When I grow up, I want to be a smart phone

I was reading some recent announcements about wearable electronics.   Specifically the articles are on smart watches that combine elements found in smart phones and put it in a form of a (hopefully) comfortable and stylish watch.

The smart features include a high resolution display with back lighting and touch sensitivity with the promising future options of adding a camera and other sensing mechanisms to monitor heart beat, perspiration, blood oxygen levels, and even blood pressure.     The device would have multiple ways of communicating of communication for long distance (wireless) to short distance (wifi) and close proximity (bluetooth).    The device would include processing power to provide useful apps that can be installed as needed.   Many of the supported apps that will eventually be popular haven’t even be built yet.

Because I am not in the market for buying one, I haven’t really studied them in detail for what they offer.   For example, I’m not sure if a smart watch is meant as a successor to phone-less pad computers or as a successor to smart phones.   Instead, I’m curious about how people are reacting to the prospect of these becoming available.

That curiosity got me to thinking about the phenomena of smart phones with their associated wireless plans.

A couple years ago I was shopping for a smart phone.   I really did like the opportunity to carry a device that combined a phone with a computing device in an effective packet.   I was further sold on it during a business luncheon where everyone at the table started comparing their phones and their data plans and apps.   I was left out of that conversation.

I didn’t buy one.   At the time of the shopping I realized that my future was going to enter some budgetary limitations and I needed to save money and I needed to avoid making a long term commitment to a monthly expense.    Now, several years later, I found my financial expectations confirmed and I’m glad to have avoided the albeit modest expense of smart phones.

People were buying smart phones because they could take for granted that they had a steady income or had confidence money would arrive.   A smart phone was nearly worthless without its data plan and a data plan is a monthly expense.   That monthly expense is a modest one but it is still there.

When I think about the smart phone (and the smart watch), I am thinking about where these devices fit in people’s lives.   When I think about life, I think about the human condition in broad terms that says basically among us common people, we basically live lives just as our ancestors did.   From this perspective there is something about a smart phone or watch that would be familiar to our distant ancestors.

Our ancestors would recognize these technological marvels as employees or paid servants.   Even our poorer ancestors often aspired to be able to hire servants to help with chores and make life a little easier.   If they had any spare money at all, obtaining such services would often be at the top of their list of priorities.

When our ancestors had the means, they would often choose to hire a servant.   Before the modern regulations of minimum wages, regulations, and taxes, the servants could be obtained for an amount of money that on relative terms is not much different than a data contract for a phone.   Available servants were either poorer, or non working family members of nearby neighbors who could use the cash and the activity.

When selecting a servant, our ancestors probably did not shop around for plan details.  They didn’t have to because these details were obvious.   They were looking for human qualities of being able to communicate, to do useful work, and to be smart enough to do tasks (apps) that haven’t yet been conceived.   They were looking for servants that will become part of their lives providing immediate services and being able to adapt to new services in the future.

Usually the hiring process was pretty short.   The employer would look at the servant and observe the servant appears healthy and strong, the servant can understand language and promises to follow instructions with little supervision, the servant appears intelligent enough to tackle jobs that have not yet been imagined.     This assessment can be accomplished in a few minutes.

Note what my imagined assessment leaves out.  Such a quick assessment did not go through a detailed list of tasks to see that the servant can do precisely those tasks.  The employer of a house servant for example would reasonably assume that an able human would be able to clean pots, arrange tables, mop floors, dust furniture, wash clothes, fold and press clothes, water house plants, take care of house pets, perform routine shopping, do various minor repairs of various types (furniture, clothing, wall plaster, etc.).     There was no need for a skill test for these because the employer assumed that a reasonably motivated, intelligent, and handy servant will be able to follow the necessary instructions to a satisfactory level.    The employer hired the promise of flexible utility that he could expect from a human.

A smart phone is not quite as useful as a such a personal assistant employee or servant.   The most physical labor expected from a phone is to vibrate.   But the smart phone does a lot of things that free up the owner to devote more of his time to what he enjoys doing.  This is more or less what our ancestors wanted from servants.    The smart phone provides its services for a monthly fee that is as affordable to an owner as a servant’s salary (either in my hypothetical historic example, or in modern times in other parts of the world).

