Computers

Paul Gilster: The dangers of increasingly relying on digital tools that could fail

CorrespondentMay 25, 2014 

“I’d take my laptop with me,” said a friend about to leave on a lengthy trip as he held up his smartphone, “but these days there’s not much Android can’t do for you.” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Whether we’re talking about Android-powered phones and tablets or iPhones and their Apple ecosystem, many of the tasks we used to assign to desktop computers have migrated into our mobile devices. Ahead looms an interesting inflection point, as these mobile gadgets are supported and supplanted by networked sensors we may not even see.

Have you felt the effect of computing’s flight away from the desktops and laptops we grew so used to using? One day not long ago I found myself in southern Illinois, on a back road so obscure that it had no name, looking for the site of Fort Kaskaskia, which used to guard trade on the Mississippi. I was lost and I couldn’t find myself on the map I had printed out that morning. When I turned my phone on, Google Maps took no more than a second to tell me to make a left turn, go 800 feet, and make a right. The experience was seamless and all but effortless.

Integrated technology

Arm enough cars with built-in GPS and the fear of getting lost recedes. Indeed, it could be argued that the experience of getting lost will seem like a quaint throwback to future generations, who left to their own devices might not know where they are but can easily find out.

Google is particularly highlighted here because the company has a vision of computing in which our digital tools more or less fade into our everyday lives. Google Now can be set up so that a smartphone simply learns how you operate. Knowing your work address, it estimates the time of your commute based on traffic. Reading your email, it reminds you when to leave for the airport on your afternoon flight. Learning your shopping preferences, it tells you which stores will interest you in the mall you just entered. It can, of course, run searches by voice command alone.

None of this requires a keyboard, nor does it ask you to make many inputs once you’ve set up your device. It’s likely that the home of the future will be so armed with microphones and speakers that your voice commands will handle mundane tasks like controlling the TV or adjusting the thermostat. This can get truly science fictional. Google Now can handle 38 languages and is getting adept enough at voice recognition to use pronouns correctly, which is a gigantic step in the direction of making “Star Trek” like conversations with a computer possible.

Dependance a concern

Which reminds me of the first “Star Trek” series. A familiar sight was William Shatner as Captain Kirk walking smartly to exit the bridge and approaching the sliding doors at the back. These appeared to be automated, but in reality were controlled by stagehands who pulled them apart at the right moment. The stagehands would occasionally miss their cues and Shatner would slam confidently right into the closed doors. “Star Trek” blooper reels are full of such shots, but think about this for a moment. What happens when we take our tools too much for granted?

We have to be careful not to run into the doors. I can see future scenarios where people lost in a strange place just assume they can ask their phone what to do. That’s all well and good as long as the phones are working, but you can imagine what a widespread outage – a solar flare, maybe – might do to a society increasingly reliant on being connected. Think vulnerability. Integrating technology into our lives offers huge benefits, but as we design these futures, we need to think about our dependence on tools that, like anything we build, can occasionally fail.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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