Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Smart Is a Smartphone?

Calling a phone smart is a little like calling a cat a dog because he begs for food, though I confess to once having a cat whose eating habits made him seem more canine than feline. He would gobble up the food in his bowl, then horn in on the other cat's food, making her back off without even a hiss. With some behavior modification, the more demure (and skittish) of the pair quickly learned to eat in a less catlike manner, as in nibble/walk away/come back for more. The name of the game now was: get it while you can, and when there's no more left, learn to beg and scavenge, leftover fresh fish (duh!) a favorite. He was eighteen pounds at his most rotund, down to a healthy thirteen within months, doctor's orders, my ministrations.

All of which begs the question: how smart really is a smartphone? Anthropomorphism may tempt us to imbue our pets with traits they may, or may not, possess, so yes, I can call my dog smart because she outsmarts me. But animals have hearts and brains; phones, call them simply cell or smart, are devices of convenience. Sometimes, like animals, they save lives, but the call-911 alert is a far cry (a learned response, I would add) from that instinct to bark or howl when the person who dubs you his or her best friend has fallen down a flight of stairs. Not that I'm not completely charmed by my new toy, the latest and greatest (putting aside what Consumer Reports has to say) iPhone 4. I'm not obsessed with e-mail (really I'm not) but there's something liberating about not having to be at my laptop to access it. Twitter? I'm a newbie here, and a tweet in hand seems what the app was really designed for. Even my texting has improved with that spiffy touch-screen keyboard. My daughter is proud of me. Say good-bye to those clumsy-fingered typo-ridden texts from my antiquated cell.

Which brings me back to my original point: 'smart' implies intelligence and/or a quick wit, maybe impertinence; a smart dresser is someone I admire; a scrape on my elbow that smarts is something I could do without. Language evolves, too, and a 'smart' device is one 'capable of independent and seemingly intelligent action.' When it comes to phones, there are technical distinctions in determining whether they can be called smart, but according to an article in Computerworld, there's no clear industry standard. All the more reason to add even more criteria to the mix: Can my phone pinpoint that word that's on the tip of my tongue or find the eyeglasses my husband misplaced? Can it teach my dog that 'fetch' means bring the ball to me (not the other way around), or keep her from hyperventilating in anticipation of a thunderstorm? Can it keep me from ending up in the slowest checkout line at the supermarket or make sure, when I tune in to Pandora, that the stream of rock I get is finely enough tuned to my idea of classic?