You probably didn’t notice that there was a fundamental shift in how technology operates in and integrates into our lives. It used to be that there were custom-built pieces of technology for different purposes. Some of them shared qualities – a tractor was kind of similar to a car – but they were still separate things.
This has changed. Increasingly, everything is a computer. Your phone is a small computer that can be used to call people. Your car is a collection of computers on wheels. Your television is a computer that shows a picture (and probably also watches you). The toys you buy for your kids have computers (and they also listen in on them).
Besides things you put yourself in (cars), things you put into your body will also be computers. When you need a pacemaker, it will be a remote-controlled computer. Therefore, it is really important that it works as intended. When only robots will drive cars, it is important that they do it properly.
This is not easy in the current situation. Draconian copyright laws in the US make securing devices difficult and there is little economic incentive to fix the situation – rest of the world follows suit, because economic agreements force them to. Consumers buy insecure devices and companies punish anyone trying to make them secure by using copyright laws to silence researchers.
That pacemaker waiting to be installed into your chest won’t be secure, because it is probably illegal to examine it to expose the flaws it has. The new blender you buy will be cracked and used to bring down the internet.
One of the most popular tropes in science fiction is that computers will take over the world. They won’t have to use an army of robots to do so; it has already happened. This isn’t simply a question for the IT support to solve. Our world has fundamentally changed and it has social, political and existential consequences. What does it mean to live in a world covered and governed by computers? We need to figure out sooner rather than later.
This post is followed by my post on algorithms in trying to figure out how digital technology affects our lives. Check it out, if you liked this one.