February 03, 2014

When people fail to control their actions, the law might step in. When people fail to control their technology, code might intercede.

It's happening already. Google is well on its way to developing self-driving cars. No doubt automated cars will save lives, fuel, and time because, let's face it, we're terrible drivers on the whole. Most of the time you might be a very good driver, but statistically speaking, your average lifetime risk of dying in a car accident comes to something like 1 in 84. Even if you drive flawlessly, someone else won't. You or someone you know could suffer for that. Expect that Google will do better, if we're willing to surrender control.

It looks as if we will. Technology has become so complicated and powerful that many people prefer ease of use or the promise of security, real or not, over control. Apple has won a huge following by limiting control of its mobile devices for the sake of convenience and consumer protection. It might be your iPhone, but Apple decides what software you can run on it.

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(Developers in good standing, of course, can run anything they want on their iPhones, but they cannot distribute the software through Apple channels without approval, unless they go rogue and jailbreak their phones.)

Often, technological control is exercised to protect us from ourselves: Many websites use programming code to coerce users into selecting strong passwords, because we can't be trusted to choose wisely. But technological control can also be a threat to business interests: Google last year removed AdBlock Plus from Google Play, despite the wishes of Android users.

How much control should we surrender? Do we need Google, for example, to disable our phones for us? A recent Google patent application, "System and Method for Controlling Mobile Device Operation," contemplates that scenario. It describes research to help in "correcting occasional human error" when phones are left in a state that's not situationally appropriate. The patent application describes the possibility of "controlling and/or recommending changes to mobile devices located in opera houses, movie theatres, or other similar locales in which silence is encouraged (e.g., placing the mobile devices in mute or vibrate to minimize distractions)."

Read the rest of this article on InformationWeek