08/14/2013 06:04 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Hacking in the Trans-Robot Age

Nick Bilton's recent article, As New Targets for Hackers, Your Car and your House, will frighten some who will lose some trust in their Prius, Nest or other Internet-connected device essential to everyday functions. Yes, very smart hackers can use increasingly well-connected computing pathways into cars, planes, homes, washing machines -- just about anything that is joining the "Internet of Things" clan to wreak inconvenience or downright havoc. But today, this is both very hard and very unlikely to happen to you, specifically. For now. As appliances and tools further cross-connect the physical world and the digital multiverse, it will certainly become harder to distinguish a buggy climate control system in the home from one with a virus (it caught a cold?) to one that is being manipulated by a shady character who wants to mess with your head. One of the interesting things about complexity is that robot systems with tons of sensors, motors and control policies become increasingly difficult to diagnose because, through complexity, they lose transparency. Just like a human body is complex, and a backache can be impossibly difficult to diagnose (it could even be the shoes you wear); so very complex physical-digital integrated systems will be messy and hard to dissect.

Recall the Toyota Prius brake issue. It was not a full-blown failure, but rather an eclipse of the planets caused by just the wrong, perfect storm: vibrate the wheels the right way, step on the brake at the right time, and the brakes fail to respond the way every driver has always trusted them to do so instantly. The car is more complex because the braking is hybrid, and the resulting mess of sensors and actuators could not authentically be tested for every possible condition. With complexity comes this uneasy inability to prove performance, but of course we save a lot of gas.

The boundaries of fixed and broken will also break down. You will not so much go from a working autonomous home system to a broken one, rather from one that works great to one that is just mediocre recently. Maybe this reminds you of how a shiny, fast new laptop becomes weirdly slow over the passing months, even though the hardware is unchanged and you've installed little? If you're a registry expert drinking Windows kool-aid, you know what to do, perhaps; but for most, the signals are clear: time to buy a new computer. The old one is grungy. Everything around us is likely to become more complex over the next decade as our Robot Future arrives, and this means that the strange consequences of digital hacking, incomplete quality assurance and lack of transparency are apt to spread from classic computing devices into the very appliances and tools that have, throughout the past century, been utterly safe from such uncertainty. This will be the price of an average-case improvement: convenience, cost, ease of use, et cetera. There will be benefits in this new world; but never for a moment imagine that the benefits will be free of charge.