The Sept 6th, 2014 Technology Quarterly report in the Sept. 6th-12th issue of The Economist was unusually optimistic. It spoke of many future accomplishments in a very positive way—the possible successes from the biohackers movement, wondrous devices for improving medicine due to the dropping cost of and access to digital technology, decreasing energy usage by heating individuals, rather than spaces, suspended animation allowing more time for surgical miracles, increasing integration of digital technology into automobiles shortening the time to driverless cars, new air traffic control systems allowing pilots to choose their own direct routes, safer and cheaper methods of demolishing old buildings, improvements in anti-missile systems (and nuclear warheads}, and the rapidly nearing option of genetic improvement of humans.
Clever, yes, but are societies smart enough to use these things well? If we are going to Improve humans, who makes the decisions as to what “improvement” means — The free market system? Government? And who gets it—Wealthy individuals? Everybody? The race for systems to defend against long range missiles has been going on since Reagan’s ill-fated “star wars” system, (expenses since 2010 are nearing 100 billion dollars) even though there seems to be a consensus that it is easier to build missiles and decoys than shoot them down. Are we going to forever keep up this arms race, even though it becomes increasingly expensive and creates increasingly unusable products? And when will the makers of these life changing developments realize that creativity needs to be balanced with control, and innovation with tradition and existing skills and knowledge in the public?.
One short article in this report is entitled "The Language of the Internet of Things". It is here. It speaks of a future in which devices increasingly communicate between each other, allowing helpful services like smoke alarms that would notify fire departments of the location and nature of the fire and automatically unlock doors, and appliances that would coordinate the various components of meals and deliver them at a pre- programmed time.
The article speaks to the necessity of these Things speaking a common language. Seems obvious. But unfortunately, history and the present “information revolution” show a long period of competition before this happens. Even now there are several separate groups of companies seeking to develop this language, but although they is cross talk among them, they are going their own way. In fact, the final sentence of the article is “Given the huge variety of connected devices, and no doubt the desire of some firms to keep thing proprietary, it is possible that no single standard ever emerges”.
Earlier in the article, the author speaks of the difficulty of deciding upon this language, partly due to the unknowable nature of future products. A sentence that caught my attention in this discussion was “People have to get used to smart devices and installing regular software updates even, perhaps, for ovens”.
It will be a cold day in hell before I install software updates for an oven. In fact, I am not even sure I want my stove oven communicating with my microwave oven. Brilliant innovators in the digital world should worry a bit about how long the majority of people are going to put up with this continual “upgrading” that often obsoletes perfectly adequate software and hardware, and with the relatively trivial but annoying differences in hardware and software products from different venders that seek advantages in marketing and protection from patent-law suits. As to yet another sentence in the article, “The real problem may turn out to be not a lack of standards, but too many—and disagreement over which initiative to pursue”. “Too many standards” is a complicated oxymoron and a situation that is presently wasting countless hours of people’s time in now relatively simple cases such as use of the computer.
Clever individuals are bringing these technological options to us. Are societies smart enough to demand that they improve the quality of life and free up time, rather than further complicating our existence?