Imagine a world where your car is able to tell you how much gas is left in your tank, if there is a major problem with your engine, or just that you need to change your oil. With technological advancement, you no longer have to imagine!
Now imagine that instead of “car,” you can use anything that can be physically or electronically measured. And instead of “you,” you can connect any electronic device you want. This is our world now.
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) enables basic communication between devices, or at least one device measuring physical objects, in order to reduce or eliminate the need for manual and repeated checking in and allows for a series of actions to be taken automatically based on the exchanges of information. Think of it as a Rube Goldberg machine for the wireless world, but it actually does important things (or at least it can do important things).
Communication is essential in almost every endeavor, and ensuring that communication happens smoothly and accurately drastically increases the likelihood of success. The IoT allows for precise data collection and automatic conveyance of that information to either another device or the user.
You are already familiar with the IoT though. “Smart” phones and other smart devices were the first major wave of this generation of communicative machines.
The next step, which is the same as the first, is to make life run more smoothly — to decrease user debt. “User debt” is the time and effort the customer invests in order to enjoy the product. For example, calling a cab used to involve looking up the cab company’s number in a phone book, calling to order a ride, giving directions to the driver, then finding the right amount of cash and deciding how much to tip the driver. Now, you pull out your phone, tap the screen a couple times, and just wait. The next step is not having a manual interaction at all.
The hope of this type of frictionless activity has an impact of the development of the technology itself as well. Because of the strong desire to hack together whatever can get the job done to make it easy on the user, utilizing open source blueprints and ideas allowed the number of producers to increase as well as increase their efficiency. The focus on patentable products seems to have an inverse correlation to the speed at which an industry grows. And because producers can’t always know the customer’s system, they have to create a way to be platform independent, that is, to create an operating system compatible within all other operating systems. This further entrenches the idea of cooperation and integration piece by piece rather than trying to build a single unit that controls everything.
So what does this mean for you, the lowly individual who is just trying to keep up with technological advances and how they impact your life?
As one single person or small company, it is difficult to get started with the production of IoT hardware, even with all the open source material. However, it is quite easy for curious minds to hack together a ‘do it yourself’ system to improve your own life. Everybody has those one or two things they dread doing, or have a difficult time remembering to take care of. Arduino created a plug’n’play starter kit that lets you analyze your system then pick and choose the pieces needed to solve your problem or make your life just a little bit easier.
Bad products flooded the market for IoT and have distracted both producers and consumers from their original purpose of making life easier in favor of “hey, look what I can do.” People buy appliances to perform certain functions. The great benefits of software are low cost and easily updated. The problem is the IoT marketplace mistakenly behaves like a software company. Producers treated appliances as software and focused on “shipping fast.” This cost consumers time and money when they have to return their fancy teapot that sends your smart phone an emoji of a cup of tea when the water has boiled, just so the manufacturer can properly test the product even though there was only a minor bug in the code.
Connectedness became the goal instead of the means. These IoT products are simply showing off what they were capable of doing rather than solving actual problems. The market for novelty IoT is incredibly narrow, especially in the global context, but the original motivation of making tedious things easy is still there and can service a wide range of people. Maybe the silly teapot was a necessary stepping stone to realize the absurdity of the line of thinking, but now is the time to learn from these mistakes and dispense with the superfluous frills and focus on the needs* of the consumer. (*Read: product that solves a problem, because most of us don’t really need “smart” anything)
One of those needs is the integrated home system. Amazon’s Echo provides for voice control of all the connected things in your house. Come home with arms full of groceries? “Jeeves, turn on the lights” (I’m pretty sure that’s not what triggers the system, but I’ve always wanted a proper British butler and this is a lot cheaper). Instead of sitting at the table looking up weather reports and sports scores, you can do more productive things while Jeeves finds and reads for you all you want to know.
Google Home got released yesterday and Apple is approaching completion on its version of a rival product, and they won’t stop at home integration. This has several implications.
1. Competition pushes the market — I don’t care if you’re an Apple fan or not, once they enter the market, there is an expansion (see tablets & smart watches).
2. Opens up job market — Similar to the effect of the assembly line (not sure to what degree of difference), when companies can implement smart devices that measure a current status, communicate that information, and trigger the next task in a process, there will be a decreased reliance on human involvement with that system. As demand of labor for repetitive tasks falls, demand of labor increases for positions focused on creativity. Being able to get into this job market early will help you avoid the rush when companies start begging people to come work for them.
3. More producers means more products means more problems solved — This shift causes a decrease in price for products which gets passed on to you, the consumer.
The future of IoT is not focused on you and is not concerned if your toast is cooked just the way you like it, or if your fridge tells you when you are out of milk, this future can solve systemic free rider problems, and reduce or eliminate barriers in areas like healthcare, and even anticipate problems within itself.
Digital cities will be able to increase energy efficiency and decrease reliance on manual tracking of minor infractions. Developing green buildings will require, or at least greatly aided by, digital monitoring and adjusting the water levels and other nutrients needed to maintain that system. Other similar integrated systems, like solar panels built into the road, will also benefit from the connection with IoT.
When added to the machine learning (Artificial Intelligence) framework, IoT has nearly unlimited potential, but hopefully not like Skynet levels of potential. A given unit will communicate to other similar units about failures allowing the working units to predict failure and take precaution before a breakdown occurs. Healthcare will also benefit from these advances by enabling the doctor (or A.I.) to receive accurate information from the patient and monitoring the patient after a diagnosis.
Unfortunately, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows out there. Security is a serious concern as it always will be with any digital technology. Living a more connected life opens up the possibility of greater risk to government spying, criminal hacking, and worst of all “targeted” advertising (just because I accidentally clicked on ad for Nike doesn’t mean I’m in desperate need of shoes and my entire internet experience is now focused to achieving that singular end). The issue will be measuring your personal risk and reward of these concerns against the benefits of connection. This is also why the frivolous gadgets need to, and soon will, disappear.
Simplifying our lives seems like a worth while pursuit, but if we over simplify, we may make ourselves dependent on the system we create and forget how to do simple tasks. Technological advances allow us comfort, but we — you and I — have to be vigilant in our own lives to not become complacent. Technology is neither good nor bad, but it allows us to expose either the best or the worst in us all. So don’t blame technology for making people lazy, look to each individual to take responsibility for their own actions.
At Exosphere, we will teach you the skills necessary to begin your career in IoT, show you clever DIY hacks for your own home or office, but most importantly, we will help you understand your place (or places) in this rapidly shifting world and give you the tools to adapt to your surroundings.
Let me know what you think,