At the World Economic Forum, Google's Eric Schmidt is predicting that the Internet will disappear. I agree. I’ve always said that search will go under the hood, changing from a destination to a utility. Not that Mr. Schmidt or the Davos crew needs my validation. My invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail.
Underlying the idea that search will become an implicit rather than an explicit utility is a pretty big implication: The very nature of connectivity will change. Right now, the Internet is a tool or resource. We access it through conscious effort. It’s a “task at hand.” Our attention is focused on the Internet when we engage with it. The world described by Schmidt is much, much different. In this world, the “Internet of Things” creates a connected environment that we exist in. And this has some pretty important considerations for us.
First of all, when something becomes an environment, it surrounds us, becoming our world as we interpret it through assorted sensory inputs. These inputs have evolved to interpret a physical world: an environment of things. We will need help interpreting a digital world: an environment of data. Our reality, or what we perceive our reality to be, will change significantly as we introduce technologically mediated inputs into it.
Our brains were built to parse information from a physical world. We have cognitive mechanisms that evolved to do things like keep us away from physical harm. Our brains were never intended to crunch endless reams of digital data. So we will have to rely on technology to do that for us.
Right now we have an uneasy alliance between our instincts and the capabilities of machines. We are highly suspicious of technology. There is every rational reason in the world to believe that a self-driving Google car will be far safer than a two-ton chunk of accelerating metal under the control of a fundamentally flawed human, but who of us are willing to give up the wheel? The fact is, however, that if we want to function in the world Schmidt hints at, we’re going to have to learn not only to trust machines, but also to rely totally on them.
The other implication is one of bandwidth. Our brains have bottlenecks. Right now, our brain together with our senses subconsciously monitor our environment and, if the situation warrants, they wake up our conscious mind for some focused and deliberate processing. The busier our environment gets, the bigger this challenge becomes. A digitally connected environment will soon exceed our brain’s ability to comprehend and process information. We will have to determine some pretty stringent filtering thresholds. And we will rely on technology to do the filtering. As I said, our physical senses were not built to filter a digital world.
It will be an odd relationship with technology that will have to develop. Even if we lower our guard on letting machines do much of our “thinking” (in terms of processing environmental inputs for us) we still have to learn how to give machines guidelines so they know what our intentions are. This raises the question, “How smart do we want machines to become?” Do we want machines that can learn about us over time, without explicit guidance from us? Are we ready for technology that guesses what we want?
One of the comments on the Mediapost report on Schmidt's panel was from Jay Fredrickson, who wrote “Sign me up for this world, please. When will this happen and be fully rolled out? Ten years? 20 years?” Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. While this world may seem to be a step forward, we will actually be stepping over a threshold into a significantly different reality. As we step over that threshold, we will change what it means to be human. And there will be no stepping back.