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.
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."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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