Engaging with the Internet of Things

IBM Fellow, Distinguished Agitator, IBM

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a very interesting book called Enchanted Objects by David Rose from MIT’s Media Lab. Rose makes a good case for the ability of the Internet of Things (IoT) to infuse everyday objects with an almost magical sense of life. I’ve always thought of the IoT as a powerful way to monitor and interpret the world, but the more I think about it, the more I see the IoT as a powerful way to engage the world.   

Think about it for a second. Homes are beginning to respond to our presence by anticipating our comings and goings and regulating things as we like them. Cars may adjust to driving habits. Entertainment systems suggest what they think we want to watch and hear. We are all familiar with thermostats that sense the rhythms of our life and control the house temperature accordingly. We know that developments around smart appliances, smart cars and smart entertainment devices will soon change the way we live., what makes something smart? Advances in electronics connectivity and materials are now making it possible to couple just about any object with an almost infinite amount of computing. As more of that computing becomes “cognitive”—that is, as it “learns” on its own—we’ll no longer have to fuss with setting or teaching devices; we’ll simply let them adapt to us. It won’t be just consumer products that engage us in that way. I already know of an industrial robot that learns about humans working near it in order to collaborate better with them. Soon, other connected industrial objects, from hand drills to drilling rigs, will learn from us as well.

What will that world be like when objects start engaging us like friends? It’s easy to imagine the resulting utopia where all objects we encounter in our personal lives, communities and workplaces are seamlessly anticipating our every want. However, there’s an alternative, potentially dystopian future that may be just as likely if we don’t start working on a few simple things.

First, like any friend, machines need to develop the right rapport with us. Connected objects must be engineered to be intuitive and transparent. Anyone who builds things knows how hard it can be to make something simple and predictable. As we design machines that are built to adapt to our preferences, we must also make it easy to understand their intent. If you’ve ever been frustrated with an airport restroom towel dispenser about where to put your hands, you know exactly what I mean. We must think hard about making human-to-machine interactions simple and intuitive.

Second, our connected objects must be as reliable as an old friend. They must be durable and long-lasting both physically and functionally. If proper connection to the IoT is what gives them their magical aura, that connection can never be disrupted. Items such as appliances and industrial machines will require life spans of several decades. Likewise, a car that may be new to you, passed down to your kid and then resold to someone else, perhaps in a distant country, must be engineered to work efficiently throughout its lifetime. Consider this: a smart appliance built in 2015 must function at least as well in 2035. As objects become more connected, more of their function relies on external information. For these devices to continue to function fully, the embedded software and cloud systems must be maintained over the entire life of the device. To make this work, we will need to build connectivity and hosting models that evolve with changes in technology, economics and business models—which is no small task.

Finally, we must make our connected objects trustworthy. As our devices learn more about us, they should become like a trusted friend. We share information with them implicitly or explicitly that we may not want to share with the general public. Our devices will know what do we do in private, when we come and go and who is there with us. Will that information be protected by the systems that collect it? We can hope so, but recent events have taught us that almost any information can be misused. I’m less worried about a hacker getting my personal data than I am about having it fall into the hands of unscrupulous advertisers who then use it to start spamming me. When building products for the IoT, privacy must be as top-of-mind as security.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a complete optimist when it comes to the power of the IoT to transform our lives and our work. But if machines are going to learn to become our BFFs, they must be engineered to behave.