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With IFTTT, Your Whole Life Can Be Programmed Like A Computer

Welcome to the Matrix
Welcome to the Matrix
Elisa Braun

PARIS — The smartphone of Eudes, a web project manager, switches automatically from 3G to WiFi as soon as he's near his office. It also downloads relevant newspaper articles just before he steps into the metro. Perhaps most importantly, Eudes is instantly notified when the coffee machine needs water.

This automated magic is thanks to IFTTT ("if this, then that"), one of the first, and most successful, systems that programs tasks for the general public. The site's numerous services allow users to automate functions of their professional, private, and, sometimes, intimate life.

For the magic to work, you don't even need to know how to code. "You can feel like you're fiddling with the internet pipes when, in reality, you don't even know the basics of coding," says Basile, a web and media entrepreneur. To automatically save every email attachment in a Dropbox account, all you need to do is click a few buttons.

There are other automated systems like IFTTT. Zapier, for instance, offers "zaps' and Netvibes Dashboard Intelligence provides "potions' — all systems that offer users room to maneuver. They create a link between hundreds of services used daily from social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and messaging services like Slack and Google Hangout to news monitoring tools like Feedly and Diigo.

With the rise of connected services, traditional companies are eager to adapt to these changes. Whether it's makers of household appliances like Whirlpool, LG and Samsung or manufacturers of connected cars like BMW and Tesla, all these companies use IFTTT.

French train travel booking service Voyages-SNCF recently became the latest company to join IFTTT. Benoit Bouffart, head of innovation, said Voyages-SNCF wants to offer new features to the public. For instance, the ability to program the temperature of the passenger's thermostat at home according to the train's arrival time so that the passenger can go to a warm home after his or her journey. Apple recently introduced an application in its last iPhone update that allows users to sync their connected objects and give them basic instructions.

When the popular Pokémon Go application was released, Eudes found a Twitter account run by a bot that would systematically tweet the locations of rare Pokémon creatures. "I immediately created a "recipe" on IFTTT to get their location by email when one appeared near my home. Unfortunately, I was at work more often than not so I couldn't catch them," he says.

Some internet users go as far as having automated functions for their love life. Through systems like IFTTT, an email can automatically be sent to a spouse when leaving work or they can receive a notification when their spouse posts a picture on Instagram.

Basile, the web entrepreneur, says he can imagine some "deviant" applications (without testing them, he insists). "There already are options in my emails that allow me to choose among a series of predefined answers to an invitation. I imagine the same could be done for those who don't know how to flirt on Tinder. Sort of conversational bots that could suggest pick-up lines," he says.

Programming addicts are getting closer to the dream of having a life entirely managed by computer. "I'm outsourcing part of my brain to these services," Basile says. "For me, there's nothing scary about this optimization. It enables me to remove all non-value added tasks and to save time and peace of mind."

But the slightest malfunction can disturb this peace of mind. In 2014, the connected thermostat Nest was praised for its ability to automatically adjust to the habits of users. But if that user changed his or her habits, say because of a cold, then it's a nightmare to change the settings.

Users are also worried about their privacy. Close to 1.5 million connections between applications and objects have been made on IFTTT since the service was created in 2012. This includes data from email accounts and photos to contact lists and history records.

In its privacy policy, IFTTT says it "may share our data, including personal information about you with our partners."

We don't know "what goes on inside the machine and that's what scares me the most," Basile says. "I don't even remember the kind of data I've given to all these sorts of services."

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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