In an 'internet of things', is free will a casualty?

The world is becoming increasingly connected. But is the result a lack of choice?

Looking into home automation is an interesting exercise. Projects range from the well intentioned (but poorly implemented) to the world nearly laying down at your feet. Ultimately, though, they all lead to one place: the internet of things.

If you're not up to speed with the concept of "the internet of things", it's worth checking out IBM's video here.

The intention: a world of connected implements, which builds a giant sensor network and exchanges data, so we can live better lives.

For example, home appliances that can talk to each other. Not only in your own home, but, perhaps, even in your local area, so as to be more efficient on the power grid, effectively lowering your electricity costs and being friendlier to the environment. Sensors that automatically alert you to when things go wrong when you're not at home, like when someone breaks through a window in your house, if something is using too much electricity or when a pipe has burst and you're suddenly expending hundreds of litres of water. Plants that not only know when they need water, but can also do something about it. Though, dishwashers probably won't be as sentient as this one.

Cars and mobile devices that are all connected, so traffic can be automatically rerouted to the most efficient path when accidents happen. Governments that can react more rapidly to the collected data from things like accelerometers, so they know when roads need to be resurfaced; or, via pure device density, can tell when infrastructure or tourism needs to be bolstered.

Early disaster-warning systems that are significantly more effective, by using the population as a sensor network — Twitter has shown itself to be incredibly capable already — all that's required is one more level of automation. Digital assistants benefit massively from being able to plug in to the huge amounts of data now available to them.

An alarm clock that simply knows what time you have to be awake, based on your existing schedule, whether public transport is running on time and if the traffic will impact that, at all. A heating system that knows when you've left the house and when you'll be coming back, and adjusts accordingly. Lights that operate themselves when you walk in the room, and a wave of the hand for anything that can't automatically determine your behaviour. Ads that know what you're doing is a concept that is no longer just relegated to Minority Report.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC) allows you to interact with things on a secure basis, when the concept of security is even needed. The number of sensors used, including cameras, explodes exponentially, as the need for raw data increases to derive further meaningful optimisations in your daily schedule.

And, don't forget: it's not just devices. You'll be connected, too, as part of the network. Whether it is through your mobile phone or otherwise, there's a very high chance you'll be broadcasting something. We're stepping into a world where surveillance stops being surveillance, and becomes a tool; into which we willingly give information, with the aim of bettering our lives.

None of these are new ideas, and it's where we're headed at breakneck speed. What's fascinating is that the situation seems to have arisen from hacker culture — something that, typically, aggrandises freedom.

It's fascinating because the internet of things gives us three offerings: increased efficiency, better communication and a dataset that's hard to ignore. It's the last one that could be a problem; by creating an entity that knows so much more than human faculties can conceive of, that delivers such authoritative answers — the temptation to simply default to the knowledge of the network, instead of making your own choices, is huge.

There's already a near-reflex action in some people when they receive an SMS or tweet notification, happy to interrupt whatever they're doing at that point in time. How will they react when said notification tells them exactly what they need to do, at that point in time, with the weight of the world's knowledge behind it? When there's a dataset bigger than their own senses, telling them what's best?

Even personal advice, rather than cold, hard facts, could be compelling; breaking down all of your behaviours to a predictable set of "this is what makes you happiest", and presenting something that fits with your preconceived view of the world.

Usually, in faux-utopian-but-actually-dystopian movies, some sort of super-villain artificial intelligence is the one pulling the strings, and we, as an audience, get our backs up over some machine telling us what's best for us. Destroy the machine, and everything is happy again.

But that's fiction, a convenient plot device to provide an easy conclusion — for a start, any such system would be massively redundant with no single point of failure. And, at this point in time, rather than one big, controlling entity, we're moving towards millions of voices that are kept in their own ecosystems, independently informing your actions. But at what point do we cede control to the data, happy to go along with the information, rather than making our own mistakes? And more importantly — will we be happier for it?

There is no doubt that there are huge advantages to running the world as a sensor network — or, to paraphrase IBM, to give it a nervous system. We just have to be careful we don't become autonomic, along with it.

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Sci-Tech
About the author

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.

 

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