The philosophy of IoT: Will it help or hurt?

Big questions about the Internet of Things are on the agenda at a July conference

Some ask the big questions about the Internet of Things. Will it free up human potential? Will everyone share in its benefits, or just those who capitalize on it?

These are the types of issues that may be raised at the Philosophy of the Internet of Things conference in July at York St. John University in the UK. Beginning July 3, this may be the first such conference organized around this topic. One of its organizers, Justin McKeown, head of the program for Fine Art and Computer Science at York St. John, explained some of the issues in an interview conducted via email.

Computer science and fine art are separate programs, but the university has introduced mandatory computer programming classes for all first year fine arts students with the "aim to produce creative and innovate individuals who are able to affect and adapt to changes," he said.

What makes the Internet of Things important enough to warrant such a conference? The conference was prompted by the shared understanding between myself and my co-organizers -- Joachim Walewksi and Rob Van Kranenburg -- that the Internet of things is not only a technological revolution, but also social revolution. Yet its technological development is being spurred on primarily by business and commerce concerns. We need to think about the social aspects of the technology, as well. Just because we can build something doesn't necessarily mean we should.

Is this increasing automation freeing up human potential? Is there a downside risk that it could diminish human potential? This is a question I think about a lot. If we look at the first industrial revolution, we see that it did free up human beings by relieving many of them of the burden of their jobs, through mechanization. While it freed humans up, it didn't relieve the economic problems brought about by lack of income caused by lack of work. So in the short term, based on prior historical evidence, it's not guaranteed that this will free up all human potential. However, if we reflect on the long term benefits of the first industrial revolution, we can see that it did eventually take us to a place where human potential was free enough to engage in other things. Hence the need to start thinking about the philosophical implications now.

This is exactly the type of thinking that needs to happen so that the IoT benefits the maximum number of people and not just those smart enough to capitalize upon it.

Is there concern that the IoT may change man's relationship to machines in a way we haven't experienced before? IoT technology will change humans' relationship to machines in a way we haven't seen before in the way that other recent technological innovations have already done so. For example the proliferation of communication mediums via smartphones has already given us new ways to organize ourselves both socially and politically.

What are the implications of this change? The function of technology has always been to make human aspirations more obtainable by making tasks easier to perform. It's already been demonstrated that the brain maps tools as part of the body and not as separate entities, so our relationship with machines is already much more intimate than most people realize. IoT offers us a level of automation that will bring us into closer working relationships with machines and AI. IoT technology has the potential to allow us to live more sustainable lives, predict and treat illness, as well as automate certain forms of labor. Some of this will have a positive effect, some of it may not. The potential is great, the value of the reality lies in its implementation -- hence the need to ask philosophical questions now.

Can you imagine a world where people have genuine emotion for machines, robotics in particular? And if that's possible, should those machines then have rights of some type? I think people already do have emotional attachments to machines. For example, how much do you love your smartphone? Should machines have rights? I'm not against this idea at all. This comes down to a wider and deeper debate around what constitutes life and sentience. One need only think about how harshly human beings have treated other human beings because of difference of sex, race, color and/or creed to see how narrow minded we can be as a species about the lives of others. If we add to this thinking how we treat animals, then this point is made even more obvious.

What do you hope this conference accomplishes? We need to find the language and ideological frameworks to consider and debate the potential impact of IoT technologies upon our lives and upon the planet. We need these debates to have currency, not only in academia but also industry and policy. The conference is a step towards achieving these things.

What can people who deploy, develop and work with technology gain from considering the philosophical issues associated with it? The answer to that is very simple: a better world for themselves, their families and friends by making systems that work to encourage the expansion of human knowledge and experience rather than simply things that make our lives more efficient. Efficiency is not necessarily better for us as beings.

Is this conference just for academics, professional philosophers? Can technologists, people in the industry, attend and participate as well? The conference is open to all and we've made a point of making the conference tickets affordable to try and encourage as many people as possible from industry, government, academia and any other walk of life to come and join in the discussion.

There is a "submit questions" form on your Web site -- can anyone submit a question? And what will you do with the material generated by the conference? Will it be available online? The question form is primarily for people inquiring about the conference. However, we have a twitter account, @iotphilosophy and we'd encourage people to use that to communicate with us during the conference. Also, we plan to put documents of the conference online, so hopefully people can interact with those as well.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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