IoT Next: Design Research for Internet Health

Michelle Thorne
Dec 21, 2018 · 5 min read

Today, internet health issues are magnified as billions of new devices are connected and zettabytes of data are collected. Wearable technologies monitor our heartbeat, AI voice assistants cohabit our kitchens and our children’s bedrooms, smart cities know our every move, and facial recognition determines our access across country borders.

These technologies need to be built responsibly, which requires the cultivation of design, research, and advocacy. We see many areas requiring attention, including:

  • Democratic, open development of the Internet of Things (and the AI that drives it). With only a few companies in Silicon Valley dominating the market and the electronics manufactured almost exclusively in Shenzhen, we see a danger in too much centralization.
  • Designers of IoT products have little awareness of significant regulatory changes such as the European GDPR’s Privacy By Design requirements and how to implement them effectively.
  • Smart microphones, cameras and sensors are becoming ubiquitous. Yet companies lack the accountability to disclose all of these capabilities and risks, especially ones that can change through remote software updates.

Recognizing these needs, in 2016 Mozilla teamed up with the University of Dundee to anticipate how internet health issues would play out in this so-called “third wave” of the internet.

Now two years in, we are shining the spotlight on some of our accomplishments and sharing how we’ll continue with design research and internet health in the new year.

Mapping the true cost of AI

Rarely do we comprehend what goes on behind the scenes of an artificially intelligent system. One can right click on a web page in their browser to see the source code. What if, we asked, there was “view source” for IoT products, specifically the AI-powered voice assistants?

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Vladan Joler from ShareLab and Kate Crawford from AI Now led an ambitious project to map the physical materials and human labor behind an Amazon Echo. The incredibly detailed map and accompanying essay were displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the online version is being used in courses around the world as well as informing activists and researchers looking at the impact of AI, including Mozilla. Going forward, we believe there’s potential to establish more robust and widespread “view source” practices for IoT products.

Opening up the voice-enabled internet

Only a few companies control the voice-enabled internet. It is a patent minefield, and there are not a lot of incentives for these companies to make products that understand people speaking “non-lucrative” languages.

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Thanks to Michael Henretty from Mozilla’s Open Innovation team, we contributed to the creation of Common Voice, an open-source voice database that anyone can use to make their own voice recognition apps and devices and to grow the number of languages supported by these technologies.

Released a trustmark for IoT

Connected products are often described as black boxes. It’s hard to know what software is running on them, where that data goes, and sometimes even simply to determine whether a device has a microphone or a camera.

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To address this, Mozilla Fellow Peter Bihr from ThingsCon released the Trustable Technology Mark, a project to help consumers make informed decisions and to enable companies to prove their connected products are trustworthy by disclosing critical information about data collection, compatibility with GDPR, and more.

This approach was included in the Brazilian national IoT plan, and in collaboration with Mozilla Fellows Meghan McDermott and Jason Schultz, it is now contributing to a coalition of cities advancing digital rights in municipal technology.

Speculating with connected products and AI

We were also inspired to use speculative fiction and humor to articulate desirable futures with technology.

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With the design studio Superflux, we commissioned “Our Friends Electric”, a film that explored alternate forms and interactions for voice AI. The film and the physical props, made by Mozilla Fellow Loraine Clarke and Martin Skelly at the University of Dundee, were featured at the London Design Museum and will be at the upcoming Vienna Biennale.

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Relatedly, Mozilla Fellow Julia Kloiber published the second issue of Ding!, a magazine about the internet and things. She curated essays, poems, and illustrations about positive futures and the power of speculation. To deepen these ideas, Julia is soon offering fellowships for feminist tech in collaboration with the Superrr network she co-founded.

Launching a PhD program

The questions of our era require interdisciplinary thinking. We need new ways of making things as well as re-engagement with the past and nature. With a dying planet and democracies everywhere in turmoil, we need as much political and social innovation as we do technological.

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That’s why Mozilla and the University of Dundee haved launched a PhD program called OpenDoTT, thanks to support from EU’s Horizon 2020 program. The program will train technologists, designers, and researchers to create and advocate for connected products that are more open, secure, and trustworthy. Candidates can apply until Jan. 25, 2019 for a paid, three-year doctoral training taking them from Dundee to Berlin, with site visits and expert training from across the industry and non-profits.

In 2019 and beyond, Mozilla will deepen its focus on better machine-based decision making. Our investment in IoT have informed this direction and will continue to do so. A number of Mozilla Fellows will continue research and advocate for healthier IoT. As a project, the Open IoT Studio will now be housed at the University of Dundee where Prof. Jon Rogers is seeking to set up a research center to further this work.

Read, Write, Participate

What Mozilla is thinking, building and doing about internet…

Michelle Thorne

Written by

Leading @Mozilla’s Open IoT program. Organized #mozfest. Creative Commoner. Curious about openness, user control and the #connectedhome.

Read, Write, Participate

What Mozilla is thinking, building and doing about internet health.

Michelle Thorne

Written by

Leading @Mozilla’s Open IoT program. Organized #mozfest. Creative Commoner. Curious about openness, user control and the #connectedhome.

Read, Write, Participate

What Mozilla is thinking, building and doing about internet health.

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