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Rise of the (IoT) Machines: When Do We Say "Enough"?

Make no mistake about it, I am a technology-loving kind of guy. My job is all about helping people to make better business decisions using analytics technology, and I have boundless enthusiasm for speaking with FICO customers, data scientists and students about the power of behavioral analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

But when it comes to my personal life, I’m a bit of a contrarian. There’s been a lot of news about studies showing how too much smartphone use, or too much time on social media, can have a stressing, depressing effect. So I purposefully limit my phone use and I’m not even on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, et al. (Although I do love using Twitter as part of my work, to connect with followers all over the world!)

How technology can rob joy

As the Internet of Things (IoT) matures, I feel like a similar trajectory is starting to take shape: initial euphoria over new technology — like Teslas in ludicrous mode, or being able to order Doritos for delivery via drone — that slowly turns to dislike and can eventually result in technology abandonment.

Here’s an example. In June 2015, WIRED magazine was absolutely agog over the June Intelligent Oven, “a $1,495 connected appliance that will quite literally cook your food for you.” WIRED is pretty effusive about June: “Using what amounts to a fancy meat thermometer, along with scales in each of the June’s four feet and an internal camera, the oven can figure out what you’re cooking, how hot it is, and how much it weighs. And if you know those three things, you can cook almost anything.… Eventually, the team hopes, you’ll just pop something into the oven, tap to confirm it is what the camera thinks, and walk away until a push notification tells you it’s almost ready.”

The article then asks, rhetorically, “Doesn’t this kill the fun, the experimentation, the trial-and-error that makes cooking great?” To which, “[t]he June team says no, that the idea is to that job so you can focus on the other stuff. And… let’s be honest: This product is mostly for people who wouldn’t otherwise cook much. It’s telling that the team’s two demos are a plain bagel and six cookies; the goal, at least immediately, is more ‘don’t burn the toast’ than ‘award-winning roast.’”

OK, I get it. You could call it “an oven for dummies,” to appropriate an analog from the insanely popular book series. But what’s wrong here, to my mind, is that by thinking or doing too much for “dummy” us, IoT machines can rob us humans from one of life’s greatest joys: learning something new.

(A few months later, FastCompany took umbrage with the June oven too, saying, “This $1,500 Toaster Oven is Everything That’s Wrong With Silicon Valley Design – Automated yet distracting. Boastful yet mediocre. Confident yet wrong.” Ouch.)

Failure can be delicious

Failure is, and should be, an expected and accepted part of life. For instance, cooking: With the possible exception of Martha Stewart, anyone’s first time baking cookies, or making any recipe, is bound to have some kind of surprise, often unpleasant. What kid hasn’t made that Toll House cookie recipe on the back of Nestlé’s chocolate chips, and had the cookies come out unusually crispy, and black on the bottom?

Yes, those cookies looked awful, but they still tasted good. And the next few times you made that recipe, you probably experimented with using more flour or lowering the oven temp. Eventually you got the recipe and technique right, and now take pride in your ability to make a delicious chocolate chip cookie from scratch. The people who eat your cookies no doubt shower you with praise, and you bask in it. What’s not to love?

Learning gives us satisfaction

In my experience, learning makes people happy. It’s wonderful when we can do this at our jobs, and fulfilling when we can learn in unexpected ways. Ceding too much responsibility to IoT devices robs us of everyday learning opportunities.

One of the learning experiences that gives me much satisfaction is racing my car, a 2003 Porsche 911 Targa, model 996. They call it a “widowmaker”: no stability control, no traction, nada. The Targa is a challenging car to drive at high speeds on an autocross course, and learning how to handle it was not easy. But I’ve kept at it over the years, and each time I hit the track I drive a little faster, and with a little more confidence. It gives me great satisfaction to know I’ve mastered the car, instead of letting a car just drive itself. (Porsche’s CEO agrees.)

Come hang out with me at Willow Springs on April 28, when I’ll be racing my widowmaker. And follow me on Twitter @ScottZoldi.

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