Monday, July 15, 2013
The Triumph of Machines
An article in the latest Tyee that you're bound to find exciting, inspirational or utterly depressing. It concerns advances being made by a Richmond, B.C. firm in "M2M" or machine-to-machine communications. The only thing missing is you.
"We're right on the forefront of this," [Sierra Wireless VP Larry] Zibrik says matter-of-factly, gesturing towards a projector image on the wall. It depicts an electric car driving through the "connected world" of the future.
In this world, wind turbines, smart meters, billboards, tablets, electric cars, charging stations and security cameras are linked together in a series of overlapping systems. The possibilities, proponents say, are endless.
"There's up to 50 billion machines out there that aren't connected," Zibrik says. But though the market for solutions to connect them "is really starting to explode," he adds, "most people don't understand machine-to-machine technology."
This "connected world" goes by many names: Industrial Internet, Internet of Things, Internet of Everything, the Sensor Revolution. The Economist has declared the "Rise of the machines." Wired, meanwhile, recently described a "Programmable World."
Already companies have built unmanned forklifts that can work 24-7, bathroom scales that transmit data to your doctor, streetlights that dim when no one is around and thermostats that adjust to your daily routine. Google is testing driverless cars.
Could the "connected world" envisioned by Sierra Wireless help humanity adjust course? A report from Richard Branson's Carbon War Room estimated that if deployed rapidly over the next seven years, machine-to-machine technology would reduce global carbon emissions 9.1 gigatons by 2020.
Not only is that equivalent to all the emissions released in 2010 by India and the United States. But such an effort, it added, could provide up to $15 trillion worth of cost savings and new revenues to the global economy.
Imagine you're in the driver's seat. The car informs you there's a charging station up ahead. That station is linked to a "smart grid," which is also communicating with nearby buildings, faintly visible wind turbines and the smartphone in your hand.
Here's where things start to get a little scary: suppose each nearby building has security cameras outfitted with machine-to-machine technology. They take a reading from your smartphone as you drive by. So do the billboards up ahead.
Meanwhile the car is sending driving data to your insurance company. And back at home, your smart meter not only records each light switch you flick, what type of appliances you own, and how often you use them: it's creating a behavioural profile.
"By combining appliance usage patterns," a Congressional Research Service report on smart meters noted, "an observer could discern the behaviour of occupants in a home over a period of time."
"A bunch of data that wasn't available is now going to be," Zibrik says. "There's a lot of good things and there's a lot of questionable things you can do with it."
Already critics suggest the pervasive monitoring allowed by machine-to-machine technology will someday make this summer's NSA scandal seem quaint by comparison.
"The Internet of Things gives the governments and corporations that follow our every move something they don't yet have: eyes and ears," wrote security technologist Bruce Schneier in the Guardian. The result, he believes, will be "ubiquitous surveillance."
We're starting to see early signs of what that world could enable. Target, the U.S.-based retailer, can figure out whether a woman is pregnant by analyzing her spending habits, and then market products to her accordingly.
Machine to machine communications and other interactions essentially mean the end of informed consent. You give a form of consent, more or less, when you acquire the device and thereafter your consent is assumed by your continued use of the device. What happens with wireless, automated firmware updates? It's insanely easy for machines to reconfigure or reprogramme other machines without the owner/operator's knowledge or understanding. My computer, tablet, smartphone, blu-ray player and even my television automatically upgrade themselves. Sometimes they ask for permission but rarely do they offer any meaningful explanation of what they want to do or want to have done. How hard would it be to turn our wireless world against us? Not very.
And what of hackers? M2M protocols, once widely adopted, will be a dream come true for them as we become accustomed to being "out of the loop" to what our devices are doing among themselves. Pretty much anything that accepts wireless communications can be hacked. Even pacemakers or implanted defibrillators can be hacked with murderous consequences.
And, ultimately, this also seems to be another giant leap in our evolution into a species of high-functioning idiots. More and more things will be done for us, automatically. More and more judgments will be taken for us, automatically. We will become accustomed to doing fewer things for ourselves, for making fewer decisions about ourselves and, in the process, we will acquire new, more expansive and potentially more dangerous dependencies. We will become ever more complacent, dependent, pliable, diminished.