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Is it dumb to trust smart technology?

Mike Elgan | Aug. 1, 2016
Automation is nice, but it doesn't mean you should hand over responsibility to the machines.

Did we learn nothing from Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey?

In the film, astronauts on a mission to Jupiter discover that the HAL 9000 artificial intelligence computer that controls and automates all functions on the spacecraft starts seriously glitching. The astronauts get worried, HAL gets paranoid -- yada, yada, yada -- HAL kills everyone on the ship.

The moral of the story is that when lives depend on fully automated systems, it's a good idea to keep an eye on those systems anyway. (And if that's not the moral of the story, it should have been.)

How do you use something that's fully automatic, anyway? What is the responsibility of the "user"? Can we just hand over control to the bots?

Recent events in the news suggest that when it comes to using our automatic products and features, some people are doing it wrong.

The PetNet failure

Petnet is a $149 cloud-controlled smart feeder for dogs and cats that automatically dispenses pet food on a schedule. The feeder connects to the Internet via your home Wi-Fi network, and you control the feeder with an iOS app, and even dispense treats manually (for example, to assuage your own guilt for leaving Skippy in the care of an appliance).

Petnet is also tied to a pet food delivery service, which can also be automated through Amazon's Dash program. You don't have to order pet food; the feeder will do it for you. (As soon as dog-walking robots and dog-petting machines come on the market, we can disengage with Skippy altogether!)

Crucially, Petnet monitors your pet's food and water consumption to make sure Skippy doesn't get fat.

Sounds awesome, right?

But when a Google-provisioned service that the Petnet cloud depends on went down, some 10 percent of Petnet feeders stopped working properly for about 10 hours. Although the company claims automated feeding schedules were unaffected, users lost the ability to feed manually or change schedules. Some pets went hungry.

Petnet sent an email to customers, advising them to "please ensure that your pets have been fed manually." But many customers are relying on Petnet to feed their pets while on summer vacation.

The Nest Thermostat meltdown

One of the first mainstream Internet of Things devices, Google's Nest Learning Thermostat, is a device that automatically adjusts home temperatures.

Some Nest thermostats experienced a failure last week during a nationwide heat wave. The company issued a statement saying that a "small percentage of Nest Thermostats and Nest Protects" appeared to be offline, even though they were still functioning.

Back in January, a widespread glitch caused Nest thermostats to drain their own batteries, then fail to function. Worse, this occurred during an East Coast cold snap. Many Nest customers were left in the cold.


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