Do We Really Want This?

On the desk next to me sits the June issue of The Atlantic, face down. Staring up at me from the back cover, there is an ad for Qualcomm. It is built around a picture of a brain made of electrical wires:



and it reads: “When will our devices think for themselves? When we connected the phone to the Internet, the phone became smart. When our next inventions connect billions more things, life will be even smarter. Why Wait™”

I would ask a different question: who in his right mind would want devices to think for themselves? (I know, and you’ll need to read on to find out.) I find so many facets of this ad objectionable that I have a hard time knowing where to start.

Consider how many inanimate objects popular culture calls “smart.” Cellular telephones


miniature automobiles


performance goals


white boards for presentations


and even grade-level assessments in schools. But, how smart are they? I’ll bet you have no trouble remembering an occasion where a work presentation or a phone call or a car ride came to a screeching halt because of a technical glitch. After tapping a few keys and maybe jiggling a plug or two, everyone looked at everyone else, grinned sheepishly, shrugged, and said, “Technology!” Then, they either proceeded without it or CALLED A PERSON with technical expertise to fix it.

If the device had actually been smart, it would have diagnosed and remedied the problem by itself, or even prevented the glitch in the first place. On the other hand, the guy who saved your bacon actually is smart. Machines cannot do anything more than follow directions from people. (Remember this point for later.)

Consider my experience house sitting recently. The owners had collected quite a few machines that were labeled as “smart.” One was an electric kettle. Why was it “smart?” Because it could bring your water to any temperature less than or equal to the boiling point and hold it there. How could it accomplish such magic? It contained A THERMOSTAT, a simple mechanical device found in virtually every house and automobile engine throughout the TWENTIETH CENTURY. A second was a water dispenser on a refrigerator that could also make crushed or cubed ice. The Brady Bunch ‘fridge could do that!


The third was a stick blender. A hand-held device that used a motor to spin blades. (?) Why are we as a society so eager to call things smart that aren’t?


As humans evolved,  our physical prowess was much less than that of the animals against which we competed. We only survived as a species because we could figure out solutions with our brains. Indeed, our species name, Homo sapiens, means “wise man.” Look at any classic science fiction.


Pundits predicted that, in the future, machines would be for manual labor, freeing up humans to do what they do best: think and solve problems. But we have actually done the opposite: we want our machines to think while we do more manual labor than we used to. (Photographing food, anyone? Doing thousands of curls a day by checking the ‘phone?)


We already feel helpless to spell, navigate while driving, or talk to “friends” without devices. How soon until we completely become the victims, like the extinct animals who did not have the thinking ability of humans? I experienced the early stages of this during the aforementioned house sitting episode.  Every night, I would set the temperature control to make the room comfortably cool while I slept. By the early morning, I would wake up sweating. The system “thought” the proper temperature for the overnight hours was ten degrees higher than what I wanted, and there was nothing I could do to change it. How bad will it get when we let computers control our shopping habits?


Oh, right. They already do that. And people want to introduce voting by personal device?

We should also think about the emphasis schools now place on “integrating technology into lessons.” Learning now equals being surrounded by computerized gadgets. What is this except government-sanctioned product placement? Everyone knows that President Eisenhower warned about the danger of empowering the military-industrial complex. Few remember that, in this farewell speech, he identified a decrease in intellectual curiosity as an important symptom of the problem. And how would we recognize that the decrease was occurring? Computers in schools would outnumber blackboards. Really. Read the speech.

So, who really wants this? Who wants society to believe that machines can think and people cannot? Who wants individual humans to be completely reliant on devices?




(The guy who gives directions to the devices, whom you’re making rich by buying them.)

So, Why Wait™ for our devices to think for themselves? Because it means they will no longer be ours. Jane, get me off this crazy thing.