By: Vula Mthimkhulu
My religious liking of the Terminator movie series is such that I have always expected and dreaded this moment: “The rise of the machines”.
As such, I nearly chocked yesterday when the press release from global ICT think tank, Gartner, popped on my screen to announce the “era of cognizant computing”. Gartner says ICT professionals are set to be served with the advent of “cognizant computing” this week at the 2013 Garter Symposium/ITxpo in Barcelona.
I’m haunted by a possibility of things going horribly wrong under the rising power of computers. The stuff coming out of Edward Snowden files is picnic against my nightmares. ‘I see dead people’. And I think accountability will suffer when machine2machine social space becomes reality.
Granted; my visions are exaggerated by the powerful play, hallucinations if you like, of cataclysmic images in the Terminator series. And, I’m also vulnerable to the questions popped by the character Dr Alfred Lanning in I, Robot. “There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code, that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul.”
When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?”
I’m just wondering if the professionals at the Gartner symposium will ask these questions. But hey, these people have better things to think about.
A Gartner executive is quoted saying “Smartphones are becoming smarter, and will be smarter than you by 2017”. Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner adds that “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data.”
I see and appreciate the value in this path. It can be really useful for us the disorganised types. It saved me the usual embarrassment the other day for that meeting at Sinoteel Plaza, 159 Rivonia Road, Sandton. The electronic invitation for the meeting had come a week earlier with the full address on my email. I glanced through it and knew then that I don’t know the exact location of Sinosteel Plaza. But then I was on top of something and could not attend to googlemaps there and then. As usual the location mission was to disappear and would have re-emerged in the 11th hour.
Rivonia Road is long and cumbersome and knowing which part your meeting location is at, can make a huge time difference. Coming from Pretoria you need to know whether to branch off from the MI into the NI and then go up Rivonia Road from the Sunninghill end. It could be that you need to proceed straight and branch off at Malboro. And at the corner of Malboro and Bowling, a left or right turn can kill a deal. It could be that you need to pass Malboro and branch out at Grayston Drive and then decide whether you go up Katherine street or not. I’ve seen deals going sour due to wrong choices made around this navigation.
As fate would have it, I was on top of something about 3 hours before the Sinosteel Plaza meeting was due. And then, the calculating Samsung S3 kicked in. It told me I needed to live now to make the meeting. When I tapped the reminder, the googlemaps navigator kicked in and guided me through Malboro and then right into Bowling, left into Rivonia. I made it just in time. Had I relied on my instincts, I would not have calculated with such precision that the heavy traffic on N1 would make the trip over 2 hours long. The S3 knew this.
Gartner would characterise this experience as a tip of iceberg. The think tank says in its release “The first services (towards Cognizant Computing) that will be performed ‘automatically’ will generally help with menial tasks — and significantly time consuming or time wasting tasks — such as time-bound events (calendaring) such as booking a car for its yearly service, creating a weekly to-do list, sending birthday greetings, or responding to mundane email messages.”
Gradually adds Gartner, as confidence in the outsourcing of more menial tasks to the smartphone increases, consumers are expected to become accustomed to allowing a greater array of apps and services to take control of other aspects of their lives – this will be the era of cognizant computing.
Milanesi adds that “Mobile phones have turned into smartphones thanks to two things: technology and app.”
“Technology has added features such as cameras, locations and sensors, while apps have connected those to an array of functions that, for the most part, add and improve our day to day life from a social, knowledge, entertainment and productivity point of view.”
We assume that apps will acquire knowledge over time and get better with improved predictions of what users need and want, with data collection and response happening in real-time,” says Milanesi.
“Phones will become our secret digital agent, but only if we are willing to provide the information they require,” adds Milanesi.
I’m partly comforted by the latter submission: only if we are willing to provide the information. But then the power of the “We” tends to be overestimated within consumer heavy theories. Add real politics into this, you will arrive at a different conclusion. Add Carl von Clausewitz into the picture you will start to worry. Spice up the whole thing by inverting Von Clausewitz theory of war as Mitchel Foucault does you will have nightmares. “Politics is a continuation of war by other means.”
Vula Mthimkhulu is a freelancer.