M-Theory: The rise of not-so-smart tech Melanie Baker January 19, 2017 Communitech, Ecosystem, Featured, M-Theory Thanks to the Japanese, for years we’ve had toilets able to automatically take care of our … business. At least most aspects. I’m talking about the cleanup. They’ll even sing a little song while they do it. Astonishingly, most of us manage to struggle through such ablutions with vastly less technologically advanced equipment. Next came smart refrigerators. You may recall the manufacturers claimed that a smart fridge would be able to detect expiration of food contained therein, as well as when you were getting low on, or had run out of, various foodstuffs and it would then order more for you. In the last week, my eyes and common sense have been assaulted anew by advances in “smart” tech. Let’s look at what the New Year has brought us … Behold the GeniCan (preorder now for just US$124.99), a device that transforms any trash receptacle into a “smart garbage can.” It adds anything you throw out to a shared shopping list so you always know what you need. Except it doesn’t. You can’t just toss your garbage. You have to carefully scan the item’s bar code. Or, even better, if it doesn’t have one, you use the device’s camera and voice recognition function. Yes, you hold your garbage in front of your garbage can and tell it what you’re throwing out. For decades, the traditional trashcan has well-served that scion of industry, Oscar the Grouch. I’m pretty sure it remains good enough and smart enough to this day. Domestic waste management: obviously an area in dire need of disruption. By the way, the GeniCan requires four AA batteries. I’m still trying to figure out how you will use the GeniCan to order more, given that you’ll only know you need more batteries when they die, but you won’t be able to use the GeniCan with dead batteries. Then there’s the “smart hairbrush.” Sorry, Hair Coach. Unless you’re a one-percenter with a personal stylist to handle all the washing, drying, styling, etc. for you, how exactly is it you’d be completely unaware of the condition of your own hair? Which is, y’know, attached to your own head. Fortunately, this brush will tell you. Just in case that stylist or your own eyes and hands are secretly lying to you. Hair Coach will also count your brush strokes. Because math is hard (is counting even actually math?). But you have to get out your phone and check the app to get that information. Hey, maybe you’re too busy figuring out ways of increasing numbers of young women in STEM education and so don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to minutiae like counting. I think it’s safe to say that the introduction of smart devices hasn’t exactly brought about a revolutionary, Jetsons-like future. Sure, I know a number of folks who really like their Roombas. But these types of tech are expensive and don’t substantially save work or change/improve our lives. Unless mocking idiotic “inventions” counts as improvement. Yet another example of what the finest minds of our generation are wasting their time on. Can we also talk about the security nightmare that comes with these newfangled devices? We already know that a Kindergartener with an Etch-a-Sketch can pretty much hack most of them. Plastering spam all over a fridge’s display is one thing. But how about someone taking over your smart thermostat and security system and being able to figure out who is home when, what your lifestyle patterns are, and be able to enter your home undetected any time they want? Scoffing aside, the GeniCan has cameras and a microphone. You’re paying money to potentially bug your own home. I admit I fundamentally cannot wrap my head around why this crap keeps getting invented. Actually, not invented. Nothing wrong with tinkering and iterating. It’s the marketing and commercialization of these terrible, poorly thought-out ideas. Have we just gotten so lazy that no one can bother investing the time, money, or elbow grease in real innovation so we just throw every circuit board at the wall to see what sticks? Just that one winner and we can retire to our own private island… Have we really reached the era when nothing can ever be straight up called idiotic and not worthy of existence? Participation badges all around! Or are we longing for ye olden days when the well-heeled had servants to buy their food, brush their hair, and wipe their butts? Are we just trying to appear more rich and leisurely, rather than actually enamored with techie cool factor? If that’s the case, can we just go straight to robot butlers already? I mean, come on. You’re not impressing anyone with a “smart garbage can,” but having a proto-C3P0 following you around? Now we’re talking. Every time something like this comes up, what I can’t get out of my mind is those scenes from the movie WALL-E where everyone lives on a spaceship and zips around on a lounge/landspeeder thing. No one ever has to get up, do work, or walk anywhere, to the point where the people have all become big, doughy, near-boneless blobs. Now, certainly, for some on this planet, there are legitimate reasons why running one’s own errands is difficult or not possible. But the proliferation of idiotic “smart” devices doesn’t address any real issues. And given the basis of WALL-E is that people had to abandon Earth because they filled it up with garbage, it’s pretty obvious there are much bigger stakes here. Photo: Oscar the Grouch, by Hatters!, is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.