Looking into the future with a wary eye

By Erin Ayers on July 10, 2014

IOT2thumbThe recently cancelled and excessively mourned FOX television program “Almost Human” envisions society in the year 2048 where technology is omnipresent, bitcoins are the primary form of currency (that’s how you know it’s science fiction), and crime is rampant. It is a cyber world and it’s anything but secure.

The “almost human” bit of the show refers to the fact that every police officer must be partnered with a stunningly lifelike android for their protection against such futuristic murder tactics as programmable bullets and evil clones. Also, regular bullets and evil people, because those both still exist in 2048.

In one memorable episode (there were only 13 in the series, so it’s easy to remember most of them), Detective John Kennex and his android partner Dorian take on the case of a “smart home” that appears to have mischievously offed its residents. The same smart home trapped and killed a teenage trespasser one year earlier, leaving the homeowners facing the ire of the neighborhood. Police procedural deduction ensues, claims are made, disputed, conclusions are reached and it turns out that a vengeful but talented hacker friend of the slain burglar is the culprit, taking cyber control of the house and turning its powers of detection on the residents.

The inference is that as much as the “Internet of Things” might offer us convenience and comfort, we run the risk of handing over control to unseen individuals with a darker agenda. Or we might find that a programmable home can easily go haywire, making it anything but comfortable.

Our fascination with and fear of artificial intelligence and “smart” devices is nothing new and has been well canvassed in popular culture. Remember HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey fameScience fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story “The Veldt” depicted a family in “their soundproofed Happylife Home, which had cost them thirty thousand dollars installed, this house which clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them.” Until, of course, it wasn’t. The story presents a family terrorized by freedom and a mother and father yearning for a time when they could fry their own eggs and not be attacked by imaginary lions thought up by their viciously lazy children.

Bradbury writes, “And again George Hadley was filled with admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room. A miracle of efficiency selling for an absurdly low price. Every home should have one. Oh, occasionally they frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they startled you, gave you a twinge, but most of the time what fun for everyone…”

The story hints that technology is unlikely to be the real evil, but rather the damage that can be done by an unoccupied mind. Or, in the case of today’s hackers, the damage that can be done in the name of making money, taking revenge, or wreaking havoc for laughs.

That “clinical accuracy” Bradbury mentioned could be referring to any one of the devices and data mining for advertising efforts that seem so commonplace now. Just last week, the Internet erupted in anger to learn that Facebook had been conducting “mood studies” to determine whether seeing more negative posts could prompt a plunge in other users’ moods. Facebook comments in its data use policy, “We may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement,” meaning that the company can freely absorb and dissect any of the communication contained on its site. This sort of “research” doesn’t seem to take into account irony, satire, or flat-out lying, all of which occur with relative frequency on Facebook.

The difficulty in taking anything as an absolute truth on the Internet is that, try as they might, the Internet of Things is still simply a collection of devices. Really, really smart devices, but they are still machines devoid of nuance and empathy. “Almost human” is just fine and makes for great entertainment, but perhaps we’re right to worry that handing over much of our lives to devices and applications could end troublingly for some, even as it offers so many advances for society.

eayers@advisen.com'

Erin is an editor at Advisen. She has 15 years of journalism experience. Prior to Advisen, Erin covered property-casualty insurance for 13 years as editor-in-chief of The Standard, New England’s Insurance Weekly. Erin is based in Boston, Mass. Contact Erin at eayers@advisen.com.