Monday, June 4, 2018

The Internet of Things And You...

"When we talk about an 'Internet of Things', it's not just putting RFID tags on some dumb things so that we smart people know where that dumb thing is. It's about embedding intelligence so that things become smart and do more than they were proposed to do" -- Nicholas Negroponte, Co-Founder of the MIT Media Lab.

I recently did something I had not done in almost 40 years this past Saturday.

I mowed my own lawn.

I won't get into the truly stupid details of the payment dispute with my regular landscaper (who apparently just decided to stop coming, citing non-payment, but who also never sent a bill, never called, never knocked on my door, or made any effort to collect...since last September.... go figure), but I found myself having gone through the month of May without having anyone tend to the lawn.

I was initially leery of doing it myself, for the Overlord is no longer a young man. His back aches; his knees creak; he perspires like a whore in church and finds the experience of manual labor uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

I tried asking one of the neighborhood kids to do the job, for money, but he turned out to be extremely in, on his first day in failing to show up at all. In the meantime, the front lawn was beginning to look like a wheat field in Kansas, the grass being about 10" tall by then; crabgrass started sprouting, the dandelion population exploded despite several rounds of weed killer, and the shrubbery was overgrown and in need of a good trimming.

One problem: I didn't have a lawn mower. In fact, I didn't have any of the tools associated with lawn care and gardening, as, I've said before, I had a landscaper to do that sort of thing. So do all of my neighbors. Try getting a new landscaper to take you on in the first week of June in these parts, and you're likely to be disappointed -- they're all booked up. You have a better chance of getting a kidney on short notice than you do a landscaper at this late date.

So, it was off to the "Home Improvement Store" (three lies for the price of one) to obtain the necessary implements. Here I saw something that I had not dreamt existed, and after reflection, figured was only natural and at the same time is terribly frightening.

An internet-connected lawn-mowing robot.

In "User Mode" it operated just like any other lawn mower: you pushed it (more like engaged the motor and just guided it), it cut and bagged grass. In "Autonomous Mode", though, the thing becomes a veritable grounds crew all on it's own.

It has a built-in GPS system so that it can cover every millimeter of lawn perfectly. It can interface with satellite image providers to learn the exact contours of your lawn from overhead views. It has a camera in front so that it can detect where lawn ends and where concrete or flower bed begins. It has various sensors which will calculate all sorts of shit you never realized were necessary to the perfect lawn: ambient temperature and humidity, sunlight levels in various patches of yard, a measuring device to ensure that every last blade of grass is cut to a uniform height. And if that wasn't enough, it could use it's Wi-Fi connectivity to interface with your Property Control Center (I never knew I had one or needed one) to do things like turn the sprinkler system on and off, turn outdoor lighting on or off (for mowing at night?), and a bazillion other things that, upon reading them, no one who isn't taking care of a golf course actually might need (for example: an attachment carries fertilizer or weed killer, and dispenses it evenly and economically as the system mows all on it's lonesome).

Wow, I want one! Fuck that, I want TWO! But then decided that the price tag was prohibitive ($1,000), and besides, it's not like I have that much lawn to mow.

I wound up springing for one of those old-fashioned push mowers (they still make them!), a cordless electric weed whacker and leaf blower set, a nice set of super-sharp shears that'll cut Oprah in half, and some Turf Builder with Weed Control. I would make this my summer exercise routine, seeing as how your Lord and Master is becoming a fat fucking bastard.

This got me to thinking about the ubiquitous nature of the modern network, and the Internet of Things that is lurking right over the horizon.

For those of you who don't know what this is, I will endeavor to explain:

Anything that can be automated, will be automated. Automation (from which this writer derives some of his income, and has for over 30 years) is the act of either making any technology autonomous (capable of operating on it's own with minimal human intervention), or, of making any technology more productive by eliminating the need for human intervention, altogether. The history of Man is largely the history of his Technology, and there have been few technical inventions or revolutions that have not been automated or lent themselves to automating other processes and technology over the centuries.

