018 is upon us and we don’t appear to have reached peak smart. Google’s fascinating Ngram Viewer, which measures the frequency of word use, traces a gently undulating course for this Old English adjective through much of its life since 1800, descending to a valley around 1963, when it begins to ascend at roughly the same angle as the North face of the Eiger. We already have smart cities, smart weapons, smart pills, smart meters for our electricity, even smart fridges, as well as the ubiquitous smart phones and, of course, smart watches.
The Internet of Things promises a multitude of additional smart devices that will embed internet connectivity into even more areas of our lives, making everything so much easier, more efficient, and more fun. That’s what we’re told, anyway. But what is so smart about these smart devices?
There’s more than one definition, but the one we need – “quick, clever, shrewd, intelligent” – dates from around 1300 (a later meaning – “sophisticated, fashionable” – may also have some tangential relevance here). The implication is that these objects go one better than a mere tool, and incorporate some sort of intelligence. Your smart fridge will see when you’re about to run out of milk, for example, and helpfully order some more. It will notice if you’ve been eating rather a lot of cheese and hide it under some lettuce, or alert the paramedics, or something.
What about your smart watch? What intelligent functions does it perform, in addition to telling you the time? Generally, it tells you everything your smartphone can already tell you, and, by capturing heart rate and motion data at the same time, also tells you everything your partner can already tell you, such as that you didn’t sleep very well last night, and you really should think about going to the gym.
It turns out that, in many cases, the intelligence of these smart devices is all about collecting a lot of data, analysing it, processing the results and outputting them in some more or less interesting or useful way, something that computers are far better at than humans. But the promise of truly clever electronic devices would appear to be some way off still, and, to people like me who are occasionally kept awake at night by thoughts of rogue paperclip-making machines consuming all the matter in the universe, that’s probably not such a bad thing.
I’m reminded of the old tale of NASA’s efforts to engineer a pen that would write in space (actually just an urban legend but hey, as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”). The story goes that, back in the 1960s, the US space agency embarked upon years of research and spent millions of dollars to develop a pen that would work without gravity. The Russians gave their cosmonauts a pencil. It may not be true, but it is pretty smart.