When smart is not so smart

My latest BBC Future column, reprinted here for UK readers, takes a look at the risks of the “smart” present – and why it might make for a fragile future.

Google’s “chief technology advocate”, Michael Jones, recently made an astonishingly bold statement.

“Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps,” he told the Atlantic magazine. “They don’t give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they’re smarter, because they can rely on these tools”.

One of the original brains behind Google Maps – a tool whose latest innovations include some of the first ever detailed maps of North Korea – Jones is better placed to justify such a claim than most. Through technological tools, he argued, a “kind of extra-smartness is coming to people”. And it’s being delivered so seamlessly that most people only notice it when things go wrong – at which point “they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”

“Smart” is one of the iconic words of our times. When the world’s first “smart phone” appeared in 1997, courtesy of Swedish firm Ericsson, the label was carefully chosen to signify an evolutionary leap forward: the transition from a passive tool, used to make and receive calls, to an interactive device offering (in the words of its original packaging) not only an “address book/calendar/notepad” but also the then-miraculous promise of “voice/email/SMS/internet” in one’s pocket.

Today, as Jones’s formulation suggests, “smartness” denotes a particular species of sophistication brought by machines into daily living: the sophistication of tools which so effortlessly augment our capacities for thought and action that we feel like it’s us getting smarter. The “20 IQ points” offered by Google Search and Maps are only the beginning. From smart cars to smart cities, via smart glasses and smart fridges, we live in an age where every facet of the manufactured world will soon come with its own handy hunk of machine intelligence.

So far as technology advocates are concerned, this is all for the better. Smarter devices mean smarter people, smarter behaviours, and less of the messy incompetence that sees us getting lost, crashing cars and running out of milk. For others, though, “smart” is a dangerous word, and one that merits a particular species of fear: that building a smart world may be an extremely stupid thing to do.

Each year, Edge magazine asks a single question of some of the world’s brightest minds. Its 2013 selection was the cheerful “what should we be worried about?” – and, for the polemical technology author Evgeny Morozov, the best answer was the word “smart” itself.

“All this smart awesomeness will make our environment more plastic and more programmable,” Morozov argued. “It will also make it very tempting to design out all imperfections—just because we can!—from our interactions, social institutions, politics… If problem-solvers can get you to recycle via a game, would they even bother with the less effective path of engaging you in moral reasoning?”

Morozov rejects the claim that smart devices automatically make for “extra-smart” people. Instead, he suggests, a special ignorance lurks within the assumption that “imperfections” should or can be designed out of existence – not least because these imperfections are a crucial part of what makes us resilient, creative and ethically responsible in the first place. “Blinded by the awesomeness of our tools,” he concludes, “we might forget that some problems and imperfections are just the normal costs of accepting the social contract of living with other human beings, treating them with dignity, and ensuring that, in our recent pursuit of a perfect society, we do not shut off the door to change.”

In this, Morozov’s critique overlaps with a second significant contemporary word: “fragility.” As Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2012 book Antifragile, a “fragile” system is easily broken by unexpected shocks or irregularities. Global finance was one such system at the time of the 2008 crisis, with its locked-in assumptions about risk and cascading series of bad debts.

“Antifragility”, by contrast, describes a system that is able to thrive on uncertainty, and that will not be brought crashing down by circumstances its designers did not anticipate. For Taleb, humans are naturally “antifragile” creatures. Our best qualities, from creativity to compassion, are nurtured by a certain amount of stress, disorder and uncertainty – and are blunted by excessive ease and insulation from consequences.

If we are to grow as people, for Taleb, we must experience surprise, failure and disappointment, and not be seduced into thinking that all consequences have already been anticipated on our behalf. This, as he sees it, “is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most”.

The hurt doesn’t only lie in failures of personal development. For a central paradox of “smart” technologies is that the power they offer comes hand-in-hand with an unprecedented vulnerability. The more complex the global infrastructure needed to support the most basic tools and services in our lives, the more vulnerable it becomes to unexpected crises – from power outages to civil unrest – and the more vulnerable we become alongside it.

None of which is to deny the utility of Google Maps as a tool – or the giddy joy of exploring places from South Dakota to North Korea through the lens of services like Google Earth. Technologies inconceivable even a few decades ago now nestle in the palms of millions of hands, and these hands gratefully clasp their smart tools. It’s what else these hands do, and don’t do, that really matters; and how far the gifts of each device extract a price elsewhere.

As it was in the realm of finance, so it may be for technology. If the great digital edifices come crashing down, it’s those who most gleefully outsourced themselves to smart tools who’ll be left looking most stupid. Yet we all bear the risks of an uncritical approach to smart living: of a machine-woven social fabric that might, at the push of a button or the snip of a cable, unravel entirely.