„Hey Toaster, let’s be friends!”

When objects want to become smart and connected they also have to establish „social relationships“ among each other in order to realize a meaningful and secure Internet of Things. Just connecting each part of our world won’t do it. It’s time to think about a Social Internet of Things.

Until 2020 over 50 billion devices will be part of what we call the Internet of Things. According to current forecasts this means, that nearly 6.5 times as much devices will be connected to the Internet (and thus with each other) as humans will live on our planet.

In respect to this numbers we run towards problems which – from my point of view – are not solved yet: how should all those constantly communicating devices find their way in a gigantic data stream created by an Internet of Things? How should they gather and share the right information at the right time, in order to offer benefits to humans? How are new devices able to easily become part of such a sophisticated network? How can we keep the understanding and control over our more and more autonomously operating devices as soon as those are interwoven in an Internet of Things?

What we need in order to make the concept reality, is a model by which so-called „smart” devices communicate and build connections with each other. I stress „smart” because the devices we currently call „smart” won’t be able to meet the requirements. I even claim, that each connected device we know today, actually behaves quite stupid within the network. Opening the gates to the Internet won’t be enough if we seek to create a functioning Internet of Things.

Humans already are parts of a huge well working network. Why shouldn’t we learn from that?

We humans are social beings by nature. Our identity evolves from the relationships with our ancestors, our early context and with each event and decision we make in our life. We get raised into society in which we gain social capital – meaning access to all kinds of resources: support, connections to others as well as diverse experience and knowledge. We would’ve never been able to exploit our full potential if we had walked through life as lone wolfs.

Social capital provides the glue which facilitates co-operation, exchange and innovation.
– OECD

So the connections to other people make the difference, right? Well, at the beginning I claim, that mere connections between objects won’t suffice. However for humans that seems to work out since thousands of years. Is that so?

The difference is that humans belong to social networks since primeval times. In this connection the strength of ties between humans plays a decisive role. As an intelligent being we have acquaintances, friends, neighbors, co-workers and so on. We relate to each of them, though each relationship is from different strength and used for different purposes.

This offers many benefits: we are able to know whom to ask for help, where we are able to learn about a specific area and which people we should approach when working on complex tasks. Most notably we are able to identify, whom we can entrust secrets and which people we should avoid in everyday life.

This is brilliant and it technically means, that social networks are secure, scalable and navigable. In fact this is what an Internet of Things needs to become a well working network.

Things won’t be smart until they learn to establish social relationships” with other things.

How is it even possible to apply a complex model like a human social network to the Internet of Things? After all objects don’t sense empathy and are far from being intelligent, yet. However fundamental aspects can be applied very well. Let’s have a look at an example.

The family is the first social network in which a human is born into. Here he learns the most important things which enables him to become an socially integrated human. Thereby he benefits from his parents’ experiences. He learns from mistakes made by close relatives and hence tackles daily things differently – a manufacturer or brand could describe a great analogy to this natural phenomenon.

A family needs to work as a team, supporting each other’s individual aims and aspirations.
- Buzz Aldrin

Cars from the type i8 would become „brothers and sisters” in the BMW family. A neat function of this particular „social network” could be the sharing of disturbances and errors. Let me illustrate this approach: if it happens that a multitude of i8 reports malfunctions, BMW could automatically call those cars back and repair them. Simultaneously older BMW i8s would share proposals for solutions regarding specific problems they have experienced, too. The cars can trust each other as they originate from the same manufacturer and are identical in many instances.

Family is not the only network we benefit from: diverse ties will make a Social Internet of Things extremely powerful

Just let us stick with the car-example and consider our i8 as a „person in society”. Let’s suppose our i8 drives on the highway towards Munich. While doing this he is part of another specific social network: together with each element (vehicles, signs, speed cameras, etc.) the highway forms a local community in which particular interests and information can be shared among the members.

