Monday, May 27, 2013

I Don't Want A Future Where Computers Run Everything

I am by nature an optimist about many things, but when I read articles and hear speeches about the brightness of our future -- especially as it pertains to the salvation of our species that is coming through technology -- I can't help but get uncomfortable.

Bill Wasik's "Welcome to the Programmable Future" in this month's Wired magazine is just the kind of optimistic vision that I'm talking about. He begins...

In our houses, cars, and factories, we’re surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do. Now they are beginning to talk to one another. Soon we’ll be able to choreograph them to respond to our needs, solve our problems, even save our lives.

The article goes on to detail the many and various ways computer sensors will interact with our every move to make life easier. When you play basketball out front on your driveway, a sensor will keep track of your shot percentage. When your dog runs out of the yard, her tag will text you. When you have a bar-b-cue on the calendar, you pool will heat up in anticipation. If baby wakes, the room will try to soothe him back to sleep. If this doesn't work you will get a text message while you're at the next door neighbor's cocktail party. Your lawn sprinklers will take instructions from moisture sensors.

Is this really a future people want? Here are just a few of my concerns.

How reliable are the sensors in your life? I currently drive a car in which the dashboard is telling me the doors are open. They're not, but the sensor must have stopped working properly and has not figured this out. My wife's car says there is a headlight out. It's not, but the sensor thinks it is. And we've all had that pesty "check engine light" tell us something is wrong that is not. My mechanic says the way to fix it is to put a postage stamp over it. Seriously.

One of the call-outs states that a sensor in our car will trigger a sensor in our favorite coffee shop as we approach and they will make our "usual drink" before we even get there. Except, what if I only came by to use the free wi-fi? Or what if I don't have a favorite drink because I like trying new things all the time? What if I do have a favorite drink for a while and then decide to try something different because of a tv commercial? What if I lose my instruction manual on how to override the usual order?

And then there's the problem of tech support. Who do we call when all these things go awry? The answer is, people in Mumbai who will pretend to live in Wichita but you can't understand them because their accent has not been properly polished.

Then there's the financial piece. As all these sensors and brain boxes mount up, so do the costs. How many people will know how to fix these things as they wear out. "I'm sorry, we can't help you unless you upgrade your Sensor Package from 2.01 to 19.3..."

I realize that plenty of Americans have pools and lawn sprinklers, but with ten percent of our country unemployed (no one knows the real number despite what government offices declare) and a billion people in the world living in shantytowns with inadequate food and water, I have more than a smidge of difficulty envisioning a future where our smartphones and smart objects are all integrated and everybody's happy.

Then there's the grocery store scenario with a hundred kinds of sensors changing shelf tags as prices adjust, sending coupons to your smartphone, reminding workers to re-stock an empty shelf, reminding you that your cereal box at home is almost empty. Whoo hoo! Almost forgot to get cereal. Of course the salary for those workers re-stocking shelves won't be the kind that enables them to own houses with swimming pools that heat up and water sprinkler systems.

In the scenario with the dog, will the tag also text you that Fifi just got hit by a truck and is lying in the road? In the scenario with the basketball scoring, do I need to have all my friends wear sensors, too, so I get proper credit for the shots I sink? And what if I sell the house and lose the instruction manual? Oh, right... it's an app on my smart phone.

When you think through some of these scenarios it gets even more complicated. The sandwich shop starts your order when you approach from the sidewalk. Except you are headed to the sandwich shop next door because your favorite sandwich shop has irritable staff who dislike it when you want to change your order. "I was thinking ham today, not turkey."

I'm sure there are people who believe all these sensors, devices and smart objects will add up to a brighter future. But one futurist I heard on the radio last week said that the future he envisions involves our giving up many of our freedoms for the greater good of the world. He agreed that giving up freedoms sounds like something that will chaff us, but in two generations all this government enforced loss of freedom will become the new happy normal. Our grandchildren won't even notice.

As for me, it feels depressing. I think I need to take a walk. 

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