The SMART way and the price we pay

The other day, my son woke me up with a rather perplexed look on his face. I followed his gaze to my smart-phone, which was yapping away - to no one in particular, but for all to hear. As you'd expect in 2018, I set my alarm on the smart-phone. Actually, multiple alarms - because hey, I have trouble getting up in the morning. Most days, I get up on the second or third one. This morning though, I somehow managed to sleep through it all. The last alarm of my ‘Wake up Sid’ movement, had an option that most phones have these days.

Siri, Bixby, Alexa - they go by many names, but in reality, they’re slightly dumbed down versions of Iron Man’s JARVIS. The smart voice assistant. So along with the alarm tone, the voice would read out the weather, important stuff from your calendar, the latest news headlines - basically, it would keep talking until the person was forced to either get up or throw the phone against the wall. Clearly, for a six-year-old who wasn’t used to being woken up by an artificially synthesised female voice with a thick English drawl, it must have been quite an ‘awakening'. Pardon the pun.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine a world where your rambling doesn’t get stored. A world where you’re not being listened to, monitored or observed. Of course, for us from the pre/early Internet era (Goodness me! - makes us sound practically ancient, doesn’t it?), the memories of such a world are still etched on the walls of our mind. But it’s only a matter of time before those memories are overwritten by some of these never-ending streams of data that we are constantly subject to.

The Internet of Things (or IoT as it is often called in technology circles) offers the biggest clue of things to come. In our constant attempt to build and invent things that help make our lives easier and stay connected so that we’re saved from FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), we have reached the point of no return.

Technology has always been a bit of an Achilles Heel for me. I love it. I am fascinated by how it’s used to constantly develop solutions. Sometimes even to problems that we weren’t aware existed in the first place. In fact, if my wife let me, I’d turn the entire house into a giant web of the Internet of things. Fortunately, she’s the sane one.

Growing up, I was a big fan of the Jetsons. But as the reality of the situation starts to hit me, I am not entirely sure that I would enjoy living in such a world. A modern world of constantly connected devices that are not just at our beck and call, but privy to our innermost thoughts, spousal arguments and everything else.

SMART. That seems to be the phrase of the new generation. Everything connects to everything else. Between them, our entire life stays documented. And then it gets uploaded to the Internet for someone else to see, analyse and of course, talk about.

Frankly, and this is just my opinion, the trouble is not with artificial intelligence. AI is phenomenal. It lets us do things that we never imagined possible. The problem starts with the people who are in control of the data that the AI discovers or mines. The people who have the ability to manipulate us and this data to suit their own personal needs - from just mere marketing to thwarting antisocial and illegal activities to sometimes plain voyeurism.

I’m sure we’ve all felt that. You made the mistake of searching for something, say like a pair of sunglasses, online. For the next week, everywhere you turn, those ones (or their many variants) are everywhere. Even sometimes, after you’ve bought them.

I get it. It’s easier to be connected. In fact, with the way the world is going cuckoo these days, I’ve contemplated putting a little tracker on my son - just to know his location. But then again, if I have the data, so does someone else.

I guess that’s the contract of the modern world. The concept is simple. Companies want to know what you’re doing with their products. The old-fashioned way was to get a survey done. I remember back when I was at University, I worked part-time with a consumer market research firm. I was a telephone interviewer - yes the very same ones who’d call you about your experience with a certain product or service, ask those intrusive questions and more often than not, get the phones slammed in their faces. It was not a great job. People simply did not want to give their data.

Fast forward to say, 12 years later (okay, that makes me feel old again!), we are voluntarily giving up all that information and more. Funny, how things change. What is it about technology that we feel comfortable divulging personal data and information to supposedly "SMART" equipment than to fellow human beings? Eventually, the data ends up with another human being anyway.

And as smart as these things are, they’re also quite condescending. Yes, smart watch, I know I had a crappy night’s sleep yesterday. So, I’m going to walk 50 meters to my smart fridge to eat that slice of cake that I had put away because it going to push me over my calorie count. But you knew that didn’t, you? Don’t tell my fitness tracker though!

I understand if you feel a bit of paranoia creeping in. I do too. But perhaps the really dangerous premise of this connected world is the opposite. Oblivion. Where you’ve completely forgotten that you connected all these things in the first place and that it’s quietly collating information on you, your habits, conversations and everything else.

In fact, did you know that most modern cars can help data miners gauge your standard movement patterns - where you go, what days, how long you’re there for and so on. It’s information that we think so little about, yet there are takers for it. I’m not asking you to be paranoid about it. This is the future. This is what our world is going to be. You can run, but you cannot hide.

Gone are those days when the only ‘lifeforms’ that didn’t listen to us were our kids. It seems that everyone and everything else is always listening.  

I need to go now. My smart toothbrush is making whirring noises. I think it’s a warning. Or a reminder. Perhaps it knows something.

Welcome to the dystopian future without secrets.

Because here, someone always knows what you’re up to.