Friday, 7 May 2010

Living on a smart planet – is it the technology that counts?

For many years now we have been developing technologies that can help us to detect events (and their pre-cursors). These technologies, put to good use, can help us to provide faster, better, more effective protection and response, whether it is on a global scale (tsunami warning systems), or personal (body state monitors), and whether it is significant (using GPS to help rescue work in Haiti) or trivial (having your fridge send you a text to say that you need more milk). But are they smart? Does this mean we live on a technologically smart planet?
According to the WordNet lexical database of English, the word smart has several possible meanings:

Noun: a kind of pain such as that caused by a wound or a burn or a sore.
Verb: be the source of pain.
(i) showing mental alertness and calculation and resourcefulness;
(ii) elegant and stylish;
(iii) characterized by quickness and ease in learning;
(iv) fresh, impertinent, impudent, overbold, saucy;
(v) painfully severe ("he gave the dog a smart blow");
(vi) quick and brisk ("we walked at a smart pace");
(v) capable of independent and apparently intelligent action ("smart weapons").

That’s a lot of meanings for one word, but basically they boil down to three sets of meaning – one around painfulness, one around elegance, and one around intelligence – and it’s the last of those that is applicable here: when we talk about “smart technology” or creating a “smart planet”, we mean something that is intelligent and resourceful.
Is a fridge that can text you when you need more milk intelligent and resourceful? Is a body state monitor that can alert both owner and medical staff to a change in metabolic condition intelligent and resourceful? No. These are dumb devices. What they do is provide information to us so that we can take action more quickly and effectively than getting that same information in other ways. At one extreme this can help us to prevent disaster – as in having a tsunami warning system that can alert us in time to evacuate people at risk, or having flood sensors than provide input to flood defence teams in time to prevent major river bank breaches. At the other end of the spectrum they can help us save time and make our lives a bit easier (picking up a pint of milk on the way home rather than finding the fridge is empty when you get home). But this is not smart – there is no intelligence or resourcefulness in the devices themselves. Perhaps it’s been a cold day so your partner has just left the milk outside rather than bringing it indoors; perhaps an underwater volcanic eruption is superceded by an aftershock that stops a tsunami wave forming.

So why do we call these devices smart? It’s partly because they do seem a bit magical. My Freeview HD recorder allows me to “freeze” live programmes, rewind and then review them. It seems like magic. (All that’s happening is that the device is constantly recording the programme you’re watching, keeping the last hour or so and deleting older material, so when you “freeze” and rewind, all you’re doing is watching the recording – and then when you catch up to where you left off, you continue to watch the recorded material which seems like live). But it’s not the device that’s smart. The people who thought of the concept, who made it work – they are smart. And when you get that text about the milk, and think “it’s cold today, I’ll just check with Alex” and send a text to them to check – then you’re being smart.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the technology. I love the fact that it’s being put to uses that make life better and can help prevent disasters or help us deal with them when they occur. But don’t let’s call the devices smart – let’s celebrate the fact that we’re smart. Let’s encourage the use of these devices in novel (intelligent, resourceful) ways, but then reward the people who thought of that by calling them smart.

Here in the UK we bemoan the fact that many youngsters aren’t turning to science as much as they did in the past. Well maybe if we celebrated the scientists more than the technology that trend might change! Have you seen those Intel adverts that appear to show how “intelligent” our computers are? Or the car adverts where the cars apparently have lives of their own and play hide and seek? Think about the subliminal messages here: smart devices! Do you remember the movie Wargames, or the more recent Eagle Eye? These depict a world where we relinquish our intellect to machines – and guess what – things go wrong!

Yes, we live on a smart planet: but it’s us who are smart, not the things we make. Let’s celebrate us, not the machines!

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