Friends, Sensors, and Anticipated Needs

Do your best friends know where you are in space and time, continuously? If not, apparently they haven't been doing their job.
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Do your best friends know where you are in space and time, continuously? If not, apparently they haven't been doing their job.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, InformationWeek's Michael Endler interviewed the chief technology officer of a large tech company. The CTO described a future rich in sensors that would provide "pervasive access to information" -- including, as Endler paraphrased it, "not only 'hard sensors' that track physical attributes such as light, heat, pressure and motion, but also 'soft sensors' such as a user's calendar, social network activity and Web browsing habits."

The resulting "context awareness" would be used, the CTO said, "to create devices that really anticipate your needs." He added that those new devices would "know where you are in space and time, and understand the relationship you have with other people and other things"; they will "be like your best friend."

I found those statements jarring. First, if devices truly anticipated your needs, before you felt them, would those still qualify as "needs"? Will we ever live in a world in which people no longer have the experience of unmet needs? Or rather, a world in which some people can't even fulfill the most basic of their needs (for food or clean water or shelter), while others lose even the perception of a temporary deprivation?

Then I realized, of course, that even if this pre-fulfilling of needs came to pass, it would only apply to the kinds of needs that devices can fulfill. (The coffeemaker would start before you wake up; the refrigerator would alert you that the milk is about to expire; the toothbrush might make you a dentist appointment...) It's easy to be flippant; the reality is that some people would undoubtedly benefit greatly from such technology, and for some, like the elderly and the sick, it might even be lifesaving. Still, for most people, devices can fulfill only a limited subset of wants and needs.

Even more jarring, however, was the claim that this new "contextually aware" technology will be "like your best friend." Is that really what your best friend is like? Does your best friend "know where you are in space and time," continuously? Does he or she continuously gauge the temperature and light of your surroundings? Does he or she understand all of the relationships you have with other people and other things? Does he or she even try to anticipate your needs -- not just if you're crashing at their place for a weekend, say, but on an ongoing basis?

This sounds less like a best friend and more like a helicopter mom: always monitoring the parameters around you, demanding to know everything about you, so that she could do things for you... instead of you. In the case of devices, however, you wouldn't even have to repay the technology in guilt or phone calls.

But the "helicopter mom" analogy might be giving even helicopter moms too little credit -- because the element that helicopter moms and best friends have in common is that they both care about you. In every dictionary, the definitions of "friend" include the words "affection," "love," "like," or "esteem." In addition, dictionary aside, life teaches us that friends -- and moms -- demand things of us, too; our relationships with friends and mothers are reciprocal, two-way flows. Our "relationship" with technology is not.

So the interview with the CTO taught me this: Technology will at best anticipate only some of your needs, and contextually-aware devices will not be like your best friend (unless you have some very strange and annoying friends). It also reminded me that making hyperbolic claims about technology serves to highlight the limitations of dreamed-of devices, rather than their strengths.

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