Will smartphones take over the world?

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Apes: they really are smarter than you think.

by Colin McIntosh

We are definitely becoming dumber. When I walk around Cambridge I need to be extra-careful not just to avoid bikes in the shared pedestrian-and-bike spaces, but also to make sure that no zombie-faced smartphone users are dumbwalking in my direction, heads down, noses in their phones, and oblivious to all passing traffic and other dumbwalkers. Have their brains been taken over by their phones? Do they want to live beyond 19 and three quarters?

Maybe technology makes us stupid. In the 1980s mobile phone technology seemed like a miracle, but now we disparage anything without internet capability as a dumbphone. Looking back, though, weren’t they more efficient? At least you didn’t end up wasting half an hour just checking your messages.

And really, smartphones are not all that smart. Have you ever answered a call just to hear some muffled sounds in the background? Chances are you’ve been pocket-dialled (US pocket-dialed). It’s remarkably easy to dial a contact inadvertently just because you accidentally pressed some buttons on the phone in your pocket. Also referred to less politely as butt-dialling (US butt-dialing), such calls, called pocket calls or (impolitely) butt calls, are thought to make up 50% of all calls to the emergency services.

Nowadays it’s not just our phones that are supposedly smart. The word has taken on a new meaning, “connected to the internet”, and can be applied to any device, once dumb, that could be programmed to operate remotely or without human intervention. Smart fridges tell you when you’re low on milk, and even order it from your online supermarket. If you have a smart thermostat, you can turn the heating on before you leave work (via your smartphone) so your flat is nice and toasty when you get in. Smart security cameras allow you to keep an eye on your place when you’re away on holiday. All these devices are part of the Internet of Things, or IoT, and they will soon make human beings redundant.

But they’re not smart enough to work when a software update goes wrong, or when you‘re hacked by criminals who have installed ransomware on your device. If you want your heating to work again, you need to pay the criminals a small fee – or sit and shiver.

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