The Internet Of Things: What It Is & What It Means For You

Blogs Luke Dormehl 16:11, 21 Jan 2014

The Internet of Things. Yep – it's happening. Google's in, and so is Apple. Here's a breakdown of what it means for you

The Internet of Things may be one of the clumsier buzz terms to come out in recent years but it seems to have caught on nonetheless. Originally coined by marketer Kevin Ashton as the title of a 1999 presentation for Procter & Gamble, the term “Internet of Things” has struck a chord with techies over the decade-and-a-half since its inception.

Put simply the Internet of Things is, like the best technology concepts, built on an insight: that humans have limited time and resources to dedicate to our technology, and as it comes to dominate larger and larger portions of our life (how many times have you checked your emails today, for instance?) some of that decision-making could be more usefully handed over to machines. As Kevin Ashton has noted:

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things -- using data they gathered without any help from us -- we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.”

Ashton may have given the Internet of Things its name, but he didn’t invent its concept. Anyone that calls themselves a science fiction fan is likely familiar with the kind of “home of the future” TV sitcom episodes that proliferated in the 1970s. Up until now, of course, it hasn’t really happened. Our phones and computers have gotten smarter, but white goods and other tools have remained frustratingly dumb.

2014 might be the year in which that changes, however. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, devices representing the Internet of Things were in full force. From smart air conditioners to wearables, seemingly every company worth its silicon was tripping over its competitors trying to sell us on products that would fundamentally change the way we live, work and play.

Take for instance the French company Netatmo, which debuted a smart bracelet at the event, capable of measuring how much sunlight you get and informing you when you’ve had enough. Another innovation from Canadian startup InterAxon measures brainwaves with the aim of helping people relieve stress. InfoMotion’s 94Fifty basketball meanwhile uses various sensors to help players dribble and shoot better -- while Reebok’s Checklight is a skull cap featuring sensors that measure the impact of a blow to the head. 

Like the Apple ecosystem writ large -- where your iPhone syncs with your iPod Touch, your iMac syncs with your iPad, and all of it asks you to sink more and more money into iTunes and the App Store -- over the coming years a growing amount of our technology will interact not just with ourselves, but also with each other. This will result in a newly intuitive user experience, offering plenty of feedback to “nudge” you in the right direction regarding everything from healthy eating to the best way to swing your golf club.

Anyone doubting that the year’s biggest Internet of Things story would be CES didn’t have to wait long to be proven incorrect. Just the next week, Google announced that it had acquired Nest, the home device company started by former iPod creator Tony Fadell, for a whopping $3.2 billion. Responsible for the best-selling Nest Learning Thermostat, the acquisition shows how seriously Google is taking the idea of interconnect devices.

With market penetration for Internet search approaching total saturation in countries like the UK and US -- where more than eighty percent of the population is connected to the Web -- in order to expand, companies like Google need to focus on new ways of letting users access their services, and different means by which the Internet can add value to user experience.

Judging from the media response, Google was far from alone in viewing Nest as a major acquisition. In the deal’s aftermath, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson even ventured that the purchase had helped Google steal the “most innovative” tech company crown from former title holder Apple.

Apple, of course, is keen not to be left behind. While it might have missed out on Nest, it has been a major company involved with the so-called Internet of Places: with technologies such as the iBeacon promising to go one step further than the Internet of Things by transforming our physical environments into connected spaces.  

Not everyone is optimistic, however. Prominent technology skeptic Evgeny Morozov took the Internet of Things (along with other related ideas) to task in his 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism -- questioning the accepted belief that it would make life better for its users.  

While I am excited about much of what the Internet of Things has to offer, I also address potential problems with the idea of a technology that aims to better understand you so that you don’t have to understand it in my forthcoming book, The Formula: How Algorithms Solve all our Problems ... and Create More.

In an article last year I coined the term “decimated reality aggregators” to describe the growing number of companies that aim to artificially reduce the number of options available to us by making decisions about what we should be doing on our behalf. Ceding control and autonomy is a part of almost any new technology (consider, for example, how the simple act of writing something down gives it a virtual existence outside of yourself.)

Implemented well, the Internet of Things means that we won’t have to live lives spend fiddling endlessly with technology in order to gain its advantages. Implemented badly, the Internet of Things has the possibility of limiting our choices, common sense and even freedom. As with all technologies, as this becomes increasingly ubiquitous we will have to ask ourselves whether what we gain is worth what we risk losing.

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