Smart Technology: Are we smarter than the environment?

by Associate Professor Dr. Michael K. Danquah

by Rozaidah Saat

What would living in a truly smart environment be like? The fridge becomes your dietician, your television is your social networking hub and web-surfer, your autonomous car allows you to work on your laptop and assist in lane changing while driving, and the lighting and music in the room adapt automatically to your changing moods.

Sounds like the perfect life as, basically, you will not need to think or do much.

Lately, we have been lured into a new way of thinking brought about largely by an increase in smart technology available in the market. More and more people are overzealously embracing these technologies to help them to become more productive, enable them to multi-task, and subsequently improve their quality of life.

However, the obsession with smart technology has caused many problems due to its illusory benefits. Without realising it, we are made to believe some serious myths as we evolve from human-centric to smart living environments. We have traded off human quality for technology. Like it or not, smart technology is making its way into our households in a big way.

I am not suggesting that we abandon smart technology and revert to the traditional ways of living. Rather, I would like to share with you my perspectives on the smart technology phenomena as an educator and put smart technology into its proper context.

From a personal perspective, smart technology should be regarded as a tool rather than a lifestyle. For example, a handyman might utilise smart technology for specific tasks, such as repair and maintenance work, while smart-living hippies would tend to surround themselves with the latest technology in the market, such that their lives would revolve around them. The difference between the handyman and the hippies is the amount of time, energy and money they spend on the respective technology.

The hippies are more likely to embrace smart technology as a lifestyle. Upgrading to the latest model or version is a must regardless of its necessity, while the handyman would think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.

Instead of channelling all our energies to smart living, we should invest our time in developing ‘smart humans’. I am not referring to the likes of Tony Stark from ‘The Iron Man’ movie here, although some of us are already ‘semi-cyborgs’ with inseparable ‘extended body parts’ like the smart phones, headphones and tablet computers we use.

The ‘smart human’ here refers to highly intelligent, brilliant, bright and clever humans who possess mental capacity stimulated by activities involving the cognitive skills – analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Smart technology is slowly ‘brainwashing’ humans, such that they do not put effort into thinking and exercising their cognitive skills, which subsequently reduces the potential of human brain development.

Research conducted by Eleanor Maguire from University College London (UCL) on London taxi drivers found that taxi drivers who learn routes around London by ‘doing the knowledge’ rather than depending on GPS have a larger hippocampus (a structure important for memory and spatial orientation) than non-taxi drivers.

In a 2010 study led by Veronique Bohbot from McGill University in Canada on non-professional drivers also produced brain-scan evidence to suggest that depending on GPS for navigation can reduce the activity and size of the hippocampus.

Humans would be smarter than smart technology if we spend less time playing Angry Birds or updating our Twitter or Facebook on our smartphones. A research published in PLOS ONE journal by Fuchun Lin, Yan Zhou and colleagues from the Jiao Tong University Medical School in Shanghai suggested that Internet addicts had damage to the white matter in their orbito-frontal cortex similar to that found in alcoholics and drug addicts. The orbito-frontal cortex plays a critical role in emotional processing and addiction-related phenomena such as craving, compulsive-repetitive behaviours and bad decision making.

It is also important to note that Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is now a serious mental health problem. Sufferers of IAD are unable to control their use of the Internet, leading to distress and functional impairments of general life such as academic performance, social interaction, occupational interest and behavioural problems.

Judging by the increase in smart concepts, from smart appliances to smart factories, smart materials to smart farming, smart homes to smart cars, and smart transport to even smart dust, it is just a matter of time before these tools outsmart and control our lives. When that day comes, just like the science-fiction film ‘Wall-E’, the only cognitive skills that humans would be mastering would be in swiping screens and pushing buttons.

Rozaidah Saat is a lecturer in Business Information Systems in the Department of Accounting and Business Information Systems, School of Business, Curtin Sarawak. She is a member of The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and a registered member of the Board of Engineers Malaysia (BEM). She can be contacted by e-mail to rozaidah.s@curtin.edu.my.

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