Back to my observations of modern trends, the recent announcement of smart watches is part of a larger trend of making everything smart.   This is being described as Internet of Everything.  Every material product a person (or business) will own will eventually become smart.    These items will be evaluated for their smartness, in particular for their ability to communicate in both direction and to accept new instructions to do tasks not yet conceived.

Even something as simple as a counter-top toaster could have a touch sensitive video display with cameras or task-specific sensors.  Most importantly it will be able to immediately connect to the network.   A smart toaster may support some future app that rings its ready bell to scare off a cat that its camera spots jumping the counter.   We initially bought the toaster because it combined the right form factor and function with the smarts to run apps and communicate on the network.   We just happened to discover a pet monitoring role later on.   With the right app, we have no problem incorporating that new role as part of its responsibilities.

In my opinion, a great amount of the excitement about making everything smart to participate in the Internet of Everything is explained by this expectation on that smartness to be able to accomplish tasks, to run apps, not yet imagined.   We need to employ these smart devices so we’ll be ready for the apps when they do arrive.

This is not unlike why we used to hire servants.   We hired based on routine chores, but the real benefit occurs during the rarer events.   For example, there may be one day a year when the family hosts a large dinner party and the servants would be critical for the operation of this event.   An alternative example is a minor disaster such as a flood that required unusual cleanup or repair activities.   Having servants around gave a piece of mind that you had resources available when you really needed them.  All you needed to do is to run a different app.

The Internet of Everything offers a similar promise of having things connected so that when some new requirement comes up the available resources will have the right smarts and communication abilities to tackle that requirement.

Everything becomes like a servant.  Or, every thing will become like a servant once was.

This analogy of smart things to servants illustrates in my mind a reversal in fortunes for things as opposed to humans.

In the past we recognized things as not smart.   We bought or invested in things because of their precise specifications of what they can immediately do.   We expected nothing from them other than what they were originally sold to do.  But we expected them to do that sold capability without flaw.   In contrast, we hired humans for their ability to be smart, to be able to communicate, to take instructions, to learn new tasks, and to perform their duties with minimal supervision.   Often even a hiring of a person for an industrial job involved an quick assessment of strength, intelligence, and language.    We expected the human to learn the role assigned.  In fact we need that flexibility so we can reassign that human to another role as the needs changed.

Today, the hiring process is reversed.   Humans are hired because of their immediate capabilities.   We don’t expect them to be able to do anything else but what they were hired to do.   But we expect them to perform flawlessly for the precise task they’ve been hired to do where this flawless performance is expected from the very first hour of employment.

Meanwhile we buy smart things like smart watches that we really don’t have an immediate need for.   Initially these smart watches will just show the time and look stylish, exactly what we expect from dumb watches.   But we anticipate there will be future apps that will be downloaded to make these entities very valuable in the future.   Also, we anticipate there will be an unexpected event that will be easier to get through if we already had a smart watch to adapt to the new challenge.  An example of the latter may be an unexpected health condition that requires frequent measurements of heart beats that a smart watch may be able to pick up and record with the right app.

We expect from things what we once expected from humans.   We expect from humans what we once expected from things.

A frequent vision of a dystopian future is where we regret machines taking over so that humans are no longer needed.    I see a different kind of dystopia where humans are still needed but instead they envy the respect afforded to machines.

There will probably always be tasks that will be most efficiently done by humans compared to machines.   What will be different is that we won’t allow people the flexibility to be used in multiple roles or to adapt to new roles in the same way we allow machines.    People will be confined to very specialized roles that are largely determined by their initial job description.   When that job is no longer needed, the assigned individual will be disposed into some recycling process.

An example may be a sales job that specializes in one specific market.  That sales person is assigned a corporate smart phone programmed with apps specific to that market.   When the company discontinues serving that market, the sales person is fired and the smart phone is reassigned to a different sales person.   All the smart phone needs is a new app, because it is smart.

The fired salesperson may wish he were a smart phone.


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