Internet of Things

“Rise of the Machines” Forecasts a Digitized Future that is Happy, Healthy—and Scary

CNBC's Melissa Lee in a driverless car

CNBC’s Melissa Lee in a driverless car

When I imagine the future, I think of Disney Channel’s 1999 “Smart House.” The movie depicts a father, son, and daughter who move into a computerized house that takes on a life of its own—with the personality of an overbearing mother. The house is awesome (it instantly cooks whatever food you want!), but havoc ensues when “Pat” starts to turn against her inhabitants.

We have seen this glorified yet apprehensive vision of the future in literature and film for years, from Jules Verne to “The Jetsons.” Even “Smart House” is loosely based on a 1950 short story by Ray Bradbury. These fictional portrayals of the future suggest that while new inventions and computers will make our lives easier, there are risks involved—especially as computers become more and more humanlike.

Today this fiction is almost a reality. “Rise of the Machines,” a documentary that aired September 18th on CNBC, explores the risks and rewards of the very real Internet of Things, where machines speak to each other and us to solve problems and make our world smarter. These devices have sensors that track and record everything we do, and are found in our smartphones, cars, and appliances, in our hospitals, and on our city streets. As CNBC correspondent Melissa Lee says, “The future has arrived.”

For instance, the real-life smart house is imminent—although maybe not with the Disney Channel pizzazz. Sensors in appliances, lighting, and security systems enable houses to learn how you live and make your life easier. Some systems can tell when you wake up in the morning and automatically turn on the coffee maker; others monitor thermostats and lights using motion detectors. The systems can often be programmed and monitored with a smartphone, sending notifications when the mail has arrived, the dog needs to be fed, or the kids have watched too much TV. The goal, says Alex Hawkinson, the CEO of Smart Things, is “humanizing the world,” not just automating it.

We’re also approaching a future where all cars are driverless. Not only will this make our lives easier, it will also make them safer. Most car crashes happen because of human error, and a well-programmed computer is far less likely to make a mistake. Almost every major automaker is developing its own driverless technology, and proponents say the benefits to society will be overwhelming.

Furthermore, the (eventually driverless) city traffic will face increasing surveillance from thousands of sensors and cameras put in place by municipal governments. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, there is a huge system of sensors and video feeds that talk to each other and monitor everything from the weather and traffic to street protests. More than 30 public agencies are involved in this real-time data analysis, and the goal is to be a “good big brother,” says the mayor. His city, for example, can warn inhabitants of potential flooding and automatically change traffic light patterns.

The healthcare industry may stand to benefit the most from this new technology, as mountains of clinical data are collected in hospitals every day. Often unstructured, these data are now being analyzed for patterns that could predict trends and save lives. In the neonatal intensive care unit, doctors have learned to track heartbeat patterns in premature newborns to predict infections and give early antibiotics. Biosensors—such as wearable heart monitors and smartphone apps—are putting control of heart health in the hands of the patients, digitally tracking vital signs and warning of heart attacks before they happen.

So if smart machines can make us healthier, safer, and happier, what’s the problem? Across the board, privacy is the top concern. Anything on the Internet can be hacked, experts warn, from a house security system to video feeds of public streets to your personal health data. Furthermore, as data sensors and software analytics increasingly monitor railroad tracks, wind turbines, energy plants, and more, we even face the risk of hacker attacks that could shut down cities or even nations.

In addition, an increasingly automated world will completely change the job market, as MIT’s Andrew McAfee points out in the documentary as well as at last year’s Techonomy conference. As cars become driverless, we will no longer need truck drivers; as factory work becomes automated, we will see fewer assembly line workers; and as we increasingly monitor our own health, regular doctor’s visits will become a thing of the past. We want to create humanlike machines to make our lives easier, but how long before they become so human that real humans no longer have much to do?

CNBC will rebroadcast “Rise of the Machines” on Wednesday, Oct. 9th at 8pm ET.

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