Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

SXSW: How Smart Gadgets Let Us Down

As devices get computationally more powerful, they remain social dunces.

  • March 15, 2011

For all their growing smarts, our gadgets remain stupid. That was the message delivered to a room of the earliest of technological adopters at the South by Southwest conference yesterday by Genevieve Bell, Intel’s director of experience research.

For more than a decade Bell has spent her days hanging out with consumers to find out how technology fits into people’s lives. In that time computing power and the number of devices people own has soared - but our “smart” gadgets are still clumsy companions and new technology is no exception.

One example, said Bell, is that no one has yet bettered the remote control as a way to command a TV. Gesture and voice control, for example, are alternatives Intel engineers talked of building into their connected TV products, said Bell, who poured cold water on the idea.

“One of the things that remote controls do is manage fights,” she said. A single, physical control device fits much better into the socializing and subtle power games elicted from us by a device that can show only one channel at once. “A voice recognition system couldn’t know you didn’t take the garbage out and had forfeit rights to choose the channel,” she said, and wouldn’t know who was in charge.

Power buttons could do with getting smarter, too. People go to extreme lengths to put themselves beyond the reach of the web and cellphone networks, for example by choosing their vacation spot carefully, rather than exerting will power and switching their devices off. “In the US there is a moral imperative to be connected, if you possibly can,” she said, “devices aren’t able to give us periods to be disconnected.”

A final gap in the smartness of our gadgets is their inability to lie, said Bell, “these devices blurt out the truth unbidden.” While researching connected television for Intel, she asked consumers around the world if they would like their TV to share a public feed of what they were viewing, for friends to see and to encourage social networking around shows. The reaction was uniformly negative. “It wouldn’t know to say that you were only watching that show ironically,” said Bell, “or that you only had it on because your girlfriend was over.” The small lies careful omissions people use to manage their reputation and social lives are beyond even the smartest computing devices.

Summing up, Bell said gadgets will remain dunces for some time to come, despite advances in their ability to sense their context. “In the future we’re going to face a lot of smart devices we’ve never seen before,” said Bell, but they will still be dumb in ways that are very familiar. As she put it, “there doesn’t seem to be a Moore’s law for intelligence.”

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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