Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

Is The Internet Of Things Making Us Dumber?


What isn’t connected to the internet, these days? Toasters? Yep. Thermostats? Check! Lights? You bet. But, what about crockpots? Oh, most definitely. Just about anything that could be connected to the internet, is in fact already connected or will be. That is, by definition, the internet of things. We were promised, the “smart home.” The idea being that with our devices connected to the internet, they would become more intelligent and that new found intelligence would create efficiency, save money, reduce friction and bring about joy.

“Machine learning” and “automation” aren’t consumer facing terms, but they are the underlying reasons why a smart home, could be, just that. Your Nest Thermostat learns your preferences. It knows when you’re home, when you’re gone and when you’re sleeping. It adjusts the temperature to align with those factors and to save you money. That’s the very definition of “smart.”

The past few years were focused on making all of our devices smarter. On some level, they’ve succeeded. Today, the focus is on the combination of internet connected things, machine learning and automation coming together to bring you some form of artificial intelligence. That sounds exciting. After all, who wouldn’t want their very own version of Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S? Amazon has Alexa. Google has Home. Apple has Siri (though not in a device beyond your laptop, phone or tablet). There are more. They’re coming.

I have booth a Google Home and an Amazon Alexa. Considering my own usage and what I’ve observed from other owners, I am convinced, that these devices, in their current format, are making us dumber.

Go back 20 years and imagine a debate in a bar, during a basketball game about whether Michael Jordan had 6 MVPS or 5. That debate would rage on. You would ask other patrons. In doing so, you’d interact with them. You might engage the bartender to answer this question. At some point, you might go to the library or use your computer, after you’ve left the bar, to find the answer and thus, settle the debate. The smart phone came along and it changed that experience, forever. We had answers in a handful of taps. On one hand we were more informed, with limitless knowledge at our fingertips. On the other hand, we became people incapable of making eye contact with one another for more than 10 seconds.

“Personal Assistants” like Alexa and Home are a natural extension of the phone, right? Instead of typing, “how many MVPs does Michael Jordan have?”, I can now just say, “ok google, how many how many MVPs does Michael Jordan have?” For the record, he has 5. He was robbed of a 6th, because writers felt bad that no one else was winning MVPs. So, one year, they gave it to Karl Malone. I digress. Back to the topic at hand; so, why do I think these devices are making us dumber?

  1. Erosion of People/Social Skills: as explained above, we’re losing the ability to carry conversations. While, yes, there will be more and more technology in our lives, I don’t foresee a world, where we never work with, nor have to interact with people.
  2. The Dumbing Down of Language: to get the most out of Alexa, Siri, Home and others, you speak a broken down version of your natural language. Our “English”, if you will, has become laughable. Because we’re being trained to issue commands that are understood by the software, we omit words or convert the proper spoken word into something so basic, it resembles a toddler first learning to speak.
  3. The Elimination of Context: Part of why you’re taught “why” in math instead of how to “ask” a calculator for the answer, is so that we have foundational knowledge. Why? Because, that added context will help us learn how and when to apply the foundational knowledge in real world situations. Geometry teaches us to play pool better. Seriously. Answers, without context, are not just lazy, they undermine our thirst for knowledge. Information, is not, knowledge.

The future is going to be digitally driven and internet connected. There is no doubt. But, if the starting point for what my kids, Cora (age 9) and John (age 7) learn, is a broken down form of language, that teaches them to conform to the norms of an algorithm over traditional social skills and that they shouldn’t have to learn about the underlying context to an answer, aren’t we just raising robots?