Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: What the beep!?

The internet of things is coming and when it arrives it can beeping well shut up, writes Greg Dixon.

Ever wish the beeping alarms would stop? Photo / Thinkstock
Ever wish the beeping alarms would stop? Photo / Thinkstock

We own a nagging fridge freezer. If you spend too long poking about in it because, say, you're trying to find that half-used jar of red curry paste up the back or if you're taking your time repacking the freezer to get everything in after a supermarket visit, you get told off.

"Beep!" it scolds, "beep ... beep ... beep."

The handbook for the thing describes this Godawful beeping as an "alarm". But what it really is, is an advisory that the door has been left open for a bit - which is hardly an alarming thing.

I imagine the beeping is very useful in a noisy home filled with forgetful children or lazy teenagers. We have neither. But can we turn off the damn beeping? No, we beeping well can't.

It seems very shortsighted of the fridge's manufacturer not to provide a way to switch the eff-ing "alarm" thing off. But most other appliances are the same: washing machines (I know of someone who chose their last one based on how little it beeped), dryers, microwaves, ovens, coffee machines, vacuum cleaners, breadmakers ...

they're bleeping beepers all. Cars, too, are now full of random bings and bongs. Computers have a tendency to make strange sounds for no apparent reason at all. New mobile phones come with a cacophony of bizarre beeps and burps when you first buy them and it can take hours of your precious time to figure out how to shut off the ones you don't need (which is most of them).

Quite when technology started getting all naggy I don't know, though I've a theory: it could be that back in the 1970s and 80s, when our homes first began to accumulate electric appliances, we were all a little insecure about whether our flash new gear was on, off or doing what it was designed to do, so the manufacturers thoughtfully built them with trendy beeps to reassure us. But that was then. In the infinitely more tech-savvy 21st century, beeping is just more nagging noise pollution, more "communication" I could do without.

And I very much suspect it is only going to get worse when the "internet of things" finally arrives.

If you haven't heard about the internet of things, it is this: in the future - say within the next 10 years - pretty much everything new will be connected to the internet (including stuff they haven't thought of yet). Potentially every light switch, kitchen appliance, power outlet, heating system, camera, home security system, water heating unit, entertainment system, door lock and curtain or blind you own will be (or could be) connected to the internet and will be, to a greater or less extent, controllable with your voice, hand gestures or tablet or phone (or something they haven't thought of yet). Clothing, watches and other wearables will be connected, too, with, say, your sneakers telling you how far you've walked and your shirt monitoring your heart's beats per minute, blood pressure and the like.

Actually it's going to be much more pervasive than that, according to a Pew Research Centre report. The internet of things might also include "subcutaneous sensors" that provide patients' real-time vital signs to medical providers.

And it will be more than just your home appliances and your clothing that's got its own IP address. The Pew report predicts there will "smart cities", too, where ubiquitous sensors and GPS readouts will apparently mean "vastly smoother" traffic flows (here's hoping) along with warnings and suggestions to commuters about the best way to get around traffic (besides taking public transport) - "perhaps abetted by smart alarm clocks synched to their owners' eating and commuting habits and their day-to-day calendars".

There will be sensor-laden roadways, buildings, bridges, dams and other infrastructure that give regular readings on their state of wear and tear and provide alerts when repairs or upgrades are needed.

Manufacturers will be able to be "vastly more productive" because of supply chains co-ordinated by web-connected doodads.

It could even mean paper towel dispensers in public toilets signalling when they need to be refilled (that would be a blessing in most men's toilets, particularly at pubs) and city rubbish bins singing out electronically when they need to be emptied.

So more or less everything will soon be connected to the Matrix. This is either an exciting, gee-whiz future or a plugged-in hell, depending on how much you like technology. Either way the major foreseeable problem is the potential to have your life hacked even more than it can be now. Plus there will be a whole bunch of unintended consequences, too, that might ultimately lead (he speculates wildly) to Skynet, Judgement Day and a terminator coming back in time.

But none of that worries me. The bit I'm concerned about is whether all this whizzo, uber-connected stuff is just going to get my goat with even more nagging - and not just with incessant beeping, there will be all kinds of new nagging; apparently there are already fridges that send you text messages when you leave the door open!

What more should we expect? Are the toaster and the coffee machine going to join the fridge and gang up by text? Should I expect my shoes to demand that I walk further and, if I don't, for them to dob me into my doctor? Will the car become a backseat driver with constant "helpful" (and vocalised) tips about my driving, the route I've taken and whether I should give the car in front of me a bit more space? Will it report me to the cops if I don't?

Is the entertainment system going to start running my viewing and listening habits through an algorithm and take it upon itself to play only what it thinks I should be watching and listening to? (If it's anything like Apple's iTunes, it can keep its thoughts to itself.)

And is our home alarm system going to morph into a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style evil computer like the HAL 9000 and decide to push me out of the airlock because I can't be trusted to lock up the house properly?

I have no idea. But what I do know is that earlier this year the Huffington Post reported the horrifying news that a so-called smart fridge had been discovered spamming people's computers.

In what is thought to be the first cyberattack involving the internet of things, this evil appliance was part a "botnet" of more than 100,000 internet-connected devices that sent upward of 750,000 malicious emails during a couple of weeks around New Year.

I really hope, when it came to its senses, that this evil fridge texted its owner with an apology. And if it did, it probably went something like HAL's self-serving mea culpa to Dave towards the end of 2001, after it had wiped out the rest of the crew: "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently," HAL said, "but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission - and I want to help you."

To which, you hope the fridge owner said, "Beep off."

- NZ Herald

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