I remember seeing the Tom Cruise film Minority Report in 2002 with flying cars and cereal boxes that came alive, and wondered how that could all happen. I still don’t quite get it, but I know it has something to do with computers, 1 trillion of them. The interconnectivity of society will be beyond a scale we can imagine. Even today it has begun.
As Hurricane Dorian tracked towards America’s east coast, Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla, an electric-car maker, announced that some of his customers in the storm’s path would find that their cars had suddenly developed the ability to drive farther on a single battery charge. When I first read this I imagined it had something to do with the power and voltage of the storm. No, it was Tesla’s ability in Silicon Valley to press a button to give the cars’ batteries extra juice. That is cool, and scary in a way.
So what is in this so-called second internet for consumers? Privacy for one. The world seems obsessed with privacy of person, as three quarters of Americans do not know their neighbors. Amazon will gladly fill their need for control. Amazon’s Ring smart doorbells come equipped with motion sensors and video cameras. Working together, they can also form what is, in effect, a private CCTV network, allowing the firm to offer its customers a “digital neighborhood-watch” and pass any interesting video along to the police. Privacy or invasion of privacy?
What’s in it for business? Efficiency and information about the physical world that use to be transitory and uncertain becomes concrete and analyzable. You’ve seen the IBM marketing that shows Watson being able to detect power outages in things like lightbulbs and elevators before they actually happen.
This connectivity will not be limited to robotics as such. The agrarian society will use chips to enhance its yields as will the meat farmers that feed the world. Connected cows can have their eating habits and vital signs tracked in real time, which means they produce more milk and require less medicine when they fall ill. Such gains are individually small, but compounded again and again across an economy, they are the raw material of growth, potentially a great deal of it.
This will inevitably cause turmoil. Unresolved arguments about ownership, data, surveillance, competition and security will spill over from the virtual world into the real one. Perhaps the balance of power which is measured by consumer activity in GDP will shift to the producer. John Deere, for instance, has essentially told buyers of its high-tech tractors that they are not actually buying a product, but are licensing a technology. This blurs the line of product versus service, and even ownership as well.
Never let scientists and engineers determine the morality of societal advancement. They do not have your best interests in mind. In our time science has separated itself and has a choir all of its own. Again, it’s all about money. Perhaps it is unfair that someone who goes to carnivals and eats fried fatback sandwiches pays the same health insurance premium as a vegan. You see where this Orwellian conversation will go.