It’s easy to misunderstand the IoT because the term itself — or even discussing the phenomenon in isolation — is horribly misleading
The Internet of Things (IoT) is something we’re hearing a lot about right now. It’s at the peak of the hype cycle. We’ve all seen the statistics: estimates of between 25 billion to 50 billion connected objects by 2020 (depending on who you listen to). That’s a thrilling prospect. A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.
Thinking about this in the right way is difficult, because every time we use that ridiculous term, “the Internet of Things ” we distance ourselves from understanding how big the transformation really is. Sure, we need to give it a name. It’s a necessary evil. But in this case not only is the name silly, it’s misleading. Things? No. We’re really talking about the ubiquitous connection of everything, not just inanimate objects, but services, interactive devices, sensors and ultimately, people.
When we’re thinking about the IoT (and yes, I’ll use the damn term) we should really be situating it within the larger context of a global technological flourishing that’s taking place all around us. We’re seeing simultaneous, once-in-a-hundred-years technology revolutions taking place in multiple sectors, from energy and transport to manufacturing, finance and healthcare. It’s the result of an inevitable technological push that’s going to drop humanity into a sea of meshed connections, with mind-blowing consequences.
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Hardware is evolving
The IoT is a part of something much bigger, something you might call the hardware movement. As John Bruner points out, this movement is making our physical environment accessible in the same way the internet made information and ease of communication accessible to everyone 20 years ago. It’s the democratization of the world of stuff, a flattening out of the manufacturing process that takes the means of production away from large, 20th century style organizations of scale and into the hands of smaller, distributed businesses and individuals.
Bruner says this has been aided in large part by the improvement of software, which allows us to solve many of the things that we used to do with hardware. It wasn’t too long ago that 3D modelling software was only accessible to large corporations and more recently, to smaller businesses. But now these powerful tools are in the hands of anyone with an internet connection and a computer. And of course not only is the software accessible, it’s accompanied by an online cornucopia of free instructions and videos on how to make just about anything.
It’s not just about fancy computers and cheap, ubiquitous DIY either. It’s also about a change in the way we think stuff should be made. For most of the 20th century manufacturing was dominated by companies that were able to operate at scale. That’s still the case in much of the world. But at the innovative edges, technologies like additive manufacturing are giving rise to a new type of enterprise: high functioning, cooperative, point of service companies with fast reaction manufacturing capabilities. Hardware development is becoming an agile operation; smaller and quicker to get products into testing and out for distribution. This goes beyond electronics and touches any industry that produces physical goods.
On the other end of the spectrum we get the maker movement, symptomatic of a more general trend of moving hardware innovation to the edges, to the hobbyists and entrepreneurs. The IoT comes somewhere in between big manufacturing on the one side and the maker movement on the other. And it’s possible not only because of incredible advances in our ability to make hardware, but also because of an exponential improvement in the effectiveness of communications technologies.
We’re getting better at this stuff all the time. A few weeks ago for example, a company called Rockchip made a major leap forward with WiFi technology, developing a a combined memory and WiFi system on a chip card that uses 85 percent less energy than standard products. In practical terms that means it’s now possible to create a cheap WiFi compatible object that can run off an AAA battery for 35 years. That’s something which hasn’t been possible until now. Bluetooth has that kind of energy efficiency but it’s an inferior technology compared to WiFi, which has a longer reach and is a standard form of communication in most products. As technologies like this become commonplace they’ll empower manufacturers by allowing them to use smaller batteries, which will help in the effort to make IoT products that people really need.
Less of the same, more of the different
Enterprise companies aren’t stupid. They know the IoT is coming and they’re trying to jump on the bandwagon because they’re scared of being disrupted/see there’s a great opportunity. A few, like Google and Samsung have managed to gain a foothold in this space already. However most companies haven’t got it right yet. The most high profile example of this is the Apple Watch. This is largely a design problem. In the technology industry, despite knowing better, we still tend to think that the next wave of innovation is going to look like the last one. We look at the personal computer and mobile phone revolutions, and think “well obviously what we need for the next tech revolution is smaller/better screens.”
