IoT Fail

You don’t have to be a geek to get a kick out of this IoT fail. Imagine that you just set up a wireless garage door opener that works from your smartphone. After a while, however, you figure out that whenever you open a browser tab on your laptop, desktop, iPhone, or iPad, your garage door opens. You have pranked yourself through a series of “smart” devices that acted independently to create a series of unfortunate events. No one has hacked your new IoT garage door opener. This is exactly the kind of thing I tend to run into when I play with IoT.

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Garage doors (but not in New Zealand.) Image by Jennifer Longaway, Flickr

An engineer from New Zealand found a web page for his Wemo garage door device that had the word “toggle” on it. “Toggle” on that web page linked to a function (a.k.a., an “endpoint”) that activated a relay that automatically raised/lowered/halted his garage door. The relay acted just like the push button on a regular remote.

His Safari web browser noticed that he regularly visited this page and added it to his favorites. Then Safari helpfully sync’d it with all of his devices. It took a little while to figure out that “everytime I opened a new tab on my laptop, desktop, iPhone or iPad the garage door opened or closed. Late at night, early in the morning, or randomly throughout the day…” The current theory is that Safari is perhaps pre-loading it’s favorites. Will Pease, the New Zealand engineer, shares the whole story in a series of tweets. “I think either Safari is pre-loading my favourites (so when I click on one… *BAM* full page appears lightning fast), or that it’s maybe doing a HEAD or OPTIONS request, which my code is treating as a GET?”

IoT for smart home projects always looks so easy on the package in Best Buy. Super-simple programming, right? Programming Basic on an Apple IIe was my first foray into computer science. Programming used to be limited to your local surroundings in the range of bugs that could pop up. (Ever wonder why 8-bit MCUs are still a healthy market? You can understand the whole of it without spending your lifetime on it.) Now we have The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. The obfuscation of layers of complexity buried in the guise of simple packaging belies the fact that parts of IoT are spread out all over the world, and the user doesn’t have an inkling of how it works or how to make it work if it doesn’t.

I believe that the AI-generated doomsday scenarios hinted at by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and the late Steven Hawking are true in that AI-driven devices, given the autonomy to run dangerous equipment (or God forbid, weapons), will enact similar mishaps that can be deadly. Can justice tempered with mercy be programmed? Machines, including AI, will never have the mixture of intuition, foresight, compassion, or good will (grace) that most humans regularly use in everyday actions with other living things. A sociopath with no empathy may refrain from harming others because they know that if they get caught, they will suffer the consequences of the law. AI can follow rules, but cannot discern a situation that deserves further consideration. AI is limited to what it can sense and the rules it is given. A photo-enforced red light intersection is one example of applying rules without the kind of human judgement that can temper unreasonableness. But you can still get a ticket if the last one inch of your bumper is still in the intersection when the light changes. Whereas cameras do discourage people from running red lights, the light cycle can also be rigged with a very short yellow so that people do not have a reasonable amount of time to stop. Drivers that do not come to a full one second stop before turning right on red (legal in many states) will get a ticket mailed to them.

AI sounds exciting, but as mathematician and former Wall Street “quant” Cathy O’Neil points out in “Weapons of Math Destruction,” the programmers of data-driven algorithms have an often untouchable power over the subjects of the process they program. Conclusion: expect some frustration and grief along the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of AI.

The tweets describing the IoT snafu. Click to enlarge, or read the thread. (Source @rombulow)