to go, and let it take me
there." Besides, he added, the autonomous vehicles
"could virtually eliminate all the problems
associated with driving under the influence."
fellow club member Joe Wilder, a 72-year-old retired
drug-company salesman who has lovingly restored a 1956
Crown Victoria, is less enthusiastic.
cars may be safer, but I don’t think the drive will be
as enjoyable as when I have the ability to speed up,
slow down, wander here and there, and feel the car in my
control," he said. "Technology has taken a lot
of living life away from us."
concern that could influence how we feel about the
Internet of Things is that the technology might prove
prone to malfunctions, as some experts fear.
might not be a big problem if a smart refrigerator gets
confused and orders too much milk, said Jörg Denzinger,
a University of Calgary computer science professor. But
in a computerized transportation system, where cars
automatically relay braking alerts to each other in
emergencies, a glitch could cause multiple crashes, he
said, adding that designers of the technology "need
to be careful."
experts say smart devices generally won’t make
decisions for people without at least initially seeking
their consent, anybody hoping to approve every action
their gadgets take would quickly suffer what researchers
call "consent fatigue." As a result, it’s
widely expected that people will give their devices the
power to act independently much, if not most, of the
that could produce an unhealthy
"techno-dependency" in people, resulting in
them losing self-reliance and suffering "a lack of
depth and breadth of understanding about how the world
works," according to a Microsoft forecast on the
impact of smart devices in coming years. "If we are
not careful, undermining these values may make the world
of 2020 a much less rewarding world to live in."
worry that human and machine goals may conflict,
particularly if individual and societal interests clash.
may want your smart car to drive the quickest route, but
for environmental reasons it might be programmed to
choose slower roads that minimize fuel consumption,
Israeli researchers have speculated. And if you’re
hospitalized with an illness, they added, it’s
conceivable your doctor’s smart software might oppose
giving you an effective new antibiotic, to limit the
general population’s risk of becoming resistant to the
clashes could "get creepy" — and perhaps
insulting — noted Martin Reynolds, a fellow with the
research firm Gartner, who speculated during an
Internet-of-Things conference that you might be dying
for Kentucky Fried Chicken one day, but your smart car
— knowing you’re overweight — "directs you to
someplace to get a salad."
your consumer gadgets scrutinize and record everything
you do also could get disconcerting.
test that, researchers at the Helsinki Institute for
Information Technology installed video cameras,
microphones and other monitoring gear in 10 Finnish
households in what was billed as a groundbreaking study,
despite its limited size, to learn how devices might
affect people. While most of the subjects got used to
being incessantly observed, some grew so annoyed they
hid their activities by blocking the cameras’ view or
turning them off.
some of the subjects, "the surveillance system
proved to be a cause of annoyance, concern, anxiety and
even rage," the study concluded, noting that the
snoopy gadgets deprived the participants "of the
solitude and isolation they expected at home."
from worrying about who will see the personal
information these gadgets gather on their users and spew
across the Internet, privacy advocates fear the
technology might turn everyone into timid sheep.
the data smart devices gather will likely result in the
government and others creating profiles on everyone,
"behaving normal will eventually become the
ultimate practice in the Internet of Things," warns
Paul De Hert, a criminal law expert at the Institute for
European Studies in Brussels.
limits creativity, it inhibits individuality, social
change, progress," added Bruce Schneier, a fellow
at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet
and Society. "You get conformity and stagnation.
These are really big issues."
that concern, government officials in the U.S., Europe
and elsewhere are studying the use of smart
video-surveillance systems to spot "abnormal
example is BRS Labs’ "behavior recognition
system" that Amtrak has deployed in some of its Bay
Area train stations and that San Francisco’s Municipal
Transportation Agency plans to use. After several weeks
of videotaping a location, BRS Labs’ technology learns
to recognize usual patterns of activity and alerts its
human operators if it spots anything out of the
ordinary, said the company’s chief scientist, Wesley
Cobb, adding, "this is stuff that 10 years ago
everybody would have said, ‘Nah, that’s science
European Internet-of-Things technologists have even
proposed sending people warnings through their smart
devices if the gadgets detect "behavior violating
regulations of a society." Moreover, "to
prevent antisocial behavior from re-occurring,"
they suggest "automatic publication of such
incidents on the web," a strategy they term
experts believe the benefits of the Internet of Things
will far outweigh any problems it causes. Besides,
Elizabeth Charnock, CEO of Half Moon Bay software
company Chenope, said it’s common for new innovations
to trigger temporary hand-wringing.
start off screaming about privacy," she said, and
then "people just stop thinking about it."
scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of
Nottingham concluded in a study that human interactions
with the Internet of Things remains largely
"unexplored," and they cautioned that
"the potential consequences to individuals,
families and societies could be enormous."