In our 2016 annual predictions, The Fine Line 2016 Predictions, the most frightening and most sensational prediction is that “at least one consumer-grade smart device failure will be lethal in 2016.”
It’s easy to misread and misunderstand this to mean that the prediction is that someone will successfully hack a smart device and kill someone. While that’s certainly a possible scenario under this prediction, it’s not the most likely scenario. Put simply, we’re saying that smart technology has reached the point where it’s important enough in our lives that a failure, any kind of failure, can lead to a lethal consequence.
When we look at where smart devices are today, we can see that they’re on the cusp of being a true part of everyday life. A few years ago, most if not all, of these “smart” devices replace mechanical devices with electronic ones. Smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, and smart cars (including self-driving cars) devices connect the Internet to us in ways we could only imagine a few years ago.
While we think about all the benefits that these devices can bring us, it’s important to look at them too from the standpoint of failure. In the past, failure for most of these now “smart” devices meant mechanical failure: a part broke and needed to be repaired or replaced. But now, failure isn’t mechanical, it’s electronic. And it’s not just electronic; it’s electronic with an Internet connection.
This changes the nature of failure substantially.
Obviously, an Internet connection changes things by introducing the possibility of network-based attacks causing failure. Ten years ago, if your thermostat failed, it did so because of a physical, mechanical failure in the thermostat itself. If someone wanted to maliciously cause that failure to happen, they would have to gain access to the physical device and tamper with it to cause failure.
Now, someone can cause failure from half-way around the world. And that failure is electronic, not mechanical in nature.
Regardless of whether failure is maliciously, intentionally caused or not, the fact is that smart devices are no longer curiosities or novelties: they are part of our daily routines in many cases. And this means that failure in these devices now can have more significant consequences than just annoyance. Some classes of smart devices are now in places in our lives where failure can cause injury or even death.
Of course, the most obvious new device that can pose a true risk to life and limb are drones. Just this past year especially, we have seen drones become more popular and a greater nuisance. This summer we also heard about drones impeding operations to combat wildfires in California and elsewhere injuring bystanders. Drones are seemingly everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before a drone failure in particular causes more serious injuries or even death.
2016 is likely the year that we will see the reality of the promise of smart technology become truly real. And being truly real includes things like real, serious consequences in the case of failure.
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