Machine civilization is Mankind's greatest achievement, to date. It has created a world where more is produced by less than at any other time in recorded history. Archaic workshops of 500 years ago turned out boots, or blankets, or horseshoes in tiny numbers; factories of today turn them out by the millions, built to specific (often international) standards, often available in multiple varieties, or specialized versions, on a daily basis. Modern machine civilization is a civilization built on automation. The process that turned out a shirt in Tudor England took days, often weeks, of painstaking, expensive, expert labor. Today, fuckall ignorant workers working for starvation wages in shitholes all over the world stand over machines they can't comprehend that can turn them out in minutes without any special training.

And the same can be said for most other consumer products: ball-point pens, breakfast cereal, beer, medicines, windshield wipers, steel I-beams, nails, etc.

(Which exposes a weakness in Marxist thinking: what does it mean for the Proletariat to "control the means of production" when machine production becomes so technical and sophisticated that the Proles cannot fathom it's operation?)

Mechanical Automation was always easy, given the ability to innovate and adapt various forms of new technology to the old. The production line often requires human beings to do very little. You shove a bit of metal into one machine which shapes it, which is then passed to a second machine which cuts it to uniform length, and passes it to a third machine which drills holes in it, all under it's own power. You only need a person there to make minor adjustments to the machines or to ensure the machines don't get jammed, and if there was a defective element anywhere in the process that wasn't detected, you wound up with a lot of waste.

The dream of a totally autonomous process, then, consisted of two parts:

A means of completely automating the entire process from start to finish and a means of ensuring the process was done correctly at each stage of production. The first obviated the need for expensive, brute labor; the second does away with the need for highly-specialized (and expensive) labor which only adds marginal value.

This was not possible until the advent of a sophisticated computer and modern communications methods, because if there's anything better than a machine that does it's work without human intervention, its a series of machines that does their work without human intervention, only with the ability to "talk" to one another, and "learn" from one another's mistakes, making the human being even less-necessary.

The Internet is a grand communications tool that connects a person to a fantastic world of information and allows an interface with an endless assortment of services. For example, when you buy something from Amazon you are using the Internet to save you a great deal of time and effort. The process of buying something from Amazon, on the other hand, "teaches" your computer (and the one at Amazon!) all sorts of things about your preferences, activities, spending habits, and so forth, which the computer then uses to save you even more time and effort -- recommending products through tailored advertising, reminding you to buy something when the supply should be running low, cross-referencing one activity with another so that you can take advantage of special offers, find benefits you didn't know existed, etc. Every aspect of your life, then, can, in theory, be automated (performed by machine); all that was missing was the interface.

Thanks to the smart phone and cheap communications via Wi-Fi, the interface has arrived.

The home of the future will consist of a giant collection of networked systems living within the shell of your four walls. We're already seeing it. Here's how it will work:

Alexa, your voice-activated personal digital assistant, wakes you up in the morning. Your "alarm" consists of the news radio station you've instructed her to play. Once Alexa is certain you're awake and moving -- because she's accessing the cameras and motion sensors in your home security system -- she offers you reminders of all the things you need to do today; the sales meeting at 9:30, pick up the dry cleaning on the way home, stop by the supermarket and pick up your order (sent to the market because your "smart" refrigerator knows you're short of milk, eggs, butter, and orange juice. Items that are usually in the refrigerator, but which are now either running low or missing from the inventory. Just in case you forget, the refrigerator will visually remind you when you pass by, as it has a video screen in it, and it, too, is connected to the home security system and Alexa).

Incidentally, these, and other in-home systems will have pre-heated your shower water for you, started your coffee maker, made several breakfast suggestions for you based upon your programmed dietary needs or wishes.

Before you leave, you hit the app on your smartphone that starts your car remotely, and turns the heat or air conditioning on, as needed. The same app reminds you that your oil needs to be changed soon, and you should probably make an appointment with your mechanic to schedule a new set of brake pads within the next few weeks. Would you like me to do this for you? "Yes", you say. A confirmation e-mail arrives several minutes later, complete with an advertisement for new tires, anti-freeze, and a special code to use when you get your brakes done, because as a repeat customer you're entitled to a discount on the service, plus a value-added service.

