New Study: 'Cloud of Things' Could Make Customer Service Better, Humanity Worse

Experts predict technology will improve daily transactions by 2025, but there are major caveats.
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There's this 1960 Twilight Zone episode, "A Thing About Machines," that hinges on one of the classic conflicts in science fiction: Man versus machine.

The story is about a wealthy curmudgeon who lives in a house filled with technology he's not convinced he needs. Naturally, the appliances fight back. This guy is attacked by his typewriter, a television set, a rotary telephone, and an electric razor that slithers down the staircase. These devices had learned to communicate with one another, a fairly fantastical idea 50 years ago. But technology experts today fully expect our devices to be able to communicate with one another in the next decade. (Clearly, some of them already do. Think: Fitbits and iPhones, for example.)

"We will want, and need, the machines to talk behind our backs in 2025," said Lee McKnight, a professor of innovation at Syracuse, in a new Pew Research Center study. "But maybe there are some social and ethical limits that will need to be in place in order for the public to become comfortable socializing, while knowing the machines are listening, watching, and analyzing our every move."

* * *

The Cloud of Things is the term used to describe the way machines will use our digital data—untethered to any single device or platform—to communicate with one another. So while a smartphone is the device for sensing and viewing and networking,  the Cloud of Things is digital information "about the things, and their inter-communication and sense-making patterns," McKnight said. 

McKnight is one of more than 2,500 experts who responded to a call for predictions about how this already-forming Cloud of Things will change the way we live by the year 2025. Some 83 percent of those experts agreed that the Cloud of Things will have "widespread and beneficial" effects in the next 10 years. But many were wary, too. 

On one hand, daily transactions of the near future could be made much smoother by networked architecture that restructures many of our interactions. For instance, when intelligence and connectivity is free from individual devices and maintained in a cloud tied to personal data, the way we communicate with companies and individuals could fundamentally change.  

"Today, all customer-service frameworks are provided by companies, and not by customers," wrote Doc Searls, the director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "All are also different from each other and require that each of us maintain separate relationships with all of them... In the new system we see emerging above, customers will own—and standardize—the relationships they have with companies. (One small example is the ability to change one's contact information one time for all company relationships, rather than separately for all of them.)"

So the Cloud of Things will create a trove of personal data that you can choose how to deploy, but it will also create social experiences that are "far more social than any 'social network,'" Searls says, because the cloud won't be controlled by centralized platforms like Google or Facebook or Twitter. "Instead, [people] can connect to each other in a fully distributed way. Logical operations can be programmed among and between anybody and anything in the world, with full respect for the permissions others provide voluntarily."

Voluntarily is a key word.

The protection of personal data—from marketers, from hackers, from governments, etc., etc.— is already a major and growing concern, and by 2025 "countless trillions" of devices will be Internet-connected, Searls says. 

There will be a robust privacy industry that crops up around these concerns, many experts agree, but that may not be enough. For instance, Searls imagines a wearable device that could signal "an unwillingness to be followed, or to have promotional messages pushed at us without our consent." 

But what about more nefarious data-tracking efforts? You know, the kind that doesn't actually care what you want. 

"The ‘Cloud’ sounds nice but is only a corporation’s huge bank of servers collecting your information," said Larry Gell, director-general of the International Agency for Economic Development, in the report. "People will rebel against this (some are already), but if the corporations beat them to the game of locking them into their software and allow for no escape from their ‘Cloud,’ the corporations and governments win. I am betting on the corporations and governments winning that game."

Mikey O'Connor, who serves on ICANN’s GNSO Council finds the prospect of a data-armed government downright terrifying—not just because secret agencies might be reading your Gchat archives, but because they could use data to kill their citizens

"A privately controlled Cloud that can monitor and record the thoughts and eye-movements of millions of people will provide the basis for the ultimate in psychological warfare and political control," he said. "By 2025, at least one bigoted regime will have completely exterminated a minority population, greatly aided by this capability. This effort will be made possible by multiple informants providing real-time identification and location information about targeted peoples.”

But leading thinkers are also wondering about the intelligence of the Cloud itself. Scientists like Stephen Hawking are urging people to begin thinking about how and where artificial intelligence will develop in the coming decades. As Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek told The Atlantic's James Hamblin, machine intelligence won't actually be confined to machines: "It could just be superintelligence that’s in a cloud. It doesn’t have to be embodied in the usual sense."

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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