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Editorial: This Is Progress?

Smarting From Technology

Our takeaway from the annual Consumer Electronics Show: Gadgets and gizmos are getting a lot smarter. Humans, meanwhile, are getting dumber, apparently unable to switch the lights on and off, check the thermostat, keep track of the groceries or brush their teeth without a technological assist. Smartphones, which can now connect to almost every appliance and accessory imaginable, are taking over in order to make your life more efficient, safe, healthful and blessedly free of cavities or calories.

Reviewers at the show in Las Vegas, which ended last week, were particularly excited about the refrigerator that sends text messages when the milk runs low. There’s also the connected egg tray that informs householders to pick up another carton of Grade A Fresh. Innovative light bulbs, home thermostats and furnaces are all capable of communicating with your smartphone, which turns into a remote control device to dim the lights, change the room temperature, or shut off the gas if there’s a carbon monoxide leak. Smart smoke alarms can send phone messages if they sense smoke or have low batteries (they speak with a human voice!). There are electronic doors that alert owners to intruders; weather stations that relay data about conditions at your vacation home; and surveillance cameras that help you stay wirelessly connected to the baby in the nursery or the elderly parent home alone.

To be sure, some of these devices have practical uses, but what about the smart toothbrush that tells your phone how well you’ve brushed your teeth? Or the smart fork that monitors how much you eat? Both ought to run away with the spoon, which has yet to be endowed with any intelligence whatsoever.

And then there’s the new “wearable technology.” Smart watches, for example, do everything from tell the time (so last century) to record your exposure to ultraviolet light. They then send the data to — you guessed it — your smartphone, which is already busy talking to your refrigerator, smoke alarm, toothbrush and fork.

But none of these innovations compares with the smart bra. Microsoft has developed an item of lingerie designed to help women combat “emotional eating.” Apparently men don’t suffer from this affliction, or if they do, smart boxer shorts are still in the beta phase. At any rate, this particular article is billed as another in a growing array of “activity trackers” that monitor heart rate, electrodermal activity (otherwise known as sweat) and other physiological manifestations correlated with emotion and mood.

We quote from a scenario offered by the bra’s design team: “Sally has been home from work for a few hours, and she finds herself rather bored. An application on Sally’s mobile phone has also detected that she is bored by reading her physiological state through wearable sensors. Since this mobile application has previously learned that Sally is most susceptible to emotional eating when she is bored, the application provides an intervention to distract Sally and hopefully prevent her from eating at that moment.”

If Sally has any sense, she will stick a smart fork in her smart bra and go straight to the fridge. She doesn’t need an app or an activity tracker. She just needs an appetite for the art of living — an art apparently lost on these not-so-smart gadgets and the techies who think them up.