We've been talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) in an abstract way for years. But without us really noticing, it’s now a reality.
The very term IoT confuses us, so I’ve tried to break it down into it’s simplest explanation:
Sensors/devices collect information
Information is sent to the cloud (e.g. through WiFi, Bluetooth, or connecting directly to the internet)
Data is processed, either in very complex ways, or it could be as simple as checking whether your central heating is at the right temperature
We see the result somehow (via text, email etc notification, or on-demand via a dashboard)
We can then decide what to do with the data. We could, at this point, tie-in Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make specific actions happen automatically (like an ‘IF’ formula in Excel).
An example could be your central heating. You control it via your phone, and usually have a timer ensuring that the house is cosy when you get home. Your flight’s delayed at the end of a business trip, and your heating (via the app on your phone, which is also linked to the airline’s live updates) knows that you’ll be home late. It calculates the time you’ll arrive home, based on flight information, the volume of traffic on your route back and other things. It only turns on when necessary, saving you money on unnecessary heating. Oh, and your oven also preheats to the right temperature for the ready-meal you bought at the airport...
This isn't future, sci-fi stuff. This is now.
There will be an unimaginable number of interconnected data points that MIGHT represent us well. Or might build an almost perfect perception of who we are, recommending features, benefits, products, (schools, countries to relocate to based on our living habits, jobs, medical care, etc.) based on our previous choices.
Will this ultimately shape who we are and whom we become in the future? The complexity of the IoT is so intricate that it makes my brain short-circuit.
Here are just 4 of the positives IoT brings us:
AI, ML and Deep Learning (DL) enable the processing of raw data and the analysis of data at a previously unimaginable scale. Information that would take a team of humans years to analyse and collaborate is the work of minutes.
Focusing on Healthcare as an example, the potential for medical advancements through rapid analysis of patient files, history, and diagnostics alone is an awesome thought. Add to this the usage of Big Data for predictions and early diagnosis, plus Smart Devices (e.g. Smart Dispensers for home-use that alert healthcare teams automatically if medication isn't taken in the correct time frame) then it's clear there are more leaps in advancement to come.
With so much available and interlinked data, and with equality and discrimination so high on everyone's agenda, we could surely hope for an equal future, with transparency throughout the job market. But there could be fundamental issues with machines learning from our previous behaviours, which I'll talk about in my next article.
Automation, both within business and in our personal lives, and the resultant time saved is another HUGE positive of IoT. The accuracy and speed of repetitive task completion by machines has already been proved in industrial and agricultural settings. Add to this the insights from every bit of global data and we’re onto something. Time is money, right? And if we can save time and improve quality or consistency at work then margins increase. Happy days. What about the jobs that will be lost? Are we creating enough to fill the plug the gap…? I'll explore this in the next article too.
This only skims the surface of the many advantages to the rapid speed that tech is evolving. There are many, many ways that the IoT will enhance and change our lives for the better, in the same way that we now take for granted extraordinary volumes of information available at our fingertips from our phones, tablets and computers.
But alongside such developments, there are inherent dangers and hurdles to overcome. And I'm worried. Is the power in our hands at all anymore?
Here are some of the things I think we should all worry about.
Social isolation and our health
Clarity of communication and global connectivity will only continue to advance as the IoT connects more and more devices and everyday objects. But will this be at the expense of real, human contact…? Will we become ever more disconnected, introverted and isolated from each other as we ‘live through tech’, despite the ability to communicate via machines and online?
Consider the increasingly ageing, elderly population: many live alone and, for some, their only human contact is with their GP, local corner-shop or a meals-on-wheels delivery. If we assume that food delivery by more of these bots or drones, and healthcare will become the smart-monitoring of our daily habits, bodily functions and general physiological status, then their human interaction may disappear entirely.
Isolation is shown to affect both mental and physical health and ‘the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.’
How will lengthened lifespans, yet reduced social interaction, affect our ageing population mentally?
We encourage human touch and ‘skin-to-skin’ contact from the moment a mother gives birth, aiding both connection/recognition and decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It makes sense, then, that we need skin contact throughout our lives, and that we suffer without it. People who receive more physical contact benefit in many ways, including greater levels of oxytocin, which creates pleasurable feelings. How do we ensure not only our elderly but people of all ages communicate, engage and interact face-to-face?
And will our weight and general fitness suffer?
