Will Machines start to govern our lives?

When the history of the 21st century is written it will be known as the Age of the Machines. Over the coming decades machines will be intimately involved in every part of our lives from the cradle to the grave and playing a key role in the poorest of states as well as the wealthiest countries.

We and our machines will generate an ever-increasing flow of digital data, and the machines themselves will add a torrent of material that they will generate independently.

According to the telecoms giant Cisco, by 2020 machine-generated data will exceed the traffic generated by people as these inanimate objects fine-tune themselves and collect information from us and the billions of sensors built into what has become known as the Internet of Things (IoT) which is set to become a reality by around 2015.

According to those helping to bring it into existence, the Internet of Things will have the potential to connect virtually anything to the web or wireless networks, from packs of African hunting dogs in Botswana, to lamp shades on dining tables in Bristol and to coffee-making machines in Dijon.

This internet of things will link computers, cars, mobile phones, clothes, fridges, food, fields, plants, planes and people. Nothing will escape measurement, because everything means something according to the theory of the IoT.

The same will be as true for us as it will be for our machines. In the same way that our health will be monitored so, too, our cars will be watched to ensure that they are performing at peak efficiency both for our wallets and for the environment. We will hear a lot more of the word ‘smart’: smart means finely-tuned, online and efficient, hence smart phones, smart grid, smart city, smart house, smart car, smart pants.

The internet of things will create a world where not only is everything measured but where we, too, are measured in relation to the huge pool of ‘big data’ that the machines and sensors gather. Indeed, ‘big data’ will be the biggest product of the internet of things.

The key question will arise: will we humans remain in control of the process, or will the process begin to control us?

First, the good news. The IoT could be one of the greatest boons to humankind in history, enabling unparalleled understanding of our lives and our relationship to our planet. Using smart technology, big data and the IoT we should be able to improve our lives and reduce our impact on the world simply by making life more efficient.

The bad news is that there could be – some would say there is already is – a downside. As suggested by the revelations from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – the IoT has profound implications for us in terms of surveillance, privacy and consumer rights. As consumers we are at risk of becoming simply one component of the IoT, a component at the mercy of the sensors in the street and the analytical software engines and algorithms in the machine.

It will not stop there. As this mass of IoT-generated data becomes greater, computer systems will require more and more autonomy to allow them to reach conclusions about us. Some of these programs may even become self-programming, giving them even greater power. Machines will really start to govern our lives.

It would be a major mistake, though, to think of these machines as human-like ‘androids’ encased in an outer skin. On the contrary, many of the machines with which we will cohabit in the coming decades will simply be pieces of software moving freely but unseen through the internet as ‘software entities’. Their influence will be subtle, unspectacular and often unseen, but no less profound for that.

The key question will arise: will we humans remain in control of the process, or will the process begin to control us? There is concern about our growing inability to keep up with the pace, scale and implications of technological change. In that sense, are we already beginning to lose control of the machines?

Arising from this key question are fundamental issues that should concern us all, no matter how what our attitude is to technology. In this mass of digital communications, machines and big data, where do human rights such as privacy stand? Where is the human dimension in a world dominated by machines? Can or should a system of ethics be imposed on computer software and the internet of things itself?

Are existing legal frameworks and approaches able to adapt to the coming machine age? And should machines themselves be accorded some form of ‘rights’ – in order to better protect we humans? And if so, what kind of body should be responsible for assigning those rights and inputting controls into the machine world? What rules will govern the makers of the machines and the ‘Lords of the Clouds’?

One of the most important issues of all, we believe, is that we are entering into a major age of technological change with little real public discussion of the implications that this will have on all our lives.

In compiling the report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?, we have canvassed the opinions of a number of leading experts in the fields of computing, robotics, philosophy, the law, the internet and cyber security, from around the world. Many experts feel it is indeed time that the public in general and politicians in particular woke up to the technological changes we are starting to undergo as a society.

This is emphatically not a plea for slowing down the pace of technological change, nor some modern-day Luddite anti-technological argument. For, as we say, the internet of things and all that goes with it could bring exceptional benefits to the human race.

Instead, the report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? is intended to help further the debate on just where we as citizens and consumers stand in relation to these changes, and to provide a timely reminder that, in the midst of the complex and often exciting technical changes that are being developed to help the human condition, we should ensure that humanity itself is not left out of the equation.


This article is part of a series of articles published from the Netopia report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? Exploring the Dark Side of the Internet of Things and Big Data, by Peter Warren, Michael Streeter and Jane Whyatt.