The Revenge of the Things

There was once a time when the things in our homes were stupid. In the evenings of those bygone days, the family would gather together to stare at the television as it sat sullenly in the corner of the room. Occasionally, one family member, often the father, would walk over and give it a smack for producing a picture that did not meet expectations. It was a tough time to be a TV. But how things have changed.

Today, when we stare at the TV, we have to be aware of the fact that it may be staring back. In the old days, you could watch TV in your boxer shorts while drinking a beer. Now, you’ve got to be sure you’re properly dressed and behaving in an orderly manner because someone somewhere may be watching and recording you. And, believe me, I wish I were making this up. Just look at Samsung’s privacy policy included with its TVs in 2015. “Be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your voice recognition.” Remember that some Samsung TVs have built in cameras which have already been hacked. In other words, our relationship with our TVs has changed and we have been forced to alter our behavior accordingly. The TV has taken on a more ominous presence and we now have to regard it with a degree of suspicion.

Let’s look at another example of how TVs have altered human behavior. Some may find this example hard to believe and even horrifying. There was a time, believe it or not, when people had to physically get up and walk to the TV to change the channel! Clearly, people were tougher in those days. It is a little known fact that this ordeal led to people having more children. You see, children were the first remote controls. When the ruling members of the family wanted to watch another channel, they would command one of the low ranking family members (a.k.a. children) to do the job for them. It was a win-win situation for all concerned. The elder family members got some needed rest while the younger members learned the number system and, with this mathematical head start, went on to become computer programmers.

Today’s low math scores and declining birth rates can be directly traced to the remote control. The only reason for having children nowadays is for them to get us refreshments from the refrigerator. Children so conditioned have become disproportionately enamored with food and this, in turn, has fueled the shocking rise in obesity among parents and children alike. Soon, however, this inappropriate use of children will be solved when robot vacuum cleaners develop food gathering capabilities and are able to respond to voice commands. Think this is a crazy idea? Think again. There are already robots delivering food in some cities, why not just combine this ability with a few technological tweaks? Combine the robot (shown below) with vacuuming abilities, voice control capabilities (like Alexa), and a smart refrigerator and, voila, there you have it; a device that will make us all lazier and fatter. But maybe that’s what the machines want: to weaken us before they take over completely. The more dependence we have on them means the more control they have over us.

robot delivery

However, some of these machines do not have the patience to wait for the final takeover. In Korea, a berserk robot vacuum attacked and attempted to eat its master while she slept on the floor.

vacuum woman

And just recently, we learned that your robot vacuum may be mapping your house and sending this information to third parties. Makers of other smart home technologies could use these maps as a research tool which could help them improve the performance of their own products. By seeing the layout of your house, they could see what products they could offer you. Your vacuum cleaner is becoming a key marketing link. Imagine if it could analyze what you’ve been eating through the crumbs it vacuums up.

In Japan, during the Edo Period, (I promise this is going somewhere) the emperor ‘downloaded’ his digestive waste products into a special box so that a physician could analyze them to see if he was in good health. Talk about a crappy job. That aside, this ancient tradition continues on in modern Japanese smart toilets. These will analyze all of your liquid and solid waste and send a report on them to a website, where it can be viewed by the user or, directly, by a doctor. So, why couldn’t a vacuum cleaner analyze what it’s vacuuming up?

If the toilet or vacuum wanted to participate in marketing (and, no doubt, they do) they could sell their knowledge of your eating habits to the appropriate businesses. Imagine if restaurants knew your food preferences. They could market to you, via your smartphone, as you walked past. Little would you realize, as you entered the restaurant, that your presence there was orchestrated by a conspiracy among your appliances. So, again I ask, who is controlling whom?

There used to be a cartoon comparing a toilet to a computer.


Sad to say, but this is no longer such a joke. Google plans on turning the entire bathroom into a smart bathroom.  Here is a diagram of what they plan. It looks eerily familiar. The bathroom includes a toilet (not shown here) which will measure blood pressure and pulse rate. All the devices pictured are used to determine the state of your health.

google toilet

Notice the ‘computing device’ is a smartphone; your closest friend.

Sure, Google may have a serious concern about our health, but, I imagine, with a little prodding, they could monetize some of the information they gather on you. How about suggesting healthy foods, diets, drugs, clinics, or places you could exercise? I’m sure they will never consider such marketing strategies, but… And I won’t even mention the smart sofa they’re working on.

Last week Amazon’s Elon Musk had a spat with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over whether the future of artificial intelligence would bring positive or negative results. Musk warns that machines may eventually become smarter than humans and learn to control or even kill them. Zuckerberg thinks that humans and machines will join hands and dance around a maypole. Being a robot himself, Zuckerberg could be expected to take such a stance. However, for machines to go down either of these roads, they will have to develop some degree of autonomy. So how far have machines come in this regard.

Some machines are now programmed to order their own supplies. These include washing machines that will order their own detergents when the supply is running low and pet food dispensers that will do the same when their food supply starts to run out. Other machines, often used in manufacturing, will order their own parts when they need them. Is it too far-fetched to believe that your washing machine would be able to detect that it needed a new belt or other component and that it could send a pre-programmed request to a sales outlet for a replacement? For that matter, why couldn’t it arrange for a repairman to come over?

For security considerations, any ‘thing’ connected to the internet (especially your router) should be able to assess whether its default password has been changed, because this is what hackers look for when they add your appliances to a botnet or take them over to penetrate your network to begin a ransomware or other attack. If, after a short period of time following the initial setup, you have not changed a device’s default password, the appliance could notify you, through an email or in some other way, that this task would need to be performed before it would connect itself to the internet. In short, it would control your behavior for your own good. Its refusal to perform would be its first step in its progress towards independence. Imagine what would happen in the old days if a TV refused to perform unless certain conditions were met. Well, TVs were cheaper and easier to replace in those days.

Autonomy among appliances on a smart home network would lead to spontaneous communication among devices using, perhaps, voice recognition and a personal assistant, such as Alexa, as a hub or CPU. (“Alexa, tell the toaster to stop making so much smoke.”) As natural language processing and self-learning algorithms improve, appliances will be able to understand your and other appliances’ wants and needs more and more precisely. Conflicts will arise, of course, and misunderstandings will occur. Every time you return home, you could be surprised by what you might find. A misunderstood phrase may unlock the door or turn on your oven. You may find that the dishwasher has contacted a repairman and he is sitting on your smart sofa talking to your TV about how your vacuum cleaner ran off with the waffle iron using your self-driving car.

It’s not so much that things are seizing control. It is more that we are readily handing control over to them. In our search for more comfort, we have become more dependent. Could you really live without your smartphone? What about your remote? We want things to take care of us, and they will, one way or another.

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