The Internet of Things is going to need an Internet of Me

The Internet of Things is going to be big. You might have heard about that. In fact it’s going to be really, really big. Of course you knew that too. What is becoming clear is that however big you think the Internet of Things is going to be, it will probably be a lot bigger. And that’s a pretty big problem for the Internet of Things.

A problem of sheer scale.

McKinsey predicts the Internet of Things will be a global market worth up to $11trillion by 2025. So, boom time for business. However, the McKinsey report quickly follows up with this line: “Our central finding is that the hype may actually understate the full potential.” System issues such as interoperability must be squared, it says.

Perhaps the real challenge for IoT is its interoperability with us. How do we as individuals manage an estate of devices, apps and accounts that is growing at such a breathtaking pace? Most people have more than enough accounts, settings, passwords and logins as it is. We can’t possibly take direct control of an ever-expanding network of devices and sensors, let alone make any sense of what they’re all doing.

The only logical solution is to put the individual at the centre of it all. Devices and systems need to refer to us, rather than us going to each of them. And that will require us owning and controlling our data in a way that makes it easier for those devices and systems to understand us so they can act more autonomously — within our set parameters — to do what we want without being micro-managed. This is the very essence of the Internet of Me.

Internet of Me spoke to Dr Phil Windley, academic, author and authority on the Internet of Things, whose work has explored the idea of a Personal API as a means of solving the problems of growing complexity while empowering the individual. Phil is Enterprise Architect at Brigham Young University in Utah and a former professor of computer science, as well as being an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Internet Identity Workshop.

Phil says: “The Internet of Things mostly means that my device talks to its manufacturer who gives me an account and I get an app on my phone that talks to the account at the manufacturer. The data flows through the manufacturer to me. It is inconvenient to have to connect all these things together and control them through their apps. If I was able to put these into what we used to call a personal cloud — Internet of Me is a better metaphor — then I would have an API of me: the stuff I care about and the APIs that I want to work with.”

So Phil sees the future development of the Internet of Things inextricably linked with the greater degree of personal agency embodied by the Internet of Me. IoT will drive IoM out of necessity for a solution to its problem of scale.

He refers to the ideas on how to handle complexity explored in Trillions, the book by Mickey McManus, Peter Lucas and Joe Ballay. It suggests that the explosion in connected devices will result in a network with trillions of nodes that will dwarf the Internet as we know it.

It is the urgent need to manage and make sense of that vast interconnected ecosystem that will make the idea of the Internet of Me an imperative. Phil says: “We’re going to have to learn totally new techniques and it’s going to be a completely different thing to build networks with trillions of nodes. That’s why the Internet of Things has hope of pushing us to new ideas. One of those ideas is that it’s not tenable to imagine that I’m going have thousands of connected devices in my personal sphere that work like the connected devices do today. And it’s not just a question of reliability.

“The very model that each device is going to be connected to the manufacturer’s cloud and I’m going to have an account with every one of them and work with their various APIs is not going to work. It works fine for now. I understand why manufacturers do it. I understand why fitbit and Nest work the way they do.

“We can hook these things all together with some baling wire and some bubble gum. But that’s not the same as building an ecosystem where literally thousands of things that I own are connected and find their own way to be connected without me spending an hour getting my Wemo devices configured and putting Alexa on a special network so she can do all the things I have to do. It’s ludicrous to imagine that’s the way the future will work.

“That’s why I think we’re going to find some new way. I believe the best way to make that work is through personal APIs or, to put it another way, the Internet of Me.”

The way this could play out, says Phil, is with communities of connected devices working together to figure out what their owner wants them to do without being explicitly instructed.

“What I need is communities of devices to be functioning together for a particular purpose. I’ve been working on a system where devices can join communities and communities can discover device capabilities and then the system can allow devices to negotiate with each other in order to achieve some goal for the user.”

Phil gives an example of how the connected home could be at the centre of such a community.

Your house is in your Internet of Me network, along with all sorts of connected devices within it. You buy an electric car and introduce it to your house. If that sounds like a very human way to describe making a connection between two bits of technology, it’s because this is not simply a question of access. The crucial difference is that you are permitting the car and the house to communicate autonomously, without much interaction with you. Rather than just make a connection, you have told the house that you trust this vehicle and it should do likewise. This is a transfer of trust, and an important concept.
Now the house and the car are going to enter into a conversation. The car tells the house that it needs to charge often and that it uses a lot of power. The house contains a number of other heavy energy users and so introduces the car to them. They exist as a community that has a goal set by the owner — to keep energy use within limits to reduce costs. So the community of power-hungry appliances has to negotiate for access to power. So if the air conditioning is running when the car wants to charge it will have to wait or get the air-conditioner to stop. If keeping the house cool is a top priority, the air-conditioner might prevail.
However, if the car knows that the owner needs to be somewhere at a certain time and needs to charge its battery to get her there, that priority might override the air-conditioner. And if staying cool before making the drive is absolutely vital, the community might decide the cost of extra energy consumption is justified. There are all sorts of situations where very complex ‘if-this-then-that’ type priorities have to be juggled.

Phil says: “I see this whole thing as being part of the Internet of Me. It’s all of my devices in some sort of network that I control and these various communities trying to optimise for various things that I want to have happen, but in a way that is flexible enough to provide the right outcomes.”

In its 2016 Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends report, Gartner is clearly on the same page regarding cooperation between devices without human input, describing an interoperability ‘mesh’ to make this work.

“While devices are increasingly connected to back-end systems through various networks, they have often operated in isolation from one another,” the report says. “As the device mesh evolves, we expect connection models to expand and greater cooperative interaction between devices to emerge.”

The Gartner report goes on to say that machine learning will be needed to help manage the explosion of information that will accompany the massive growth in IoT: “The explosion of data sources and complexity of information makes manual classification and analysis infeasible and uneconomic.”

The idea of people owning and controlling their own data opens up all sorts of opportunities for innovations that benefit consumers and businesses. Data has the power to offer individuals a deeper understanding of many different aspects of their lives. That is rich information which, when shared, can allow new products and services to be created that offer us real benefit.

This is clearly desirable, but this shift in control is also becoming vital. Without it, it is impossible to see how the personal data economy and the Internet of Things — both of which will one day simply merge into what we call ‘life’ — can reach their full, exciting potential.

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