But we don’t need more screens. According to David Rose, an instructor at the MIT Media Lab, we’re seeing a cultural yearning to solve the issue of screens soaking up the majority of our attention. We’ve come to the end of that particular technology pathway. Instead, says Rose, the IoT is only going to work when we create objects that seem like magic. The example he likes to use is Bilbo Baggins’ sword, Sting, a dual purpose object. The elves made it primarily to cut up their enemies, but Sting also glows blue when Orcs or Goblins are around. In other words it’s what he calls an “enchanted object.” A real-world version of that, according to Rose, would be an umbrella whose handle glows blue when snow or rain is coming. It’s also an enchanted object, but it doesn’t work through Elvish magic. It works because of a combination of LEDs, location tracking and an internet connection to a weather prediction service.
Design problems for the IoT also extend to how businesses think these new technologies should be deployed. Too often, they forget about the changes going on in sectors around them, but technological progress doesn’t take place in isolation. RFID tracking, for example, might seem like promising technology for large international shipping companies, because it means they can potentially create real-time digital maps of every product in their supply chain.
Great news for the electronic consumer goods industry right? It means more efficiency for the company, and more control for customers who can track their products.
The problem is that this thought process ignores the advent of additive manufacturing technologies which have the potential to strip out every node in that supply chain. Why bother tracking products all the way across the globe when in ten years time you’ll be going down to your local electronics store with a schematic you downloaded from an approved supplier, and get them to 3D print the product out for pickup the next day? That’s where the consumer goods industry is going. If you’re a logistics company, it means you’re better off worrying about what the IoT can do in the final mile (shop to home) than you are about the rest of the supply chain.
We need an IoT Bill of Rights
In discussions about the IoT we tend to focus on the technical first and then the economic and social. But there’s an ethical component to all of this, too, that centers around our philosophy and approach. To explain this, remember that the internet was founded by geeks. If you were online during the late 80s and early 90s for example, you’ll know that a popular destination was Usenet groups. Initially developed for chess games, they came to be dominated by people talking about software, pornography or some variation of either D&D or sci-fi. I know. I was there. Possibly not the best place for an eight year old, but hey.
Content notwithstanding, these early, geeky pioneers had an amazing approach to working together. They founded the internet on the principle of open access and collaboration. It was intended to be a democratic tool, something to level the playing field. Of course governments and corporations have subsequently muscled into this territory as they now understand just how valuable information trails are. But by and large the original principles still hold true. The ongoing debates about net neutrality and whether or not broadband should be treated as a common carrier are emblematic of this. It’s the idea that one party doesn’t get to pay a higher price to send their information faster than any other party. The reason is because once we start having a tiered internet, we have a less open, less free and less democratic internet, and that’s not what its founders envisioned.
We need similar kinds of principles laid down for the IoT. One idea, from technologist Limor Freid, is that we create a minimal bill of rights. Something that says open is better than closed, ensuring portability between devices. We must ensure that consumers, not companies, own the data collected by devices and that any devices that collect public data (such as traffic flows or crowd sizes) share that data in the public realm. Users should have the right to keep their data private, and be able to delete or back up data collected by the devices they own. We also need to ensure that individuals are compensated fairly for the information they create, rather than allowing the value to be skimmed off by what Jaron Lanier calls “siren servers,” which concentrate wealth in the hands of the few who control the data centers.
Of course, this raises all sorts of questions, such as, “what’s the line between public and private data?” If I decide to meet, say, an ex-partner of mine in Federation Square in Melbourne, should that information be publicly recorded and accessible to my current partner on a public database, or is it something I’d prefer to keep to myself? These questions are important ones. Eventually we’ll all have to answer them in some form or another. We should be having serious discussions about these issues at the highest levels of policymaking, and yet all too often they’re buried in obscure online forums or niche communities of interest.
So ignore the stories about fridges speaking to your phone, or smart forks that keep track of how fast you’re eating. Just because a device can be packed with sensors and put online, doesn’t mean it actually serves a consumer purpose. Those are products driven by marketing, and they distract us from the bigger issues at stake. Once connectivity is embedded within our physical environment the use cases will be far more interesting and transformative.
Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.