Should We Be Scared of an Intelligent Internet of Things?

    James Hibbard
    James Hibbard

    Last week was IoT week on SitePoint which saw us publish a plethora of articles focused on the intersection of the internet and the physical world. We covered some seriously great stuff! Among my favorites was this article by Christopher Pitt on combining an Arduino, Minecraft and PHP (yup, PHP) and this article by SitePoint’s Alex Walker and Jude Aakjaer on creating a motion-sensing, meeting-room-reserving Arduino platform.

    Now, I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit of an IoT skeptic. As I’ve written in the past, it worries me that in the rush to get the latest, greatest IoT products out of the door, security is often an afterthought. I also have zero confidence in those large data-thirsty corporations who, given half a chance, would use my IoT devices to gather as much personal data as they possibly can. Oh wait, they’re doing that already, you say? Well, dang!

    Anyway, that’s why a third IoT week post struck a particular chord with me. This is a post in which Elio Qoshi cautions against the potentially dangerous combination of the IoT and artificial intelligence (AI). Now we’ve all heard the warnings about AI, right? World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking believes that thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence, and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk considers AI to be “potentially more dangerous than nukes“. But surely that’s just hyperbole. We’re already using AI in our day-to-day lives (for example whenever we interact with a virtual assistant such as Siri or Cortana) and the world hasn’t ended quite yet. In fact, for most people it just got more convenient.

    So what does happen when AI meets the IoT? Well initially, good things. For example, many smart home devices can “learn” from their users’ behavior patterns and regulate themselves accordingly. A thermostat that “knows” when you’re home and adjusts the temperature to suit, is not only extremely convenient, but can also save you quite a bit of money. Multiply that saving by the growing number of households installing such devices and we’ve taken a small, but significant step to addressing our energy consumption problems.

    And therein lies danger. The combination of the IoT and AI presents a vast amount of potentially life-changing possibilities. But this doesn’t mean that we should embrace them blindly!

    The need for caution was underscored recently by a fatal crash involving a self-driving car. The exact cause of the accident is not yet clear, however what is clear is that the car was in autopilot mode and that there was no reaction by the software before the crash. Call me a skeptic, but it will take a lot more testing before I would consider handing over the wheel to my car’s AI.

    And then of course there’s the human component. Remember Tay, Microsoft’s smart chat bot? Within 24 hours of being launched, Tay notoriously embarked upon a racist, genocidal Twitter rampage. Sadly, this was in large part, down to the humans she interacted with. It took Microsoft’s AI less than a day to go from “humans are super cool” to agreeing with Hitler. Now I hear that they’re teaching robots to hunt prey. Somehow, that doesn’t fill me full of confidence.

    But what do you think? What does AI + IoT actually equate to? Danger? Progress? Something else entirely? More importantly, would you get into a self-driving car? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

    Originally published in the SitePoint JavaScript Newsletter.