The annual gadget orgy known as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped up this week in Las Vegas, leaving us with visions of a brilliant future of intelligent devices dancing in our head.
But there's a lot of reason to be skeptical of a future in which smart devices of every shape and size do our thinking for us. Here are five good reasons that nirvana promised by the Internet of Things might well turn out to be rather hellish.
1) Every day 0Days Was it a coincidence that, at the very moment the marketing folks in Las Vegas were trumpeting the amazing, convenient future that will be brought to us once everything is 'web-connected,' security experts were screaming from the rooftops about crippling and stealthy attacks spreading over the Web? I'm talking, of course, about the news of a critical security hole affecting even fully patched installations of Oracle's Java technology - a common platform that runs on 1.1 billion desktops, 3 billion mobile phones and powers everything from web cams to car navigation systems to medical devices.
The bigger story is that the very foundation of our future Internet of Things - software - is made of sand. Java and embedded system software such as Windows CE are rife with vulnerabilities. Even worse: manufacturers that are used to churning out dishwashers and refrigerators don't yet think of what they sell as "software" - they think of it as "hardware" even when software is running it. Hardware companies do repairs, not patches. They fix leaky hoses, not buffer overflows. It's more Maytag Man than Moxie Marlinspike. In other words: the list of companies that will have to climb the same, steep learning curve that Microsoft, Adobe and other companies climbed over the last decade will expand greatly. In the meantime, their customers .... consumers ... us ... will be in the cross hairs. The security firm Trend Micro has a great infograph that explains some of the risks that lurk in the "automated home of tomorrow." Among them: credential theft from e-commerce-enabled appliances like refrigerators and privacy violations or even phsyical harm stemming from compromised and Internet-connected home surveillance and security systems, or automobiles.
2) Clippy - EVERYWHERE! One of the clear themes to come out of CES this year was the arrival (finally) of intelligent household devices. Everything from cars to kitchen appliances to watches and exercise machines are IP-enabled and equipped with remote sensing devices that allow them to observe their environment and then "act" on what they observe in some way. Your new, intelligent refrigerator, we're promised, not only lets you go shopping without leaving the kitchen, it keeps track of how old the milk is and will tell you when it has soured.
"What's so bad about that," you ask? I've got one word for you: Clippy. Remember Clippy, the helpful, smiling paperclip "assistant" that shipped with Microsoft Office? Clippy watched what you were doing - or at least what it thought you were doing - then "offered advice" to help you along the way based on some ham-fisted Bayesian algorithms.
What a great idea - in theory. In practice: Clippy was annoying as all get out. He popped up without prompting and at all the wrong times. His advice was pedantic and not helpful, and the processing power used just to stand him up slowed down Word and kept you from doing what you knew how to do all along. I don't know about you, but I still twitch when I start to type out a bulleted list, waiting for Clippy's cheery visage to appear.
Why Clippy? Well, with a whole new generation of smart devices observing their surroundings, expect a phalanx of Clippy's cousins to soon invade your home, car and workplace. Using the same knucklehead heuristics, they'll notify you of minutae that you could care less about. Your smart refrigerator will complain when the Monterey Jack goes green. Your "smart" fork beeps at you if you're eating too much - or at least too quickly (it can't really tell the difference). Adrift in a sea of smart devices, we'll have no choice but to cover our ears as it chirps up at inopportune times to offer help performing tasks that we'd be happy putting off forever. As with Clippy, you'll enjoy five minutes of "gee whiz" amazement at the abilities of your new intelligent gear before you start rifling through the owner's manual to try to figure out how to shut it off.
3) Crap design For every visionary like Steve Jobs, there is an army of well ... Not-Steve-Jobs. That's why Mr. Jobs's legacy might not be great product design, but lots of terrible product design mimicking great product design - or at least trying to glom onto it. How else should we consider this year's official CES dog, the iPotty, ICA Digital's toddler's training seat with a built in holster for an iPad. "When you are potty training you have to keep them busy. This keeps them engaged and gives them rewards for the right kind of behavior," Lois Eiler of CTA Digital told Joanna Stern of ABC News. The product is designed to keep kids distracted while they do their business, or even help them along with potty training apps. (Yes - there are aps for that.) Garish in neon orange and green plastic, the iPotty looks like something Steve Jobs would endeavor to flush away, rather than display.
