Catching Up to a Smarter Digital World

As the Internet evolves, our interactions will be much more than an interface with a computer or smartphone. The Internet will surround us.Just when you had your keyboard commands down pat, you may no longer need them. The Internet is moving from interfaces to invisible buttons and voices. You may be able to make a computer command literally with the blink of an eye.

Before you toss away your wrist brace to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, think for a moment what an Internet would be like if it surrounded you rather than just stared back on a computer screen. Your car could detect a potential accident and stop automatically — or even do the driving for you. You could walk into your house and have the heat adjusted and lights turn on. Your could wear Google glasses and have the computer see what you see.

Referred to as the Internet of Things, this new wave of interacting with the digital world is quickly taking hold. Even though Pope Francis was named Time's Man of the Year for 2013, many in the technology sphere are calling 2013 the Year of the Internet of Things.

If you didn't get the memo, you aren't alone. Like many technology trends, this one is well under way before most people notice.

Some people may get nervous about computers operating on their own. But they already are in diverse devices such as heart monitors, combustion engines and telecommunications.

The era at hand doesn't spell the end of directly interfacing with a computer or smartphone; it just means there will be more varied types of interactions. For example, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know our calls, emails and locations can be tracked on our smartphones. In addition to storage in an obscure government data bank, this information could be used to direct certain kinds of information or advertising our way. A very practical example is setting foot in Dick's Sporting Goods and getting a text message or email offering you a discount coupon.

Then there is "anticipatory computing," which depends on something called "reality mining" that can track the predictable pathways of your daily life through computer bits of information. At a basic level, this could help us remember important birthdays or survey the grocery stores we regularly shop at to see which one has the best price on milk. It might enable Starbucks to have your coffee drink ready by the time you pull up in the driveway and enter the store. Or it could collect the addresses of your favorite charities to ease the task of making end-of-the-year gifts.

Some entrepreneurs are exploring "wearable computers," which might take the form of a wrist bracelet, that keep you connected at all times. Because these wearable computers touch your skin, unlike a smartphone in your purse or a holster, they can include sensors that collect more personal information, such as detecting whether you are coming down with flu symptoms.

In some ways, this involves the collapse of walls separating the physical and digital spheres.

The bottom line is the online world is getting smarter and more adaptive. That requires Internet users to be more alert and creative to capitalize on new online possibilities and avoid pitfalls.