Digital Agenda for Europe
A Europe 2020 Initiative

Enveloping the world: risks and opportunities in the development of increasingly smart technologies

Article
Share this

--- Posted by Prof. Luciano Floridi, Research Chair in Philosophy of Information and GPI, University of Hertfordshire; Faculty of Philosophy and IEG, University of Oxford; UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics.

Nanotechnology, the Internet of Things, Web 2.0, Semantic Web, Cloud computing, motion-capturing games, smart phones apps, GPS, Augmented Reality, Artificial Companions, drones… is there a unifying perspective from which all these ICT phenomena might be interpreted as aspects of a single, macroscopic trend?

Part of the difficulty, in answering this question, is that we are still used to looking at ICTs as tools to interact with the world, when in fact they have become environmental forces, which are creating and shaping our reality, more and more pervasively. To put it briefly, the answer may lie in realising that ICTs are enveloping the world. In robotics, an envelope (also known as reach envelop) is the three-dimensional space that defines the boundaries that the robot can reach.

Consider a dishwasher. We do not build robots that wash dishes like us, we envelop micro-environments around simple robots to fit and exploit at best their limited capacities and still deliver the desired output. Enveloping used to be either a stand-alone phenomenon (the robot comes with the required envelop, like a dishwasher) or implemented within the walls of industrial buildings.

Nowadays, enveloping the world is an ordinary, escalating phenomenon, which pervades any aspect of reality and is visible everywhere, on a daily basis. Indeed, some of our pressing challenges, e.g., in cyber-security, e-commerce, or financial markets, arise within highly enveloped environments in which all relevant (and sometimes the only) data available are machine-readable, and decisions as well as actions may be taken automatically, by applications and actuators that can execute commands and output the corresponding procedures in fractions of a second.

Enveloping is a robust, cumulative and progressively refining trend: everyday there are more humans online, more documents, more algorithms, more devices that communicate with each other, more sensors, more RFID tags, more satellites, more actuators, more data collected on systems’ transactions, in a word, more enveloping.

Enveloping represents a great opportunity for the future of our information society, but how can we ensure that we shall ripe its benefits? What could we do in order to identify, coordinate and foster the best enveloping trends? How could industry and society partnerships for research and innovation in ICT harness the enveloping process successfully? And what are the risks implicit in transforming the world into a progressively ICT-friendly environment? 

Are our technologies going to enable and empower us, or will they constrain our physical and conceptual spaces and force us to adjust to them because that is the best, or sometimes the only, way to make things work? These are challenging questions, which I hope my talk will contribute to clarify and address.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Prof. Luciano Fioridi will be speaking at the Digital Agenda Assembly workshop n°6. This workshop is dedicated to Partnership-based ICT Research and Innovation. Feel free to join the discussion and to share your ideas online using the #daa11research hashtag.

Last updated on 28/10/2014