Smart planet = Screwed planet

IBM’s “Smart Planet” concept is a study in arrogance. Or maybe it’s the birth of the real Skynet.

Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, has recently been pushing a “new” concept called “Smart Planet.” The sound bite that goes with the concept is, according to IBM’s web site, is

“The planet will be intrumented, interconnected, intelligent. People want it. We can do it.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger explains the concept nicely in his blog, and there are hundreds of other web pages describing it. In a nutshell, the concept runs like this: because the world is so interconnected, bad things spread really fast, so let’s increase the amount of data we’re gathering and start automating decision making to increase efficiencies on a global scale because increased efficiency is always good and technology is becoming intelligent enough to do all this stuff for us.

The astronomical scale of the stupidity of this idea – and the cosmological scale of the ignorance shown by Palmisano and his henchmen at Big Blue – make it a serious candidate for Worst Idea Ever.

Don’t believe me; just read the text in the IBM site. Here’s the relevant bits from their front page.

“…[w]e’re all connected, today like never before: economically, socially and technically. When a crisis occurs on one part of the planet, it can bring problems to another part, within days or even hours.”

No we’re not. Chaos theory is a recent discovery, but the things it models have always been around. We’re only now realizing it. Technocrats might suggest that the connection intended here is the electronic kind – the connection we have through shared information (like this blog). Sure, but that’s an artificial connection that anyone can severe anytime they want (if they aren’t already web zombies, of course). Information doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what we do with that information. And those are two entirely different things.

“Yet this challenge is also an opportunity, and now is the time to seize it. People around the world are ready for change. And the planet is ready for it, too.”

Says who? Where are the studies that demonstrate that “people around the world are ready.” Does this include all the starving and warring people in Darfur? The Chinese peasants being ground under the heel of their government? The Taliban? Or does it just include white people who can afford broadband Internet connections in their Escalades? This sounds ‘way too much like Big Blue is going all Big Brother on us.

“Today, we are seeing the infusion of intelligence into the way the world literally works—the systems and processes that enable…”

No we are not. And what is intelligence anyways? There is wide controversy on how exactly “intelligence” should be defined. Try googling What is intelligence. Intelligence is only observable indirectly, through behaviour and action. And when I look at “the way the world literally works,” I see little if any intelligence. I see lots of instinct; I see lots of application of the laws of science – but I don’t see intelligence.

And what’s this “we” all about. Just because President-Elect Obama loves to talk in first-person plurals doesn’t make it okay for a multinational corporations to do it.

“…physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold; services to be delivered;”

Ah, there’s the rub. We can make stuff to sell to get rich, and get paid to do things that we really should be doing for free if we cared about our fellow human!

“…everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move;”

No; the laws of nature make things move. What humans do is hold that movement hostage for payment of some kind. Nature has been in a finely tuned dynamic balance for millions of years and here come Palmisano, saying IBM can do it better? Talk about arrogance!

“…and billions of people to work and live.”

And billions more to live unnecessarily short, sick lives in abject poverty and intellectual destitution.

“All things are becoming intelligent. Algorithms and powerful systems can analyze and turn those mountains of data into actual decisions and actions that make the world work better. Smarter.”

[Insert theme song of The Six Million Dollar Man here.] Sorry, what? Read that again, without the fluff: “Algorithms…can…turn…data into…decisions and actions….” This says they want decisions to be made by algorithms. This sounds like an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Let me be very clear here: I started programming computers in 1980. I still program for work and for enjoyment (yes, I find it relaxing). I’ve kept up with the new-fangled technologies. And I can tell you with absolute, 100% certainty, that there is no way, no how, under no circumstance, in any way whatsoever, that any algorithm we can conceive of creating, can make a real decision anywhere near as well as a trained and conscientious human can. The notion that software can make real decisions isn’t just science fiction, it’s bad science fiction – hell, it’s a fairy tale!

Software can drive subway trains, but it can’t drive cars – something that most humans can do nearly automatically with only little training. Software is used to help banks decide if individuals should get a loan or a mortgage, but it couldn’t predict the recent “global financial crisis.” Software can let a robot in a remote location perform live-saving surgery, but it can’t replace the human surgeon tele-operating the robot.

There may come a time, in the future, when all these things will be possible, but it won’t be anytime soon.

And having information is not the same as being smart. Making smart decisions depends on so many other things that aren’t covered by the kind of mass instrumentation that IBM is talking about.  You have to understand information; you have to integrate the information together with other information; you have to reason about its implications for your goals and goals of others; and you have to have some sort of ethic.  We’re drowning in information as it is – IBM wants to give us more?

The propaganda from IBM makes it sound like they want to turn the planet into a cyborg. We can’t figure out how to make a person into a cyborg – not that we’d want to – and IBM wants to do it to the whole planet?

And finally:

“Why get smarter? Because we can: the technology is both available and affordable. Because we must: the shocks we’ve seen to so many systems show that the current approaches aren’t sustainable. And because we want to.”

Because you can? We can blow the Earth up 10 times over; should we do that too?

Because you must? The system shocks have all been the result of humans and their technology. How can the same kind of thinking – that technology will solve all our problems – possibly work now when it’s been shown to be entirely inadequate in the past?  It was technocentric thinking that got us into the global mess we’re in now; more technocentricity won’t get us out of the hole, it’ll just make the whole deeper.

Because you want to? This is the kind of puerile response I’d expect from a child.

I cannot imagine a worse world than one in which IBM’s Smart Planet concept were implemented. It lacks ethical direction, it lacks accountability, it lacks the kind of global consensus that we really need now, it lacks any accommodation for the human “spirit” (not the religious kind), and it lacks any sense of history.

If we follow Palmisano’s Smart Planet, we will be thoroughly screwed.

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