Smart at heart

Smartphone, smart fridge, smart pants. Is everything becoming too ‘smart’ for our good?

forecasters say the single most important emerging trend over the next five years is going to be AI.

What does the phrase mean?

‘Smart’ is a catchy word that’s been adopted by the marketing fraternity within the tech industry and is being added to all manner of technologically-enhanced products that boast increased functionality, data-generating sensors and greater connectivity. It’s increasingly being used as a catch-all term to indicate that items have evolved from their former ‘dumb’ state to now include an element of awareness, intelligence and autonomy.

The trouble is, the term is getting used so frequently that it’s getting out of hand. You also have to question if the technology being added is always necessary. For example, do you really need to spy inside your smart fridge with your smartphone to see if you have enough eggs?

Samsung’s Family Hub fridge takes the concept further, allowing the presumably time-starved owners to have their provisions delivered. It’s no longer just a fridge; it’s a ‘powerful technology platform’, in the company’s words.

While some may scoff at this functionality (it also responds to voice commands, and can read you a recipe, for instance), none of this would have been possible, or at least of limited use, without connectivity, the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI).

Where does it fit in the stack?

Computer scientist Mark Weiser is credited with coining the term ‘ubiquitous computing’ in 1988 – a precursor to the ‘smart’ world we find ourselves in today. Writing in the Scientific American in 1991, he said ‘computers in light switches, thermostats, stereos and ovens help to activate the world’ and that these machines, and others, will be interconnected in a ubiquitous network. He also said little was more basic to our perception than physical juxtaposition, and thus a machine must know where it is.

Weiser also said – remember this is a scant 25 years ago – that ‘today's computers, in contrast, have no idea of their location and surroundings’.

These days, forecasters say the single most important emerging trend over the next five years is going to be AI. Gartner vice-president and research fellow Steve Prentice suggests that when AI is embedded in smart machines – even at trivial levels – they will increasingly enter our lives and we’ll trust them to make more and more decisions. This would be especially true in the automated (smart) home, where we all know we need breakfast cereal, milk and toilet paper, but can’t be bothered to remember to buy them ourselves.

“As those systems get bigger and smarter, and as the artificial intelligence becomes more embedded, then it becomes that we’re more like equals. When you jump into a self-driving vehicle, who’s the master and who’s the servant?” he asks.

“Smart systems are very good at collecting data and analysing it, but they’re not necessarily very good at using it wisely. Digital ethics is going to become a very hot subject, alongside smart technology, because smart technology’s exploits raise all sorts of ethical questions about whether it’s right, sensible or legal.”

Can we make money from it?

The shift to smart businesses is happening in unlikely places. Under Armour is a US apparel and footwear company, and perhaps surprisingly for a ‘shirts and shoes’ company, as CEO Kevin Plank puts it, is investing heavily in technology.

This strategy, says Plank, has resulted in it acquiring a number of tech companies to assist in the ‘digital transformation’ of its brand.

He says last year the company realised its future growth lay in its community wearing its apparel and generating a pool of data to analyse. The firm has acquired a number of fitness tracking companies and is focused on analysing ‘how much they [its community members] slept, their weight, how much they exercised, how many steps they took, and what they eat and put in their bodies’.

“We believe that moving towards this idea of biometric measurement, and understanding of self, is one of the waves of the future.”

While Under Armour is an early adopter, for Gartner’s Prentice, no business can afford not to get involved in this new tech.

“You might say AI is too futuristic. It’s not. It’s happening at a rate that’s far faster than we might have anticipated. And pretty much every business needs to ask itself how it can be using this.”

As the push to enhanced digital businesses marches on, ‘smart’ (with added AI capabilities) will continue to get smarter and more widespread across all manner of devices. The reality is that while the term might get over-used, the intelligence that it represents isn’t going away anytime soon.

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