An example: a foreign car causes an accident with another one. It shares this information with the highway; that is every object which is on track towards Munich. Highway signs could easily spread the information to other signs or cars and thus warn drivers. It is even imaginable that signs automatically inform the highway patrol as they are both part of the co-working network „Highway services” and for this reason they can share important data with them.

This approach is quite comparable to many natural social networks. If we stay in a hotel on vacation we often exchange travel experiences with other tourists. At work we have relationships with colleagues, which are working in the same company or at the same tasks, to speed up processes.

Mostly those connections are temporary or only for a very specific purpose. They are so-called weak social ties. However sometimes they last longer and become tighter. Often this happens when we share a lot of time with other people, have similar general interests and get along with each other. We develop friendships with other people.

Humans must become a crucial part in order to socialize things

Humans have to play a significant role in a Social Internet of Things. We create and use objects. By now they offer us services which aim to make our life easier and more fun. We have to be inherent parts of a Social Internet of Things and not only silent spectators of a gigantic play by connected objects. Our individual identity needs to form it.

Indeed we are owners of many different objects and therefore founders of very intimate networks of things. We have strong relationships to our objects and therefore they should develop strong ties among themselves. In fact they should establish „friendships“ which are shaped by trust and support.

Friendship is the only thing in the world concerning the usefulness of which all mankind are agreed.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

Objects which are friends would be the only ones which are able to access sensitive data from each other. Simultaneously they are the first place to go when it is about offering their owner an effective service. Due to different experiences and insights made while interacting with their owner, „friends” are able to act effectively for men.

Our known i8 from the other scenarios belongs to a human just as his house with a multitude of connected things. Let’s imagine: our man has the habit to leave the house after toasting his bread. Wouldn’t it be smart if the car already has a comfortable temperature when his owner enters it? However, how should it know, at the time his owner enters it? Surely it could have a look at the calendar of his owner. But for that input is cogently required and chances are high, that failures will happen. Wouldn’t it be way smarter, if belongings are constantly talking about their owner and thus take care of him?

Every time the owner puts bread into the toaster, it may inform his friends about that. Considering that every single friendly object is able to intercept the dialog, the shower might call for attention and inform everybody that it wasn’t used yet. Noticing that information the car can decide to wait a little bit longer before warming up as his owner might be late.

In a „socialized” IoT connected objects moreover need to consider the relationships between people — respectively of their owners. An owner’s friend shouldn’t be the only one having a certain admission to use his friend’s objects. A router for example shall be open for „friendly” devices that are owned by a human family member. Asking for the password isn’t a smart process at all.

If objects can establish „friendships” they can also learn to avoid other things. „Friendly” objects could complain about foreign objects and even recommend avoiding them. Thereby the Internet of Things would develop a natural immune system against malicious things.

In a Social Internet of Things the possibilities are endless

A well chosen mental model for the Internet of Things is needed for making it understandable. Human social networks offer basic approaches for making the Internet of Things navigable, scalable and secure. It offers a model, by which objects establish relationships of different quality, share experiences with the right ones, exchange context-relevant information and grant access to sensitive data.

However in order to design a Social Internet of Things we need more disciplines to cooperate and discuss. If we want our things to become smart, we require the expertise from psychologists and sociologists. They study humans and their behavior in groups and know how relationships emerge, how they affect individuals and how social networks interact.

To our human minds, computers behave less like rocks and trees than they do like humans, so we unconsciously treat them like people.
– Alan Cooper

The more objects resemble humans the more diverse experts have to work on veering the development into the right direction. And I am pretty excited while thinking about the possibilities which „social behavior“ could bring to the Internet of Things.



Sources:

There is a group of inspiring researchers that are highly interested in the SIoT paradgim. They shared many of their publications.

OECD published a great paper on Social Capital explaining the concept quite understandable.

Famous sociologist Mark S. Granovetter published a very famous paper about strong and weak social ties. I recommend everyone reading it, if you are interested in social networks