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Innovation

Technology vs. Prediction

July 12, 2017

I recently read a Pew report on the future of the Internet of Things, full of opinions on how people may choose to adopt or reject IoT products and services based on security, convenience and richness of experience, among others.

Invariably, all these predictions are going to be a little wrong — some of them a lot wrong. It's a complicated business.

It’s complicated in part because no technology exists all by itself. There are things that haven’t been invented yet that will make new scenarios possible and others irrelevant. Even the development and adoption of relatively “simple” technologies sometimes don't make a lot of sense at first glance.

It seems weird that the bicycle was invented around 1819 but didn't catch on with the masses until almost the turn of the 20th century. It took 70 years partly because there weren't a lot of paved roads and inflatable tires hadn't been invented yet, making for a bumpy and potentially dangerous ride. Also, roads tended to be covered with four inches of manure (did I mention cars hadn’t been invented yet?). Imagine bicycling to your friend's house, enduring the bumps and jostles and horse poop and probably sweating through your clothes and accoutrements just to listen to someone play the hammered dulcimer for four hours — or whatever it is people did back then for fun on a Saturday evening. And that's if you didn't fall off your five-foot tall penny-farthing and break your collarbone.

Anyway, many New Things that sail under the bright, billowing flag of The Internet of Things tend to be remote controls and sensors that can reach across the Earthly Planet of Actual Physical Things. Now, I can be sure my garage door is closed and turn off the light in the bathroom even if I’m not home and I can compulsively check them throughout the day. So, in the future, will I simply flee my home each morning without feeding the cats or locking the door, instead choosing to do those things as I drive... er, I mean, as my car drives me to work?

Speaking of which, autonomous cars might arrive just in time to save us from ourselves. If my daily commute is any indication, I think I’d rather take my chances with a bunch of robots than the current crop of humans who are paying close attention to their smartphones and only partial attention to their Automotive Realities. Of course, there will probably be a couple of high-profile incidents we’ve never dreamed of: how can we know how large numbers of autonomous vehicles will behave together? Perhaps there will be a day when every driverless car pulls over to the shoulder and stops because of a peculiar obstacle or erratic pedestrian in the roadway. It could be that, lacking the highly evolved human capacities for both distraction and panic, autonomous cars will all make similar rational decisions that somehow make the situation worse: call it "computational irony."

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