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Making everything 'smart' is a stupid idea

As featured in DisruptiveViews

The most over-used and over-rated word in use today must be ‘smart.’ It’s being used as an adjective to describe almost anything that wants to be hip or cool – rather than ‘clever.’ The digital world has deemed that every intangible element needs to become smart in order to play a part in the new world of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and the Internet of Things (IoT) – two other terms that are starting to bore the pants off me.

And just how do you go about making something with no intelligence smart? You stick a chip on or in it and, presumably, hope for the best. Firstly, there is a basic flaw in the premise that a frying pan or a toothbrush needs to be smart. One is a tool to cook food with, plain and simple, the other is used to brush teeth. Up until now there has been the presumption that the owner of these tools had enough intelligence to use them. When did that change? Should we fear that making dumb things smarter might end up making us dumber?

Of course, some will argue that with all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips we no longer need to rote learn everything and are better teaching our children how to find out information quickly when they need it rather than spending years studying out of date textbooks. Fair point, but what happens when you are faced with an emergency or don’t have your ‘smart’ phone at hand. Worse still, what if the battery runs out?

It does make sense making some dumb things smarter, though. Stored value travel cards fitted with ‘smart’ chips certainly save on paper and magnetic stripes and speed up throughput at rail stations – shame you have to queue to top them up and queue to get on trains and buses. Perhaps ‘smart’ trains and buses will be next. Oh, hang on, they are all part of our grand plans for ‘smart’ cities aren’t they – a utopia where everything is coordinated to the nth degree and people live in peace and harmony, not with nature, but machines.

But our current obsession with ‘smartness’ extends way beyond people and inanimate objects. We now want to make every single appliance and existing bit of machinery smart, too. Our crops are already being planted and harvested by GPS guided tractors and harvesters. Our toasters are talking to our refrigerators; diapers can tell us when they need to be changed; we can talk in one language and be heard in another; we can have our every body function monitored and analyzed in real-time and we can pay for everything with the wave of a hand (and smartphone).

The GPS smarts in so many devices we own are tracking everywhere we go and even what we do when we get there. Police will no longer need forensics to catch criminals, their ‘smartphones’ will incriminate them and provide all the evidence needed to put them away.

What with driverless cars and auto-piloted planes we soon won’t need people for anything except, possibly, to program the ‘smartness’ and fix the breakdowns. Collecting bodies may also be a coveted job if all the ‘smart’ things we create have a really bad day – or the internet goes down.

And there lies the one potential snag in the creation of a smart world – the assumption that everything will always be connected and that we will always have the power to run them. While the ‘smart’ everything concept speeds up we seem to forget that the infrastructure that will make it all possible is, in may cases, lagging woefully behind. After all, what use is Ferrari on a dirt road with very large potholes?

Similarly, what use are ‘smart’ things if they are unable to communicate because of congested and slow network infrastructure, disparate and archaic technologies cobbled together with string (or copper wire)? Government attention and ‘smart money’ may soon, hopefully, be diverted from really dumb smart devices to really smart infrastructure that keeps everything working, well, smartly.