The Rise of the Machines?
Visions of a future where technology either frees or enslaves us by becoming completely pervasive in our lives are nothing new. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, forward-thinking people, such as novelists and philosophers, have attempted to envision what a future mechanized society might be like. Many of them predicted a Utopian society, where machines would serve man and perform all the tedious and time-consuming daily tasks for us, leaving us free to dream, create and frolic in an idyllic tech-enhanced wonderland.
Others imagined a slightly less rosy picture - some of the earliest predictions of future technological societies - and certainly many of the more recent ones - have tended to paint a rather disturbing picture of a world where man becomes the victim or servant of the results of his own innovative proclivities.
At this point in time, it seems that this tech-dominated future seems to truly be manifesting - and at a somewhat alarming rate. And from all indications, it will neither be a complete Utopia or a complete nightmare, but possibly a little of both. There are definitely many questions about how we will be affected by the rapid technological advancements taking place right now, which are occurring on every level of our lives. From “smart” appliances to sophisticated weaponry, every aspect of our world is changing or morphing into something barely imaginable just a few decades ago.
Some General Trends
Everywhere you look, there are new advances which are quickly becoming part of our everyday reality. Though most of us haven’t turned into “glassholes” (the derogatory term coined to reference Google Glass users) just yet, don’t be surprised to find yourself using some sort of “connected wearable” within the next few years.
Gartner, a global tech research firm, has recently predicted that by the year 2017, most of us will be sharing data with some 100 different apps and services daily, through the use of of our smartphones, wearables, smart appliances and other Internet-connected devices.
Apps will be used by everything from refrigerators to automobiles, mainly because apps and other types software are needed by these devices to communicate with each other and with the services related to them. Our homes, cars and a multitude of other devices will be able to anticipate our needs more efficiently - or so we are told - and it seems that these changes will be occurring whether we like it or not. You can expect your next new car, your next major appliance purchase, your next new anything to be equipped with smart and connected features included as standard equipment.
Of course, these new technologies are raising some eyebrows (and hackles, in many cases) - you don’t have to be a Luddite or a member of the tinfoil hat brigade to suspect that these advancements may not end up always truly being of benefit to the average person. The more interconnected we become, the less privacy and autonomy we will have. And announcements such as that of Google’s recent acquisition of Nest (a smart thermostat manufacturer), have understandably made many of us a little nervous about our “connected” future.
And it’s not only difficult for the average person to anticipate the implications of the coming levels of interconnectedness. Even the experts have a hard time predicting what the near future will bring in terms of our privacy and general well-being. Okay, maybe it will still be a while before robots become self-aware and turn against their illogical and computationally-challenged creators, but meanwhile, there are potential issues that may prove to have a negative impact on our daily lives and our personal freedom.
The Potential Downside
It seems that everyone - from our elected leaders and their various agencies to the providers of our goods and services - wants to know all the intimate details of our personal lives. Today’s technologies make it easy to collect and analyze a great deal of data regarding our actions, our preferences and indeed our deepest secrets. What type of toothpaste do we use? How much time do we spend online? Who are we talking to on the phone, and how often? Even regarding the minutest details of our daily lives, it seems that someone is interested, whether it’s the NSA or the makers of our dental floss. And much of this data is freely available to those who have the capability to monitor and track our online habits.
If you’ve ever signed up for a discount card at your neighborhood supermarket (and didn’t lie about your name and address), then your buying habits are recorded and analyzed by the owners of the supermarket chain. And even if you did lie about your personal details to get the discount card, chances are you may pay for your purchases with a debit or credit card, so they know who you are anyway and how many gallons of vodka you consume each week.
If you use Google+ or Facebook or Outlook, or any number of other online entities, your preferences and browsing habits are an open book. If you have a smartphone or tablet, issued by an employer, it’s best to assume that some sort of phone spy app or cell phone tracker has been installed on it without your boss bothering to inform you that it’s there. In fact, your parents, if you’re a teenager - may be tracking your every move with some sort of spyware that is undetectable by you, the user of the device.
And of course, the good ol’ NSA is keeping a close watch over all your activities to make sure you aren’t thinking of hatching some nefarious plot - whether or not you’re a citizen of the US. And as the interconnectedness of everything continues to expand, you can pretty much kiss any semblance of personal privacy goodbye. Maybe you are beginning to feel like heading for the hills and destroying every Internet-enabled device you own, but don’t forget there are satellites which can identify you from space, using facial-recognition technology, should you ever happen to step into a clearing (or if there aren’t such satellites yet, there surely soon will be - not to mention drones…).
One can always hope for a major solar storm - the kind that seems to occur every century or so - that will knock out the Internet and the world’s power grids for several months (or years), but you probably don’t want to be in a major city if and when this happens. And by some accounts, it will happen - it’s only a matter of time.
Is There an Upside?
Probably the best thing anyone can do until the self-replicating nanobots take over and systematically fly up our noses to remove our brains and turn us all into zombie slaves, is to get used to the idea that from now on when you pick your nose, emit any sort of flatulence or decide to watch a Sports Illustrated swimsuit video, there will be someone watching over your shoulder (virtually speaking) and analyzing the data. You’ll instantaneously receive a visual cue on your wearable Internet-connected spectacles suggesting that you obtain a Claritin prescription, some Di-Gel tablets and a five year subscription to Sports Illustrated magazine (the online version, of course).
All kidding aside, the bottom line is that the digital connected future is here, and most likely, it’s here to stay. And in many ways we may be moving towards, if not a technological Utopia, at least a world where many things actually do become easier and more efficient.
Imagine a typical day in the near future: first, you are gently awakened by a smart digital alarm clock that can sense when you’ve had a chance to actually finish that dream about yourself and some swimsuit model splashing about hand in hand on a remote beach. Then when get out of your smart bed which maintains the perfect temperatures for sleeping and awakening, you head for the bathroom (your pleasant dream still fresh on your well-rested mind) and your smart shower automatically starts, steaming up the air (but of course, not your smart mirror) and welcoming you into it with its automatic door that opens when you approach.
Meanwhile your coffee is being automatically brewed, your breakfast is being automatically prepared, your car starts warming up on its own and computes the fastest route to work (there’s some construction on the A2 and an alternate route is being programmed into the self-driving mechanism’s operating system). Your virtual personal assistant - the one with the sexy voice and all the answers - reminds you that upon arrival at the office, Jenkins from R&D will be awaiting you with the results of the latest test marketing analysis regarding the smart ketchup bottle project that you are in charge of.
In other words, you may as well just sit back and reap the benefits of our collective smart future. After all, it’s taking place anyway, and none of us are really smart enough to do anything about it. And it just might turn out to be okay in the long run...