The bigger problem may be the way all these well-meaning, but badly designed products will change our behaviors and, indeed, reality - filling our most private moments with opportunities for distraction rather than -say - contemplation. Martin Luther was famously struck with the ideas that formed his Ninety Five Theses while sitting on the toilet in the Monastery in Wittenberg. Where would we be now, I wonder, if that chilly toilet was equipped with a bright, chirping iPad and a copy of Angry Birds, instead?
4) Privacy meltdown CES is a showcase for all the wonderful things that advancements in technology can do for us, but there's no room on the show floor for discussions of the consequences of that technology: the myriad of ways that it infringes on our privacy and exposes us to heretofore unimagined threats. The media trumpets the ease with which smart phones have become all purpose remote controls - able to lock a door, turn off a light or keep a watchful eye on our teenagers from anywhere. But the same technology can be used to spy on us, just as we would spy ourselves. Cases like that of the British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd have awakened parents to the dangerous avenues that technology like webcams opens into the presumed safety of the home. Expect those avenues to multiply tenfold in the coming years, as much of the Internet-connected gear from CES makes its way into living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. In September, for example, the security firm ReVuln showed how a Linux vulnerability in software that runs Samsung Smart TVs could be used to take control of cameras and microphones attached to the TV -- allowing the TV (and the attacker) to watch the watchers. Similar hacks by researchers at the University of Washington have demonstrated how hands-free technology in the driver compartment of automobiles can be used to monitor the conversations of the car's occupants or even force malicious code to onboard systems that can give attackers remote control of the vehicle.
With an army of tiny and powerful sensors embedded in household devices, add the increasing willingness of government to peer into the private lives of its citizens - here in the U.S. and elsewhere. The scandal surrounding CIA Director Gen. David Patreus - with FBI agents hacking into a shared email account used by the DCIA and his paramour - was a great example of the subtle and unpredictable ways that cloud-based services like webmail can undermine our privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has made a top priority of exposing how the U.S. government is interpreting and applying the broad powers of the USA PATRIOT Act and its Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) courts to subpoena records from mobile phone carriers, email providers and God knows who else. Sure, FISA is all about observing non-citizens, but the government hasn't exactly been forthcoming in discussing how broadly it interprets the act, EFF notes. So, while it might be premature to worry that the NSA or FBI might be listening to what you talk about while you're driving, or obtaining secret subpoenas for the data stored in your refrigerator, this year's CES makes it clear that it's not crazy to worry about it.
5) (mal)Adaptation We didn't hear or see much in the coverage of CES about the next wave in technology: wearable computing. But trust me: its just around the corner, and its going to change everything. Already, Google's Glass project is moving out of the prototype stage and toward a developer-focused release that sets the stage for wider availability. And there are plenty of Google Glass competitors in the wings, Apple and Microsoft among them.
What we don't know is how melding technology into our every waking moment - either through integrated glasses, contacts or - heck - corneal implants - will change the way our brains develop and how we socialize. There's already ample evidence that excessive screen time can be harmful to brain development in young children. And, anyone who has gone to pick-up at their local elementary school, waited to catch a ride on the subway or gone Trick-or-Treating can attest to the fact that - at least in advanced societies - grown ups have largely abandoned face to face interactions in favor of interacting with their devices.
As is often the case with the headlong race of technological advancement, the true consequences of decision today to knit this technology into the fabric of our everyday lives will take years -if not decades - to understand. But, like the hangover that greets you after your last night in 'Vegas, our willingness to open our homes and even our bodies to the Internet of Things is almost certain to bring with it consequences that are negative. We just don't know yet what they are.