The Neura Investment has got me thinking way back. Just 20 years ago – if someone had mentioned the idea of a “smartphone,” you would have looked at them like they were crazy. They might as well have broached the idea of a talking hat or sat you down to discuss the merits of a “philosophical toaster”. Now, obviously, most people don’t remember how they lived without them. What is truly remarkable, though, is how the incredible advances that are smartphones and mobile technology have conditioned and prepared us to accept other advancements; we’ve internalized the idea of technological acceleration.
To that end, it comes as little surprise that the San Francisco-based technology company Neura has managed to raise $2 million in venture capital to expand their work on the Internet of Things. With this capital, Neura looks to expand upon the connectivity and intuition of our machines, linking them both to each other and to ourselves. We now know that our smartphones are able to turn on the house lights when you’re across the country, but with advancements, all your devices can talk to each other – and will be able to anticipate what you need.
What Is the Internet of Things?
First off, it’s a very awkward way to phrase things, but it is rather accurate. We have smartphones and advancements in wearable technology, but the Internet of Things is essentially having every item in your house connected to the internet and able to act smartly. There have been enormous advancements in that over the last five years, and some concepts that were only seen as a sign of affluence in science fiction – TVs that turn on and off as you enter a room; breakfast ready when you awake – are becoming a reality, and may one day be commonplace.
But for Neura and like-minded tech enthusiasts, that isn’t enough. It is one thing to be able to program your DVR when you’re stuck in a meeting, or to turn on the heat before you get home, but to be able to have that happening without your intercession, with the devices talking to each other and interacting, is a different thing altogether.
Nature and Nurture: Going for a Run from a Smart House
So, the ramifications of these technological advancements are staggering, but to illustrate, we’ll use an everyday activity: going for a jog. Your phone already tells you how much you ran, and can keep track of your heart-rate, calories burned, etc. Wearable technology can improve upon, or at least augment, even that. But let’s take things a step further.
You’re used to having a smoothie before your run and then jumping in the shower right after, followed by a cup of coffee. As you run, your smartphone understands how far you are from home and sends a message to the shower that you are almost home, so it can be ready to have the water at the right temperature when you get in. When you’re in the shower, the coffee maker turns on.
Right now, that can just seem like a matter of timing – but it’s more than that. You start increasing your runs, but not every day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you run an extra couple of miles, and to ease your tired muscles, you want a warmer shower, and a longer one (go ahead – you’ve earned it!). So the shower knows to be warmer on those days, and the coffee starts brewing a little later. But let’s take this a step further: one Friday, you’re feeling really good, and you run an extra mile or two, outside your routine. Your phone knows the message to send to the other devices: you’re going to need a longer, warmer shower and later coffee. But maybe it didn’t know you altered your routine just because you ran longer – it knew because you put on your “long run” song first thing in the morning. The devices learned from you, and communicated with each other.
The Misguided Creepy Factor
Not everyone is so enamored of this, of course: there are a lot of people who see it as the advance of “The Singularity,” when man and machine will merge. By the same token, there are a lot of people excited about it for the same reasons. But I think that is a bit off – this might be on the road to such an event, but it is a completely different exit ramp.
The confusion about this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of artificial intelligence. There is always an idea that AI is going to become self-aware, automatically. And while it may be possible to program a machine to be self-aware and make its own decisions, such capabilities are not inherent in every smart device unless the programmers want them to be. Think about your phone – your phone is brilliant, with an enormous amount of processing power (maybe not as much NASA in 1969, but still a lot). But are you afraid of it? Other than as a time-waster?
By the same token, there is no reason to be afraid that your toaster knows how you want your toast, or that your stove can use an algorithm to communicate with your TV about what kind of mood you are in – because there is no there inside it. You can still change anything. It won’t actually know you or tell you what you want. It is just – though “just” wildly undersells how amazing it is – smart programming.
With the kind of connectivity envisioned by Neura, the Internet of Things amounts to a brilliant series of devices that can make our lives not just easier, but better. We’re in control in a way that we couldn’t imagine even 10 years ago. This can help our running in the present, provided we don’t run from the future.
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