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The Internet of Them: AI Platforms in an Untethered World

By Julie M. Albright, Ph.D., Digital Sociologist, University of Southern California

Our reliance upon and embeddedness within technological platforms is growing at an extraordinary rate. Technology has always reshaped human culture and societies, beginning in the early Agrarian Period, when developing agricultural processes moved us from nomadic tribes toward settled cities. In the Industrial era, steam engines propelled many to the cities seeking work in the new factories. The spread of electrification, the railroad, and finally, the car, moved us further from those cities into suburban sprawl. Now in the Digital Era, the impacts of the growing global digital infrastructure and technological innovation are increasing faster in terms of both pace and scope of change than ever before, transforming societies on a global scale and creating new behaviors.

My framework for understanding these changes is named the Triad of Technological Immersion. It is a theoretical scaffolding to help us understand the stages of technological and behavioral development, for which there are three: the Untethered Society, the Internet of Me, and the Internet of Them.

The Untethered Society

In our current stage, there is an increasing desire for a digital interface; behaviors revolve around connectivity and there is a simultaneous unhooking from traditional social structures/processes. As a whole these changes can be described as becoming ‘untethered,’ and defined as:

A condition in which ties to people, places, jobs, traditional processes, and organizing structures in society — like churches and political parties — are being weakened, broken, and displaced by digital hyper-connectivity.

Although untethering is increasing in scope across socioeconomic and generational lines, it is manifesting most notably among Millennials and those younger. The double helix of behavior and technology is at the core of becoming untethered, acting as the socio-genetic underpinning of a new constellation of behaviors, values, norms, and ideals for digital natives, and spreading through osmosis to older generations. The unintended consequences of ubiquitous connectivity are beginning to surface. Elections in the U.S., U.K., and in multiple African nations have been reshaped by the digital manipulation of people’s fears, using shareable, viral content microtargeted to psychologically and sociodemographically profiled individuals ripe for manipulation. Such moves leave traditional political structures at a loss for a response.

The Internet of Me

Next to emerge is the Internet of Me. This is the advent of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and ‘smart’ systems where there is an increasing intersection between physical platforms and an array of objects — from light bulbs connected to your smartphones to automobiles and homes embedded with digital technologies, calibrated to your preferences. In the Internet of Me, the technologies revolve around you, customizable to your preferences — the temperature and lighting are adjusted to your liking when you get home; and perhaps your favorite music is playing when you walk through the door. The Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa use AI to search for songs, find information, and purchase goods through the Amazon Marketplace, delivered straight to your home. Kids growing up with this kind of AI are using it to learn; and one enterprising young girl recently used her access to order USD 300 in toys from Amazon, much to her mother’s chagrin.

AI will continue to grow and develop as a smart interface to the Internet of Things. One example is Japan’s Gatebox. Targeting young, single, male urban dwellers, it provides not only a way to turn on the lights when you get home, but also serves as a virtual wife for untethered urban adults, standing in for those relationships young people are increasingly unhooking from, yet on some level, still yearn for. Gatebox’s cute, holographic virtual wife sends you text messages throughout the day, much like a real romantic partner, and greets you with excitement when you come home. As such virtualized companions become more common, they will become a taken-for-granted part of the landscape by the next generation of kids who are growing up with them. Being that they may be faster, more accurate, and less hassle than a surly customer service agent, or even more knowledgeable than a teacher in providing information, AI agents may become for some the preferred mode of interaction.

The Internet of Them

The last stage I call the Internet of Them. In the prior stages, humans were in the loop, controlling the technologies. In the Internet of Them, intelligence becomes autonomous, spinning away from human control. It is AI and automation with the human out of the loop. They will increasingly ‘talk to’ and coordinate with other intelligent objects and agents, like autonomous cars communicating with one another to coordinate driving on the road. Robotic workers with ‘synthetic personalities,’ intelligent machines and automated workers will begin to displace workers now in the workforce. These intelligent agents will eventually exceed human intelligence and capabilities for certain tasks.

Because of the accelerated pace of diffusion of these technologies, they may outpace our ability to adapt to them. People argue that we’ve always had technological disruption, and we’ve always adapted to it, citing the conversion from the horse and buggy to the automobile as a salient example. Yet they fail to account for the accelerating pace of diffusion and adoption: Cars took generations to diffuse, on average 44 years for full adoption. The telephone was invented in 1876, yet it wasn’t until a century later that landline phones reached full saturation. In a study of the diffusion of technologies in 16 countries across the globe, researchers found it takes an average of 45 years for a technology to be fully adopted. Compare that to now, where it took half the globe less than 15 years to adopt the Internet and personal computers. Newer technologies are diffusing even faster, on average, by four and a half years. The tablet computer went from zero to 50 percent adoption in less than 5 years.

What are the implications of this accelerated pace of change, in terms of AI platforms and their impacts? First, based upon the diffusion patterns of other digital technologies, we can expect a shortened lag time in terms of the diffusion of AI throughout countries, since AI is built upon a digital backbone and cloud-based digital infrastructure which in many cases has already been deployed. Second, this accelerated pace of adoption means faster disruption in terms of labor. Automation has already impacted many in the blue-collar sector — particularly in manufacturing, where labor has already been replaced by trained machines. In the near future, AI and automation will threaten a wider swath of careers, reaching up the job ladder from blue-collar workers into the white-collar realm of financial traders, accountants, doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, to name a few. One insurance company is already offering its customers a discount on the monthly payment if they agree to see ‘Dr. Watson’ first for more routine health care issues like colds and flu. Some are suggesting AI could eventually replace 4 out of 5 doctors in the United States. In other cases, AI will be used to augment, rather than replace, professionals like physicians, or provide specialized care assistance in areas of the world where such medical specialists are unavailable. Hospitals in India, Thailand, and South Korea are experimenting with IBM Watson to assist doctors with cancer treatment where oncologists are scarce.

The march forward toward an automated world of the Internet of Them comes as good news for the data center industry of course, as our reliance upon and immersion within digital platforms continues to develop on a global scale. As certain jobs are eliminated by AI and automation, others will grow. It would behoove the industry to support training and re-training programs for workers displaced by AI and automation, as well as for younger workers seeking their first career, to insure a strong and ready workforce to keep pace with the increasing demand for an always-on, reliable, and secure digital infrastructure.

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