Ambient stupidity?

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Is technology designed to monitor and report on our every move a sign of ambient intelligence or stupidity?

6 October 2009

Sticking sensors and computers in everyday objects and having them communicate what we are doing to other people and machines promises to save time, raise productivity and improve our health and personal safety. But this always on, interconnected future could be more a world of ambient stupidity than ambient intelligence.

At first glance, the expansion of sensor-based systems to homes, offices, cars and coffee cups seems like a good thing. Who would argue against the benefits of a vehicle that instantly alerts emergency services if the driver wraps it around a tree. Or a home that automatically turns on the lights when the owner pulls into the drive, adjusts them for watching TV and turns them off again when they go to bed. Add a few sensors to monitor occupants’ vital signs and the whole family – and the family doctor – can rest assured that granddad’s heart is still ticking while they are busy elsewhere. Of course, let’s just hope someone thought to ask grampa if he wanted other people to know how many times his heart beats per minute.

But, as with any emerging technology, alongside such ostensibly useful and beneficial applications come a whole boatload of more dubious ones. Take, for example, the almost inevitable impending marriage of ambient intelligence systems with online social networking.

Imagine how much more “productive” your average Facebook, Twitter or MySpace whore would be if they didn’t have to write their own status updates but instead could have their smart phone, home or coffee cup do it for them. “Fred has arrived home,” “Susan is watching TV,” “Mike has just drunk a dark, mocha frappe,” Facebook feeds would bleat even more regularly and mindlessly than they do now.

Proponents of the idea inevitably argue that privacy would be safeguarded because users would be able to set their own criteria for how much information the ubiquitous sensor systems around them share. But, just as few people bother to delve into the labyrinthine privacy settings on their Facebook page until a friend posts an embarrassing picture or their name pops up in an advert, how many users of sensor-enhanced social networking would consider the implications until it is too late?

That early departure from work to catch a football game on TV may seem harmless until your phone bleats out to your circle of friends and coworkers (and boss?) that you are in the pub and would they care to join you for a drink? Your plans for a restful evening are dashed when your home tells your mother that you’re in to take her calls. Or you start to be hounded by advertisers urging you to purchase a new soft drink because your fridge told the supermarket that you just drank your last can of cola.

After all, if Facebook’s use of personal data to boost its advertising revenue is anything to go by, you can be certain that Mike’s automated message to friends about that dark, mocha frappe will also be shared with any coffee company willing to pay for it.

This article is published with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved.

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