Yeah, a ‘bootcamp bot’ will probably shout at us daily, but will we listen when it becomes the norm for our fridges to auto-order items when we get low? If food is delivered to us without the effort needed to even get up and answer the door (because of our hyper-connected smart-locks, and ID systems and bot deliveries and oven that knows what temperature to preheat, based on our buying decisions), how might our overall fitness suffer? Will the obesity epidemic spread even faster?
With tech developments inevitable to evolve exponentially as the IoT really takes hold, how will an ageing generation keep up? Some of the ageing generation adapt and cope without issue however, does anyone else get questions from parents that sounds like this ‘my phone is full, how do I delete photos?’...
I can only imagine how dazed and confused I will feel by the time I have grandchildren (“Wait Granny, I don’t understand what you mean by typing? Why didn’t you just think what you wanted to tell everyone and upload it to the brain-o-sphere...?!”)
We like to look each other in the eye, and there’s a reason we talk about a ‘human connection’. You know that feeling in formal situations when you catch someone's eye, instantly know what they’re thinking and have to pinch yourself and avoid eye-contact with them at all costs to stop yourself snorting with laughter…?
I worry that we’ll lose those moments if there’s ‘no need’ to meet personally.
Why then do 65% of London event organisers predict that their existing events will grow through 2017? Perhaps we need real-life experiences?
If information is constantly at our fingers (way beyond the capabilities of Google)will we lose the ability to be truly creative?
Whilst innovation (changing or improving something that already exists, particularly using new products, ideas or methods) will doubtless flourish, what about invention (the creation or design of something which has never existed before)? Will the IoT and AI have the ability to invent?
Will we lose the tangential, meandering randomness of natural, personal conversations? You know those times when you’re debating a point with friends, but someone asks a left-field question and you find yourselves on a totally different path, discussing outlandish ideas..?
Manoush Zomorodi refers to boredom as being essential to brilliant ideas, and that smartphones stopped her being bored, therefore dulling her creativity! I think it's true, and I personally relish time on trains without WiFi to either write (by hand), read, or think while watching the rain out of the window.
Can we calculate the value of space to think without clutter, without ideas and answers being spoon-fed to us…?
I like creativity, and I like character. I like talking face to face and seeing reactions to my comments without the filter of a screen. I like old-fashioned handwriting - there's nothing more special to me than the countless handwritten cards my other half has posted or given me in person. Why are handmade gifts special? Because there's effort, thought and a ‘bit of you’ that remains in the gift.
These things make me hope that we don't lose the intrinsic power of personal, very human interaction.
With every advance in AI and the IoT connecting data from everything we do, our surroundings are increasingly influenced by our habits and behaviours. A small handful of companies curate the news, opinions and information we see on a minute by minute-by-minute basis. Impressive tech, yet worryingly controlling.
We see it already in advertising (the jacket you viewed yesterday shows up as an ad before your YouTube Vid, and that awesome yet absurdly unaffordable pair of boots taunts you on your Facebook feed). It's intentional, of course.
Before we know it, billboards will morph to engage the viewer, and neighbourhood bars will subtly shift their drinks offering based on the Ocado orders of the surrounding residents. Shops will rearrange as you approach the door to fit your shopping habits, bank balance, and the weather forecast (so now you HAVE to buy that jacket, ‘cos it's going to rain… ).
The ability to fundamentally influence our thoughts and decisions concerns me.
Perhaps by ‘rationalising’ every decision, we’ll make better decisions as a species. Certainly, our decisions will be better informed, but what about “Gut feelings”? There’s a reason we use that phrase - our emotive, human brain is beyond rational thought and is what makes us absolutely human and different from our furry, animal friends.
Even when we think we’re making a choice, are we, anymore? When Google bases its SERP (Search Engine Results Page) on algorithms that most likely match what we’re looking for, are we unconsciously being led in certain directions, based on how we phrase our questions? Yes, I know the algorithms are hyper-advanced, but the answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask and are they already influenced by our previous search histories?
So yes, I'm concerned about potential social isolation, our well-being, loss of creativity and whether we’ll become zombies, guided to think whatever we’re told to.
Above all I'm worried about who’s worrying about it. Or whether anyone really is, enough.
In my next article, I’ll talk about the slightly deeper topics of the future of jobs/hiring, plus whether anyone is actually regulating or monitoring the companies who will have access to such details information about us.
For now, I’m mildly comforted by the fact that, as humans, we have an intrinsic need to touch, feel, see and try things for ourselves. I hope that all this tech (the Fourth Industrial Revolution?) will enrich our daily lives easier and catapult us to unimaginable achievements.
But I’m worried.
If you have answers to my questions, words of comfort, or concerns of your own, let’s start a discussion. Let me know what you think.