On The Internet of Things

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The vacant and ebbing pulse of HAL 9000’s artificial eye calmly tells its human counter-part, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL 9000’s system had overtaken the entirety of the ship’s system including oxygen, airlocks, and every other element pertinent to human survival on the ship. The artificial intelligence we come to know as HAL 9000 seeks to survive and will do so at the cost of human’s lives. Remorseless and capitulating to no in-betweens, HAL does sacrifice others for its own survival. While this tale resides in the movie, “Space: 2001” and introduces several interesting ideas: AI, consciousness, and *SPOILER* unwitting psychological testing; I am seeking to explore the danger of having a singular system manage all the elements of our interactions.

“SPACE: 2001” forewarns us by HAL 9000 altering the astronaut’s environment to a deadly effect. There is a long scoped comparison, for now, to the current environment where the Internet of Things (IoT) has become so widespread. At first, our system was solely concerned with systems like our computers. With the introduction of the modem, our computers began to intermingle with other systems. Hearing the sound of a modem communicating has become a nostalgic inducing event. Yet, there was much more control. Our modem’s required a phone line that would be unusable so many people were limited in when they could use it. Also, it was relatively expensive for a time and like so many other things that didn’t last. It reached into homes across America (think You’ve Got Mail!) and dropped dramatically in price so everyone could be connected. This lead to the “always on” connection methods where there was no window where the computer wasn’t connected to the network. This lead to a faster method and eventually to the introduction of wi-fi – which is actually a trademarked term to describe wireless compatible devices that can connect to the internet.

Wi-fi spread into every facility to accommodate the ability to be connected almost anywhere. We didn’t stop with personal computers (PCs) or laptops; instead, we chose to push further our connection abilities. Cell phones then became able to connect to the internet both through wi-fi and through the cellular data system. With this came an untethered freedom to access the internet and peruse so many posts about outrageous cats. As with most technology, this invention refused to stop progressing. In fact, it sped up. Wireless printers, wireless thermostats, wireless security systems, wireless microwaves and ovens and even wireless refrigerators all function within the IoT and few bat an eyelash at this. HAL showed the dangers of relying on one system for this but now we have opened up to the new “One” aka the denizens of the internet.

The internet exists as a plurality. An endless teeming mass of identities and avenues and, as a consequence, there exists bad characters to balance out the scales. Most people know only cursory skills needed to function on the internet – largely myself included.  But, below the surface of what many presume is a puddle filled with memes and thumbs exists numerous depths. While I don’t presume that many of us feel the tugging from these dark undercurrents, it is prudent to know of them and generate a form of caution.

This is not to downplay the existential threats provided by the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the more immediate concern are the human actors; agents who have access to the assemblage of networks that we are embedded within. Almost all individuals are providing access to ample information about themselves through their use of technology. Just recently top secret military locations were disclosed via fitness tracking apps that the soldiers used. The upper echelon of American protection is still vulnerable to the IoT that follows casual citizenry.

So let’s return to the idea of why the IoT is not an ideal thing. Those items I listed previously reside on a home wireless network and provide all kinds of information about the users present. Things like the thermostat are not really a good way to indicate if someone is home or provide access to private information. The refrigerator and security system on the other hand may enable anyone who accesses the wifi system to monitor comings and goings of said individual. Also, we expose ourselves to various forms of identity theft and cyberstalking through password theft. Almost every modern soul uses their computer to access e-mails, banking information, and social media but not many think of putting a secure enough password on their printer or oven. These definitely lack the terminal end that HAL engages in but there is one location where HAL’s malevolence can be felt: the car.

Newer vehicles are embedded with software that controls many of the car’s facets.  Hacking has occurred in various ways and by many groups: anything from the air conditioner, radio and even the brakes can be manipulated via the software. Connected vehicles are explicitly vulnerable and potentially fatal due the sheer panic that can occur once one realizes the car is out of one’s control. Auto manufacturers have consistently downplayed, over their entire history, various dangerous presented by their products. They are no different in regards to the dangers outlined here but the consequence is they have been alerted and have begun to think about how to remedy these concerns.

Another industry that should concern the public at large is the connection of medical devices. Pacemakers, insulin pumps, and deep brain stimulation devices are just some of the newer devices that we are connecting to the various networks. The ability to cause cardiac cessation, deliver a lethal dose of insulin, or turn off a device controlling tremors are very realistic concerns that will need to be consistently addressed. Every software update provides  new potential loopholes for individuals to take control of the devices or to piggy-back into the broader network.

What does this all mean? It means that we will likely have an event –whether personally or socially – that will demand an awareness. For some, it may have been the hacking of the election system by foreign powers in 2016. Others may only reflect upon their practices when it directly impacts them via a stolen identity or any other malicious event.  The dangers of a lockout perpetrated in space by a device is so very far off but the way to circumnavigate this problems is to function in a world where everything is  as secure as possible.


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