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Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills


'Why can't a woman be more like a man?' So enquired the inveterate misogynist Professor Henry Higgins. While inveterate misogyny is still with us (if you're not convinced of this, have a peek at the achingly depressing #yesallwomen hashtag on twitter), the question in the brave go-ahead 21st century has mutated. Nowadays all the hip kids are asking, 'Why can't a thing be more like a human?'

The answer, apparently, is that it's about to become so. At least that's what another professor, Peter McOwan of the University of London, suggested at a lecture he gave at the British Science Association.

In case you missed it - I know you've been busy with your particle physics experiments lately - I'll give you a rough and somewhat embellished sketch. In the future, probably a not terribly distant one, fridges will know when you're running dangerously short of sun-dried shishito peppers and order some more on the internet; umbrellas will beep at you if they know you're going out and they think it's going to rain later; your car will 'communicate with the train it predicts you will be able to catch and find out if there are any of your favourite brand Danish pastries left in the buffet'. In short, the soi disant Internet of Things will soon be upon us.

But that's not all. McOwan believes we will enter the age of 'affective computing' in which computerised objects will learn to recognise our facial expressions and body language. 'As smart devices start to work with us and understand our social rules,' he declares, 'we may increasingly see them as human-like - a world filled with tools designed to be our friends.'

In some small ways, that's already the case. Many adverts we see on the internet are there because websites know our browsing and purchasing habits and reflect them back to us. If you use Google (a popular search engine, m'lud), the results you are shown are based in part on what you have looked for before (it's yet another reason to use DuckDuckGo instead). This sense of being known and responded to personally by an inanimate object is one we're probably going to have to get used to.

This all throws up some questions that we'd do well to start asking ourselves. Where does the line lie between delegating tasks to machines and ceding our autonomy to them? When it comes to privacy, how much personal data do we really want to give away, and do we care how different facts about us are combined and used? And if smart machines can smooth our passage through life, removing as many unpredictable elements from it as is possible, will we be bored to death? Eliphaz told Job that we were born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. What will happen to your humanity when your best friend the smart house has detected the sparks, resolved the electrical fault, and made you a nice cup of tea just the way you like it?