You leave for work. The home security system recognizes you (because face-recognition software and repetition) leaving, and locks the doors behind you and arms the alarm system. The same system, which is connected to the environmental system, detects that the house is now empty, and as an energy-saving effort turns the heat or air conditioning down, since you're gone. The system now sits dormant until it is needed again, sending you status updates all day long that you will receive on your smart phone. You'll know if anyone tries to rob your house, when the mailman comes, and -- FINALLY! -- be alerted when the cameras catch the neighbor letting his dog shit on your lawn.

All throughout the day, your house, which you've turned into a personal networking tool, will be searching the internet for all sorts of things to make your life easier and better, either by doing things like automatically paying your bills on a schedule and without your input, or doing basic research into that fabulous vacation you want to take, running through thousands of possibilities and choices, and optimizing them just for you. Which is to say, by making the decisions for you and limiting your choices to the ones it's programming considers best.

On the way to work, you paid your toll with your automated toll paying device (like an EZ-Pass), or used something like a Metrocard to get on the bus or subway. So now your "personal" systems will learn your commuting habits, suggesting alternate routes, alternate methods of transportation, and so forth, depending on factors like weather, traffic, mass transit delays, and so forth. Subsequently, the civil authorities who run these systems also know this stuff, too. This means you can be more-efficiently taxed (for using a state-provided service, like a mileage tax on a road), or tracked, so don't do something to get the cops on your ass.

The working day being done, you leave the office. Your smartphone, interfacing with your car's GPS and synching it with it's own, internal clock, recognizes this activity and the route you are taking, and that you're on the move. It notes that you've stopped at a location it has "learned" to identify with the dry cleaners, which it verifies by accessing Google or Bing Maps. The same for the supermarket. The smartphone then "calls" Alexa, and sends that data to her so that she can strike them off your to-do list, and tells the refrigerator to update the inventory. Nearing home, the same smartphone/automobile combination detects that you are close enough to home to tell the environmental system to turn the air conditioning/heat back on to make the house comfortable when you arrive, turn on the exterior lights, and be ready to open the garage door as soon as you enter the driveway.

Naturally, when you arrive home, the security system, using cameras and motion sensors, "knows" it's you, and unlocks all your doors for you.

You unpack your groceries and notice a particular item is missing. Rather than call the store to complain, you ask Alexa if she knows why. Alexa interfaces with the store's computer, and discovers the store no longer stocks that item as it's computers (reading bar codes from the scanners at checkout) have determined that it's not a big enough seller to take up valuable shelf space, and so, stopped ordering it. Which is a shame, as that was your favorite. Alexa, passing on recommendations from the store's computers, offers you alternatives for your next shopping trip.

You place your dinner -- leftovers from a previous meal -- in your "smart" oven to reheat, and go off to take a leisurely crap. You realize you've forgotten to turn the oven on, but no problem: you can tell Alexa to turn it on, or use the interface in your "smart" phone to do so. As soon as you sit on the seat, the personal interface screen in the opposite wall comes on, and asks if you'd like to read today's newspaper, get the latest stock quotes,  or listen to smooth jazz while you evacuate your bowels. That task done, you get your dinner from the oven (ignoring the reminder from Alexa to wash your hands upon exiting the John), and head to the living room to enjoy your "smart" entertainment system.

The television comes on, and the first thing you get is a notice that there are software updates for your home security system, your environmental system and your property control system available. Do you wish to download them? Oh, incidentally, your car's manufacturer has an update available for your fuel injection system, as well. (This has already happened: See Here).

You have a choice of viewing options; you can watch live TV,  even programs you've missed the beginning of can be shown from the start, catch a movie (any movie ever made), binge watch your favorite series, all the while being bombarded by adverts and suggestions for similar programs, other fare by actors involved in what you're watching now, all with a "news crawl" at the bottom of the screen that you can turn on or off, at will. Your day being done according to Alexa's clock and study of your habits, the lights will dim, signalling you're nearing bedtime. As you enter the bedroom, Alexa asks if there's anything you want her to schedule or take care of for you while you're sleeping.

