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The philosophy of IoT: Will it help or hurt?

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

May 26, 2014 06:47 AM ET

Computerworld - 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 U.K. 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.

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