Are we going to be just another "thing" on the Internet?

By Laura Haight

Originally published as the Digital Maven column in the Upstate Business Journal 

I used to have a bit of a temper. OK, I have a bit of a temper. And it is most often directed at things that aren't working as they are supposed to. As a self-proclaimed gizmo, I surround myself with a lot of technology and often that means surrounding yourself with things not working as they are supposed to.

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So while I find the "internet of things" an exciting vision on the near horizon, I am also a bit concerned.

What happens when my car - powered by Microsoft sync - starts to act just like my PC? The idea of a car crash could mean something much different in the future, as you have to start shutting down your air conditioner, your radio or your navigation in order to put more processing power to your engine. And with bluetooth enabled entertainment systems, will you start getting the ubiquitous "I see you've added a new human interface device. Do you want to search for a driver?" message?

There's an old joke about how three engineers go about fixing a car that breaks down on the way to a conference. I won't bore you with the whole joke but the punch line is: let's shut it off and start it up again and see if that works.

Sadly, this is already true - I have restarted my car to get the cell phone-bluetooth interface working!

There are a lot of applications, like auto computers, home security systems, lighting controls and neat thermostats, that let you control your environment via your smartphone. These tools put us right on the edge of the cliff that overlooks the "internet of things". That next iteration will move from us controlling multiple things to the things talking to each other, "saving" us the trouble and time of having to interact with them at all.

If you watch any TV at all, you've already seen the breathless Cisco commercials that show a seamlessly functioning world of internet connected and internet aware devices, turning themselves on and off, deciding how to reroute shipping, saving energy and - certainly - replacing the humans that are so prone to err.

It's a pretty picture, but as we are starting to learn, devices controlled by computers also function like computers - and that can be sketchy and, even more concerning, inherently insecure.

The MIT Technology Review recently published an interesting story about researchers hacking into application-controlled home appliances, including (who knows why) an app that makes your toilet play music! The researchers found that many apps that ride on your home (or office) network required no passwords and were easily hackable.

It's worth noting that one of the current iPhone rumors is that some future version may have biometric security - fingerprint or retina recognition. With apps starting the car, unlocking the doors to our homes, and controlling our alarm systems, securing our phones - with a lot more than an easily hackable 4-digit passcode - will be crucial.

But my mind wanders a bit further to the future, when my refrigerator tells my iPhone grocery app that we need milk, butter and that goat cheese my husband likes. And when the TV talks to the lighting system and tells it to turn the lights down because we're starting a movie. Or the home thermostat tests for heat signatures learning over time the ebb and flow of our lives and adjusting the temperature accordingly. All these activities are easily part of our future and - you'll notice - they don't involve us at all.

Sweet, right? Well, sure, but our tendencies are often to take the easy road and then be horrified at what we gave up to use it. Last week's comments by Google chief Eric Schmidt and the company's top legal team that Gmail users have no expectation of privacy and that the company "goes right up to the creepy line without crossing it" should be a wakeup call to all of us. 

We can't be aghast when Facebook shares our posts, Google logs our emails, Apple keeps track of our voice commands to Siri and the NSA captures our cell phone conversations. Every time we hastily scroll through the pages and pages of licensing agreements to hit the "OK" button, we are giving our consent to this. Because it is easy. Because technology is complicated. Because we just want it to work.

Are we positioning ourselves to be the masters of the exciting future vision of self-driving cars, environmentally aware appliances and interconnected devices, or are we just another "thing" on the network?

"iRobot", anyone?