In 1909 a short novel was published that has gone on to shape the opinions of every generation since, concerning what the future has in store for us. It was entitled ‘The Machine Stops’, and even those unaware of this novella harbor fears lifted straight from its pages. The central core of this 114-year-old story is how technology is allowed to take control of human lives, leading to a pervasive sense of isolation. This may feel all too despairingly familiar to parents of teenagers whose devices are glued to their palms.
By the way, it was in 1909 that the Wright Brothers took to the air, and Henry Ford started The Ford Motor Company.
So influential has ‘The Machine Stops’ become, with over half a million English language stories in the form of books, films, and TV programs that have since arisen, which were inspired by E.M. Forster’s terrifyingly clairvoyant tale. We often speak of an Orwellian vision of the future, a utopian-disguised dystopia, because of his book ‘1984’. But George Orwell published this work 40 years after Mr. Forster. Perhaps the next time you hear the word ‘Orwellian’ in conversation, you may wish to redirect the speaker to the notion of ‘Forsterian.’ Because the vast majority of this horror show plays out in the form of communications technology becoming sentient.
So as humankind finds itself on the path from the age of information to the age of cyberspace, and consequently as an urban society, then transits from smart cities to cognitive cities, will we be staring into a spiritual abyss of servitude to machines, as latterly predicted by ‘The Machine Stop’ clones ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’?
If you’re expecting the answer “Of course not!” delivered in a stridently confident tone, sorry to disappoint.
If you were expecting the answer “Yes, no doubt about it,” sorry to disappoint again.
The answer lies in another area of human behavior, which E.M. Forster pinpointed. Because it wasn’t just the awful, dehumanizing moral vacuum that made this story a masterpiece, it was the fear of what would happen if the whole mechanism broke down. This irony gets as deep as the fears of those who sometimes challenge their own faith and question the existence of god.
So let’s have a look at what constitutes a cognitive city and the mechanisms and tools which define it as such.
To do so, I want to take you back to another time, a little closer than 1909. Seven years ago, to be precise, in Dubai.
As 2015 was making way for 2016 in as grand as a New Year fireworks display as you’d expect from this city, a fire broke out in a hotel immediately adjacent to the action. As you might remember, social media worldwide sparked a frenzy and became the first trending story of the new year. But what too few people are aware of is what the fire really triggered. An entirely machine-led process that opened fire escapes redirected traffic and created safe human and vehicle pathways away from the danger zone. Fire sensors, hidden doorways, lighting circuits, traffic lights, and remote-control road barriers communicated with each other without human intervention to create a safe getaway from the conflagration.
It was an unparalleled civil defense display of technology in concert, serving humankind. This was not the act of a cognitive city per se but of a so-named Smart City. But as an opening example, it stands on the threshold of why a cognitive city should exist. But what if the entire event was recorded in a databank? Including the measurement of human and vehicular traffic responding to the emergency. And what if the data accumulated from this incident was transferred automatically to the rest of the city – heck, let’s make it to urban management databases throughout the world? These receiving systems would automatically adapt their own civil defense logistics to create safety protocols as successful as those deployed in Downtown Dubai.
Imagine a scenario in healthcare where cancer diagnosis can happen twice or even three times as early as today because all the diagnosis machines in the world had their own machine equivalent of a medical conference and taught each other their learnings.
Or how about concrete, modern society’s villain-in-chief regarding carbon emissions? This building material is now being developed to measure the amount of CO2 it gives off, match that data against ambient conditions, and transmit it to the construction and manufacturing sectors for evaluation. This type of information would change construction practices forever, as legislation would be put into place forbidding concrete in its current form to be used. And human beings would find a solution, as human beings always do. This is starting to sound less and less like The Machine Stops. Isn’t it?
In education, ideas about combating intellectual disabilities are shared from machine to machine across the world for the common goal of democratizing learning.
Even outside the boundaries of what we call a city today, water management, agriculture, conservation, poverty, and famine control will all advance immeasurably because, for example, a temperature gauge in the red sea fed data to an NGO’s database, detecting a perfect environment for a breed of fish dying out just a few hundred kilometers away. Or a single cow that can transmit an early warning of a Foot & Mouth disease outbreak, saving lives and preventing a trade disaster with a country’s strong agricultural economy.
Throughout this edition of Inside Telecom, you will find examples of fintech and telecom technologies that are spreading out to eventually create an interaction with humans based solely on human behavior.
Much of it uses technical language to deliver substance. But in truth, you don’t need an encyclopedia of jargon in your head to live in a cognitive city or even understand it. We throw around terminology like intelligent analytics, augmented reality, hyperconnectivity, etc.
But all we really need to know is that the environments in which we live will become intuitive and predictive, working from a knowledge base about us.
Yes, there will be commercial gain from it for some, and this is why many people get twitchy when the names Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, whom we refer to as the Information Titans, hit the press. But people get twitchy because of the generational domino effect of ‘The Machine Stops,’ in which ignorance is perceived as protectiveness. For now, we’ll leave recent American politics out of this, shall we?
Without even knowing it, we’ve been programmed to fear something that cannot exist – the Omnius or Evermind, invented by E.M.Forster and perpetuated by the famous Dune series. A cyber organism whose intent is the subjugation of the same species that originated him, or her for that matter.
The answer, then, in a less prosaic form, is that behavior in a cognitive city will be exactly as it has been since urbanization took root. There will be those who use the tools which they’ve been given in order to free up their minds in pursuit of a higher state of spirituality and intelligence. And those who treat those tools as playthings which allows a greater sense of self-indulgence than ever before, especially when you factor in the metaverse.
It doesn’t get more polar than that, does it? The former is liberation for the mind; the latter is imprisonment. Interestingly, a pretty wide bandwidth of people will fall into both categories. But perhaps I’m just thinking of myself.
If you were to find a copy of ‘The Machine Stops,’ either online or in a dusty old bookshop, start reading. Now that all of its prescience has arrived, you may find that instead of it being a tale of the inevitable, it’s a message from the past about how to avoid the inevitable. That’s hardly an empirical statement, but I find it quite a calming thought as we move toward our next milestone as a community of interested, inventive individuals.
In fact, a worthy thought to end this article might be something like this:
Cognition is the new ignition.
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