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.

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.)"

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

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

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