Android, Nest and Now: why Google gets that less is more

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I’ve got an admission to make: I am an IFTTT addict. In fact, the people who know me best would say that I got IFTTT to type out this article, but that’s not possible — yet. “If This Then That” is an incredible service that ushers 2013′s buzzword “the Internet of Things” into your life in splendid fashion: from automatically emailing you when your favourite surf spot is cooking to flashing your lights at home when you get a Facebook message, IFTTT can do it all.

The Internet of Things is the next great technological battleground that companies like IFTTT, Microsoft and Google will wage war upon. Google’s recent acquisition of Nest clearly indicates the path ahead as far as automated domestic computing goes. Those in the know realise that the acquisition reaches far further than merely controlling your thermostat on the way home.

With Android, Nest and Now, Google is gearing up to dominate the 21st century by knowing your routine, your location, what you enjoy searching for and what you do in your home. It’s a particularly scary prospect, especially in the light of a fridge being found sending spam messages in a bot attack.

It’s a scenario much like what we see in Spike Jonze’s new technology film Her: technology has become ubiquitous and, rather surprisingly, less imposing upon our everyday lives. Humans wear earpieces in order to command computers, leaving them free to interact with the world, unlike today where countless zombies stare at their screens during the daily commute.

Some writers are referring to this as the “un-design” of technology: the idea that technology can play a big part in the future but it doesn’t have to be intrusive, branded and flashy. The handsets we see in Her have been simplified incredibly. Gone are the shiny bricks we clutch in a white-knuckle embrace and they’re replaced with something simpler, more aesthetically appealing.

That aesthetic appeal isn’t just about the look of the technology, it’s about the “feel” too. The artificial intelligence we see in Her, one that is capable of love, has crossed the logic-based Rubicon. Enter Geoffrey Hinton, the man Google has hired to make artificial intelligence a reality. He’s mapping out the brain and trying to replicate neural networks in order to make computers react more like humans. Just this week, Google announced that it had acquired a London-based AI company called DeepMind in order to “employ the best techniques from machine learning and systems neuroscience to build powerful general-purpose learning algorithms”.

With artificial intelligence progressing at the rate it is, and man’s recent fascination with “the Internet of Things,” could it be the case that we could get robots to do far more, in very discrete ways, than we ever expected?

This man-robot style of relationship raises many philosophical questions with regards to ownership, identity and morality:

By fabricating something that has emotions, does this then mean that it has agency? Will moralistic responsibility then fall on the machine? What does this mean when your fridge is part of a spambot attack? Do we punish the fridge? Do we punish the owner of the fridge? Or do we punish the manufacturer of the fridge for allowing that hole in the fridge’s technological makeup?

Once we contemplate Google’s recent Boston Dynamics military robot acquisition, the future of human-robot relations starts to take on a rather scary veneer akin to what we see in the Will Smith sci-fi action movie I, Robot. This acquisition will be the Google “Don’t be evil” mantra’s acid test as “sentient” robots do their best not to gun down what they perceive to be the enemy.

What’s becoming increasingly important is the creation of a robot ethics commission: one that looks into aspects such as identity, ownership and agency in order to regulate the relationship between robots and the real world. The Danish Council of Ethics is starting this kind of process, but big players like Google and Microsoft would be doing themselves a disservice by not putting their hefty financial and intellectual capital into this commission.

As Box Founder Aaron Levie once tweeted: “With home automation, self-driving cars, robots, mobile, and life sciences, Google is setting itself up to own the 21st century.” Let’s hope it’s not by force.

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