IoT: Beyond information to purpose

Public perception of the IoT is missing a crucial middle ground – solutions that can offer things we’ve never been able to do before.

When I talk to people about my research and use the term ‘The Internet of Things’, often two polar things come to their mind. Either they think of ‘smart’ meters, ‘smart’ grids and ‘smart’ traffic, a mass of centrally connected sensors that would help to keep a city running, and something they will likely not have to think about too much. Or they think of a poor man’s Jetson home, where every plant has a twitter feed that lets them know when it needs to be watered – that is things that might help us keep an eye on what’s around us, but ultimately require us to babysit them.

People who think the first often fail to see how the IoT can help them beyond a bit of energy savings and a little less congestion to get to work. They fail to get excited and their imagination never lights up.
People who think the second do let their imagination light up, they wonder what it would be like if their objects were suddenly given a voice. But they’re also sceptical and scared. Skeptical that it will ever gain popular appeal because of the added cognitive load each new invention brings, and scared that it will overcomplicate and encroach on their already precious time.

I feel these two examples are missing the biggest selling ground for the IoT, the ‘Killer App’ if you will. In the first example, all the data is taken from sensors and passed back to a central algorithm which comes to conclusions and makes changes with little room for human intervention. It’s called machine to machine processing (M2M), and it can be very useful in situations you want to fade into the background, like traffic control. In the second example, all the data is passed from sensors to a human (M2H), with little room for machine intervention. Thereby filling up our already precious time and short attention spans with more information.

There’s a middle-ground. One of the reasons health has had such a big run in the IoT press is because it is something that could not have been done before. It’s not just a faster way of moving traffic, or finding out your plant is dry. With health monitoring people can see the real world outcomes for themselves through preventative healthcare. Sensors that monitor small changes in your body and environment over time can alert you only when they could lead to a serious problem down the track. Done right, in some cases it turns the idea of going to a doctor when symptoms have presented upside down so that you know and can adapt to a problem while it can be nipped in the bud. It’s not simply doing something faster, it’s taking away a problem.

The Internet Of Things will give people capabilities to track and understand things they could previously only make inferences about.

Where to from here?

There’s certainly a time and a place for M2M and M2H. Human attention is a precious commodity and most things, like traffic flow, will need to just fall into the background. Conversely, we may still want a say in many things that are a little more personal to us, such as monitoring our sleep.

Healthcare, like most things, will require a carful balance of both machines taking charge (M2M) and interactions with human players (M2H). And the tricky

The main point is that I believe for the IoT to really find a place in the hearts and minds of people everywhere, we can’t just be talking about automation, where things are quicker or less intrusive. We need to be talking about how interconnected computers everywhere allows us to do things we could never have done otherwise. We need to be talking about things you couldn’t have done before. Not just a more efficient way of switching off the light globe, or finding out your plant is dry. We need to really think through the new possibilities having billions of computers in everyday objects affords us.

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