And the process repeats itself.on every successive day, with the systems involved learning your routine, your preferences, your activities and habits, likes and dislikes, and "evolving" to make the experience of every day life less difficult, less stressful, more efficient, and, as always, sharing information between devices and systems. At first only with devices under your control and eventually by interfaces with devices outside of your control, until every aspect of life becomes one great, big, interconnected internet, complete with everything attached to an offer of a new or different service, an advertisement, a "suggestion", a different option, which require interfacing with another machine, also usually outside of your control.

Sounds wonderful, right?

Until you realize something isn't quite right.

You've turned your home, car, and office into a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week surveillance system that knows everything about you -- when you wake, when you go to sleep. What you like to eat, what temperature you like your bathwater or room to be. What brand of coffee you like and how strong or weak you take it. Where you shop and what you're likely to buy and how often. How many hours a day you're likely to be out of the house and when you come and go. The route you take to get someplace, the methods you use to get there, and a schedule of when you pass certain milestones or arrive/depart. Your television-viewing habits; personal entertainment preferences; your investment preferences and portfolio and bank accounts, are all known to a machine. A SERIES of machines, in fact, that exist you know not where, which are programmed to do you know not what, and which are sharing this data between them.

And these systems are continuously seeking even more input to become even more efficient.

For all you know, your home security system's cameras and motion sensors have been watching you have sex, or masturbate, or taking a shit. If you've done something like surf porn, even accidentally, that is recorded somewhere. The phone calls you make,  the bills you pay, the credit cards you use, the insurance you buy, the schools you applied to and your grades, the loans you took out to buy something, your bank accounts, your medical records, your birth certificate, your passport, driver's license, or professional license, are all on file, somewhere. You (often voluntarily) left a shitload of data laying around before you turned your home and life into an Orwellian Nightmare; the Nightmare is just super-efficient in making use of that data now, and is constantly collecting more that you carelessly fling about.

(Then people complain about their privacy being violated? Assholes!)

You wonder about security. You find yourself suddenly creeped out by it all. You'd like to opt out, but how do you? You've become dependent upon them. You've fed this beast information about yourself all day for years, probably, and didn't think about it one little bit. It was easier to believe that these things would revolutionize your life and make it considerably less difficult, and the flip side to it all is the fact that anyone with an evil intent could possibly steal all this data and do some real damage that will make life considerably MORE difficult.

You've turned important aspects of your life over to a talking hockey puck and a series of systems that are constantly changing and adapting and driven by a logic that can't be reasoned with, engaged in processes you don't understand.

It is a truism of modern computing that Data is never destroyed. This was true of data even before the computer was invented: in the past, data was recorded in clay tablets, stone monuments, papyrus and paper, and even if those things were to be destroyed, data still remained in human memory. Look around the world: even ancient data survives in the form of cuneiform tablets, hieroglyphics on a tomb wall, a monument raised by an ancient megalomaniac. For fuck's sake, the Dead Sea Scrolls survived two thousand years in a desert cave, people can still read and translate Sanskrit. Even complete mysteries, like Stonehenge, contain data -- we just haven't learned how to access it, yet.

The other truism that if Data exists, someone will find a way to use it, for good or ill. Identity theft is already a common problem.

As I've mentioned, I've been in IT for over 30 years, most of it involved in very similar process of automation, and even I don't understand it all when it comes to concepts like Artificial Intelligence and "Deep Learning", or the esoteric intricacies of Data Mining.

No one who developed any of these things was motivated by evil; they simply saw something that they considered a problem and figured out how to make them not-problems by an application of technology (and make money doing it). However, sometimes even the best intentions are taken someplace else by people with different thought processes on how best to use these tools we've developed.

Until we get to the point where a mundane chore, like mowing the lawn, becomes, quite literally, a decision pregnant with unforeseen consequences.

And now you know why (besides price) I plumped for a dumb lawnmower. There's already too many "smart" things in my life, and making a choice to buy another one seemed really dumb.

1 comment:

Tal Hartsfeld said...

Thanks for mentioning papyrus, stone tablets, and other earlier "marks of the beast" in addition to modern technology and modern data and A I.

Yes, these are all entities with "lives" of their own, and even "minds" of their own, like creatures without physical bodies.
...much like the societies and professions that created and use them.