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The Rise of the Machines

11 июня 2009

An interesting story appeared in the news this week: a smart meter company, Trilliant, announced its acquisition of a WiFi equipment maker, SkyPilot Network.

This news was followed by speculation that WiMAX may also find its niche as a technology for appliances and utility meters to communicate with the electric power grid, rather than one for connecting humans to the Internet.

Whether the ultimate fates of WiFi and WiMAX lie more with human or machine communications is clearly debatable. It did get me thinking about unintended consequences in the application of emerging technologies, and how the applications can evolve over time.

We are fond of identifying "killer apps," the applications that drive mass market adoption of new technologies. Visicalc is often cited as the killer app that enlightened businesses to the value of personal computers, for example. Email and the World Wide Web make a pair of killer apps behind the evolution of the Internet into an indispensable part of the communications infrastructure.

One of my favorite killer app stories concerns Alexander Graham Bell's vision of how the telephone would serve society. He foresaw connecting concert halls to distant listeners as the best application of his invention. I'm sure there is a lesson here for the venture capitalist with the creator of the next big thing sitting in the outer office. There is certainly a lesson about technologies migrating toward the most compelling need, whether the inventor anticipates it or not.

We did find a technical solution for our desire to share music, just not the one
Bell had in mind. Now, depending on your generation, you are either thinking of radios or MP3 players. More lessons to be found here. The AM radio technology that brought me the Beatles and Motown in my youth gave way to FM radio, coinciding with the maturing my musical tastes from Top 40 to progressive rock. Having witnessed the superior audio fidelity of FM relegate the AM band to the domain of talk radio, I can only wonder what will become of FM radio as my kids reflexively pick up their iPods when they want to listen to music.

So back to the title and theme of this piece: the Terminator series is just the latest cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of abdicating too much control to machines. Does anyone remember HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

I don't expect the consequences to be anything as dire as nuclear annihilation or involuntary confinement if we turn over WiFi and WiMAX to our refrigerators and wash machines. At least I don't expect to find myself trapped in an endless spin cycle if I decide to run the washer at a time of my choosing.

The caution I would issue will not forestall the demise of civilization, although it could prevent the disappearance of companies working on these technologies. It's okay to be wrong about the best application of your technology. If you are lucky enough to see your technology applied in ways you did not anticipate, it is not a sign that you have lost control of it. Even if things begin as you expect, be prepared to react to changing conditions in the marketplace. Remember that it is not necessarily the strong that survive, but the most adaptable.

I've said my piece, delivered my warning. No apocalyptic vision here, so I'll just be on my way, as soon as I get this door opened. Open the pod door, HAL. HAL?


Dr. Barry Sullivan, Content Director, IEC


Источник: IEC

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