The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

Do You Really Want Your Refrigerator To Have A Conversation With You?
Timothy Everingham

A Different View On Digital Convergence 
There is a lot of talk about digital convergence lately. You will always be in contact via phone or the Internet. Information is at your fingertips whenever you want it. Your appliances will talk with you, each other, and the outside world; making your life simpler because you will get the information you need when you want it and your appliances will run themselves and arrange for their own repairs. Sometime this year there will be more cellular phones in the world than those physically plugged into the wall. In 2006 it is predicted that more people will be connected to the Internet via wireless than via wires. So many say this will be so great, but will it?
Give you an example: Your refrigerator is expected to become intelligent. It will have a computer in the door with a touch screen interface. Voice recognition and generation, plus some artificial intelligence may not be far behind (some people when lonely may talk to their refrigerator, but in the future it may talk back and they will have a conversation with it). Plus the refrigerator will be connected to your home network, which in turn is connected to the Internet. Your refrigerator will know of your food buying and eating habits. It may even know of your health problems, and warn you when you grab too much of a certain food. Of course with its artificial intelligence unit, along with its voice capabilities, you may wind up having an argument with your refrigerator at times over this. When that happens your refrigerator may tell your doctor; which will then lead to an argument with him/her. 

Of course, you may also subscribe to grocery services, which may give you the specials via you refrigerator's computer, especially that visual display. Yes, you will get ads popping up on your refrigerator. Unscrupulous grocery services will have spyware on your refrigerator's computer. It will tell them of your every food move. This will in turn be tied into a database of consumer profiles that link certain food behaviors to other buying behaviors, which will have you even more bombarded by advertisements. All of this we may learn to call refrigerator spam. Of course some employees of a grocery service or its partners may have some compatriots in the criminal community. This means this information may give better targeting information for burglaries.
Because of the power crisis in California, the state government is warning people to use their refrigerators more efficiently. They even go as far as telling people they should consider turning off their refrigerators while at work. Already, there are networked thermostats for the home that can tell a power company what its setting is and the power company can operate remotely. The manufacturer says it is so customers can take part in voluntary conservation programs, such as automatically changing the thermostat one degree when power reserves get to critical levels. You can override this with a button on the thermostat, but the power company will know. Now we get into a crisis situation like currently has been occurring in California. Government may make these programs mandatory. 

If they are going to do this with the temperature in your home, why not do it with your refrigerator? Of course, then some practical joking malicious hacker may hack into the system and turn refrigerators off spoiling large amounts of food and causing some cases of food poisoning. The Government may also warn you that your refrigerator is old and needs replacing for energy conservation via your refrigerator's computer/display. Of course, your refrigerator does have an artificial intelligence unit and may block those messages out of self-preservation.
This brings up another item. If your refrigerator betrays you and your family to outside parties, can you declare it has committed treason and execute it? Remember it has an artificial intelligence unit and some people may think that this allows appliances to be declared intelligent life forms. Appliance rights groups may form and declare execution of refrigerators immoral and try to make it illegal. This could mean that in the future the appliance will not wind up in landfills, but in retirement homes. It is probably unlikely, but weirder things have happened.}
Many expect us to be connected all the time, and even paged on our cell phone via Bluetooth short range wireless networking when we walk buy a soft drink vending machine that has some special on. We may even be able to negotiate with that vending machine on the price. But will it just so complicate our lives that we will not want it or use it? There was so much hype about network appliances, but they have not gotten off the ground. Now the word is that Internet enabled cell phones are not living up to their promise either and people are not using those features on their phones even when available. 

People like convenience, but the general public does not like it if it complicates their lives too much. This is one reason why some products are readily accepted by early adopters, but they don't last because the general public does not buy them. So much of the population is suffering from information overload already, and being connected all the time may be of questionable value to the general population even though it may be attractive to techies and certain professions. An example of this attitude of not wishing to be connected all the time is painted on the wall of a building alongside the Interstate 10 freeway in downtown Los Angeles. It is an ad with a large picture of a sport utility vehicle. 

In bold letters at the top it says "Outrun Your Voicemail." I believe that in general human beings may not wish to become as connected as those who are pushing this convergent, always connected world. This may only be attractive to a small portion of the population. There will be those trying to push it. Others will try to abuse the technology. What I see is people choosing technology that suits them, which will lead to us not fulfilling the current vision of the convergent and always connected world. For society's mental health, this is probably for the best.
Timothy Everingham, is the Secretary of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups and Vice President of the Windows Media Users' Group of Los Angeles. He was President of the San Diego Computer Society for 3 years. He is also on the Management Information Systems Program Advisory Board of California State University, Fullerton; from which he also graduated with honours and with the double majors of Management Information Systems and Accounting. He is also the President of the Los Angeles Area Alumni Chapter of Beta Gamma Sigma, the business honor society (international). He works as a computer/business consultant and lives in Azusa, California. He is also a member of TUGNET. Further information can be found at

Reprinted from the October 2001 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

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