Will the Internet of Things Have a Positive Impact On Our Society?
by Mark Grayson
It is clear that the internet of things (IoT) is now an unavoidable reality. From the simple points card at your supermarket, to IoT devices in the home and devices strategically placed in our cities, all are hungry to collect data about us.
To be the most produce young people are hoping to optimise their lives by their smart watches. IoT is being currently used in Copenhagen on the bus network. If a bus is running late, data is gathered about how many passengers are at the stop, and where the bus is currently. This data is then transmitted to the transport network in real time which, in turn, changes the signalling to help the bus driver make up some time. You could also have an unsecured webcam in a local village shop where people could just log on to it and see who comes in and out of the shop.
These two situations may seem different, but both are part of the Internet of Things. Technologist Mike Kuniavsky, a pioneer of this idea, characterises it as a state of being in which “computation and data communication [are] embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment”. I like to see it as a real-time data gathering exercise to then be transformed into relevant information to help and direct our society.
IoT is not based on a single device. It is all about connecting all devices together using services, allowing vendors to ultimately capture data to be used to evaluate and influence our communities.
It is very important to understand the core principles that underpin IoT and what purpose the information serves for different parties.
Let’s look at three examples to help us understand how IoT is impacting our world:
The first example is our bodies. You will probably know someone who has a Fitbit or other smart wearable. These are called wearable biometric sensors. Some of the more advanced features of these devices include breathing, skin temperature and perspiration.
The second is a very different take on helping you run your home. For example, the gadget being sold by Amazon, called the Dash Button, allows users to click a button which links to your home network to order a product. An example of this is placing the button on your washing machine to order more washing tablets. In other words: single purpose electronic devices, each dedicated to an individual branded item. When that product is low you press the button and it signs in to Amazon to reorder that product for you. Amazon will use this data and exploit it within the laws of the country to develop behavioural models that map out our desires. This will mean greater consumer targeting and hopefully even greater efficiency in the future. Not forgetting that the manufacturers are also enticed by the revenue potential within consumers’ homes. One of their goals is to make their product an essential part of everyday life.
There has been heavy advertising with smart speakers of late. Examples of these are Amazon Echo and Google Home. Each of these devices has the capability to command multiple devices within the home, from lighting and entertainment to security, heating, cooling and ventilation systems. These devices work on natural language speech recognition. If you’ve ever tried one, you will notice that they all have female voices. Research has found, interestingly, that people of all genders preferred to talk to a female voice.
The third example is the humble smartphone. This tracks our whereabouts and activities. Streetscape has been enabled on our phones to collect information which is all leading to the development of the smart city, with the ultimate aim of achieving a more efficient use of space, energy and other city resources.
From research and online forums, it is clear to see that devices are being used in public spaces. CCTV cameras, vending machines, digital advertising and biometric sensors. Indoor micro-positioning devices, known as Beacons, are also sending signals providing information to local governments, local businesses, and manufacturers.
And finally, to quote The Guardian:
“It is difficult to believe that any such findings would ever be translated into public policy in a manner free from politics. Policy recommendations derived from computational models are only rarely applied to questions as politically sensitive as resource allocation without some intermediate tuning taking place. Inconvenient results may be suppressed, arbitrarily overridden by more heavily weighted decision factors, or simply ignored.”
So, yes: the Internet of Things presents many new possibilities with a positive impact on society, and it would be foolish to dismiss those possibilities out of hand. But we would also be wise to approach the entire domain with scepticism, and in particular to resist the attempts of companies to gather ever more data about our lives – no matter how much ease, convenience and self-mastery we are told they are offering us.