Internet of Things: between panacea and paranoia

Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center, Manhattan. The inscription behind it is a paraphrase of Aeschylus that reads: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends”. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Connected objects (also known as “Internet of Things” or IoT) are invading our lives. From smartphones to connected lightbulbs, from Amazon’s new personal style adviser (Echo Look) to its video-enabled smart speakers (Echo Show). Artificially intelligent interfaces are becoming ubiquitous.

This technology can enrich our daily lives by making it easier to access knowledge and information. As the amount of data generated by these devices grows exponentially, it could accelerate scientific discoveries that will make life longer and more comfortable. Unfortunately, these millions of intelligent objects also have a potential dark side – for example, if they were weaponized by rogue states bent on cyber warfare. Ransomware threats spread through millions of devices in a matter of milliseconds. And critical infrastructure in smart cities are increasingly vulnerable to predatory hackers.

Between utopian and dystopian scenarios, there is enough historic precedent for finding a middle ground. Every time new technology comes about, reactions range from techno-optimism to technophobia. To appreciate the wonder of innovation without losing sight of its dangers, it would do well to reflect a bit about the long history of technology and its (often unintended) consequences, both for good and evil.

Prometheus unchained

Prometheus (Louvre). Wikimedia

We often evoke the myth of Prometheus to describe humankind’s ambivalent relationship with technology. As suggested by the Rockefeller Center statue in downtown Manhattan, the theft of fire by the titan Prometheus gave humanity the power to dominate nature and the tools to build civilisation. Zeus punished the theft by chaining the rebel god to a rock and commanding a giant eagle to eat a portion of his liver every day. This metaphor illustrates the unintended consequences of technological progress. Pessimists may forget, however, that (at least in one of its versions) this myth ends in redemption, as Prometheus is rescued by Hercules, Zeus’ son.

Technophilia and technophobia have always co-existed. The alphabet is one of the most powerful technologies ever created. Yet Socrates looked down on the technology of writing to preserve thoughts. He argued that writing made the brain lazy, as it no longer needed to memorise ideas and facts. This is the same fear that parents have today when they realise how much their children rely on the Internet as a source of information. They’re afraid that books and libraries and curated sources of news will disappear, precipitating the end of civilisation as we know it.

This chaotic future is unlikely, however. Just as writing was a cognitive support that enhanced rather than constrained thinking, and just as the printed book enabled the first industrial revolution, the growth of shared knowledge and information enabled by the Internet could accelerate human development. But such progress often comes with a price, as the first centuries after the industrial revolution have shown.

Dialectic thinking

Marshall McLuhan.

The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan became famous for coining the term “the Global Village” in the 1960s to describe how electronic networks would enable a world of shared ideas. This prophetic power came from McLuhan’s dialectic way of thinking about media and technology. As he well understood, technology seems to enhance some aspects of the human experience while making others obsolete. This movement can be reversed in unexpected ways, however, just like a pendulum which pushed to its limit tends to swing in the opposite direction. Thus, the radio enhanced the human voice, making it ubiquitous. While it made the printing press far less relevant, radio waves retrieved the “town crier” of the middle ages, and the tribal gathering around the fire for storytelling.

The information revolution seems to be causing as many disruptions as the steam engine once did. Computer automation and artificial intelligence are destroying countless jobs. Our over-reliance on “smart technologies” in our home, in our hospitals and in our cities open the possibility for cyber-attacks that could cripple the economy and potentially create as much chaos as bombs. A few hackers are now capable of manipulating elections and changing the destiny of whole nations. Privacy and anonymity are almost impossible in a world of connected lives (just as has always been the case in any small village).

When contemplated with the benefit of a historical perspective, however, we can feel confident that a lot of creation will come out of these destructive forces. There may be a period of chaos and suffering, as during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, but humans will learn to adapt to these new threats and take advantage of the opportunities created by technology. Artificial intelligence and machine learning from connected devices may help scientists find a cure for cancer, optimise food production, reverse global warming and develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Even Elon Musk has warned against the dangers of unfettered technology. Heisenberg Media/Wikimedia, CC BY

As many a Hollywood scenario has speculated, all of these perspectives are fraught with the peril of artificial intelligence spinning out of control. Some of the most brilliant minds of our time (including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates) have warned against this danger. Yet the promise of improving the lives of millions through technology is as tempting as the fire brought down to mortals by Prometheus. It is unlikely that humans will renounce that prize, whatever the cost. The acceleration of technology seems therefore unstoppable.

A century from now the planet will look even more different than it did a hundred years ago. But people should neither panic nor become overenthusiastic. Better technology may mean longer and healthier lives, but it may magnify some our virtues and vices, and man’s soul is unlikely to evolve with technical progress. We will have to overcome a steep learning curve in this brave new cyberworld before we can reap its benefits. New rules of conduct and ethical norms will emerge to regulate the abuses of the information age. New tools will make it a trivial task to detect fake news and Internet scams. Different attitudes will redefine the acceptable boundary between public and private. Humans always adapt, and learn. We may be chained to a cliff and condemned to suffer for the pride and folly of our technical prowess, but the history of technology has taught us that in the long run the human spirit will always prevail.