Internet of Things is not just a technological utopia. It’s an integration of human faculties with artificial intelligence and issues emerging from it have to be debated openly
R Swaminathan | July 4, 2015
Internet of Things (IoT) is here and rapidly evolving. It also has its far horizons that haven’t dawned upon us explicitly. If one looks at those areas with some foresight, it is clear that IoT is going to pose some really deep questions to us soon. A sample is illustrative. During the H5N1 outbreak a few years back Indonesia did something that brought out the questions arising from the fuzzy meshing of the human and the digital worlds in a stark manner. The genetic sequencing of the strain was made possible by a collaborative effort involving scientists, laboratories, World Health Organisation (WHO) and several countries, including Indonesia. The decoding of the virus would not have been successful had it not been for a suite of digital technologies and platforms that helped break down what is an essentially a biological product (virus) into a series of numbers and patterns (information).
In the battle for who owns what and at what level, Indonesia made a crucial distinction. It asserted its sovereignty over the biological sample referring to the rarely quoted Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty signed in 1992. Interestingly, Indonesia asserted no rights over the actual sequence freely allowing it to be stored in the open source GenBank, allowing pharmaceutical companies to develop medicines, antidotes and vaccines. Once Indonesia threw the Pandora’s box open China also stepped in. Surprisingly, China did not assert its hold on the biological sample, but was quite insistent on getting credit and some sort of scientific and academic control over the sequence itself. The human genome project raises more complex set of questions on the same trajectory. In itself the project is biological given that the fundamental starting point is our gene. But in decoding the gene as an informational pattern the project is firmly in the realm of bits and bytes and the digital world.
This tangled world of digital technologies and human beings is also Internet of Things, though we haven’t consciously accepted it in our daily life. Our understanding of IoT today is more in the nature of a technological utopia where machines will start talking to others of their kind, and humans will start moving beyond their human limitations by integrating machines with their bodies. Think of Google Glass or maybe an implantable Google chip in your head in the future. The direction that this new world is taking has implications. It will soon lead to a situation where the traditional distinction between inanimate and animate worlds will blur. It would be good to apply our minds to three complicated issues that are bound to arise with increasing frequency as Internet of Things starts permeating our lives.
The first issue arises from a fundamental shift in intelligence. For the first time in human existence the world is at a cusp where an integrated bank of machines, devices, codes and algorithms can very nearly match conventional human intelligence and in the near future surpass it. It isn’t in the realm of science fiction anymore. Raymond Kurzweil calls it ‘Singularity’, while Nick Bostrom and several Transhumanists call it ‘Superintelligence’. The 2010 High Frequency Trading (HFT) crash in the New York stock exchange where algorithms created an independent set of transactions without any human intervention crashing the bourses is a clear case in point. The big question is: how long can humans keep control? Our decisions are increasingly getting intersected by machines, codes and algorithms. We may not acknowledge it as such, but any personalisation and customisation that we encounter on the web is a piece of code that’s independently creating a framework of choices for us. Human beings have a right to make informed choices, and more so in a democracy. It’s time that we start debating the question of informed choice in the backdrop of artificial intelligence, human-machine-code-chip integrations and the real and distinct possibility of artificial sentient intelligence.
The second issue is not as existential as the first one, but still is a fundamental challenge to the way our world is currently structured. Internet of Things in its full bloom is going to be pan-continental and geography agnostic in a way that will be very difficult to control and contain. It can’t be walled in either by private companies, governments or technological interfaces and firewalls. Codes, algorithms, devices and machines will enjoy unprecedented autonomy and independence, so much so that they will decisively enter the realm of human decision making and often take it over. The Google driverless car is much an example as the recently unveiled driverless metro train in Delhi. The big question is: what happens to human judgement? Collective human intelligence that we as communities have understood and practiced is undergoing a drastic change. Collective judgement is increasingly being taken over systems that have the ability to autonomously make decisions. The human intervention in such an emerging scenario is more in the nature of making possible choices from the decisions already pre-decided in an algorithmic manner. It’s time that we start relooking seriously at questions of privacy, public and private space and machine-assisted daily life.
The third issue is about common protocols, open standards and blueprints and open source codes. Internet of Things is as much about internet as it is about build-it-yourself ecosystem. 3D printers are just about beginning to expand the horizons of what you can do within the four walls of your house. Advanced medical research institutions have already started experimenting with using the printers to produce organs, albeit in a rudimentary manner. The concept of large scale factories and industries may well get outdated over the next three decades, with blueprints commanding a premium. The big question is: what happens to work and employment? It’s time that we start debating development in this new context. The usual contours of debate in terms of economic growth, social sustainability, ecological friendliness and carbon footprint can be seen in completely new light with the emergence of Internet of Things. One may feel that such issues are too far down the lane to start a debate now, more so when certain basic issues like toilet facilities haven’t yet been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Imagine if toilets were debated 50 years back. We wouldn’t be scrambling for cover today when the IoT is right at our doorsteps.
(The article appears in the July 1-15, 2015 issue)
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