The Internet of Thingies | The Register


Questions of security and privacy hovered in and out of view. Consumer trends forecaster, the engaging William Higham, didn’t think surveillance dystopia would come about as he can’t get his printer to talk to his laptop most of the time. … Last week I was asked to offer a few thoughts in a panel discussion for over 200 PriceWaterhouseCoopers staff, ranging from hackers to business geeks.

I’ve only touched on IoT briefly, when David Cameron at CeBIT announced he was throwing a bit of money at it, and offering some new collaboration with Germany. If you recall, he gave a speech explaining that the Germans would do all the hard engineering bits, and we’d twiddle around with the websites. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Prime Minister.

It’s a subject rife with BS, and this was a challenging audience that can smell bovine waste products a mile away. And as it turned out, they had been thinking about this stuff a lot. In fact, it was a run-up to the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican this weekend.

There’s an obvious problem before you can talk about the IoT. What exactly are you talking about? Define the terms. Everyone can agree on what the components are – sensors, embedded networking and so on – and roughly what they’ll be doing. The problem is: do you talk about real stuff that exists (such as M2M) and how this might develop, what uses it might have, or what could go wrong?

Or, do you treat the IoT as a great cosmic ontology, like a flying unicorn? Because that’s how most policy wonks treat it – a fantasy. We were invited to think about the end of the replacement of skilled jobs with machines, which I find a stretch.

I suspect the ambiguity is the reason this topic has caught on as a talking point, and there are really two groups, each with their own fantasy they want to project upon it.

One is a cybernetic fantasy where things providing real-time feedback, giving us stuff such as surge pricing. Uber, the casual-labour car hire company, is notorious for surge pricing, making rides more expensive when it rains. It even did it when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Customers hated it, and this summer Uber agreed to cap these prices.

Surging, naggers, and scolds
The idea behind surge pricing is that resources are more efficiently deployed if the pricing signal is bang up to the millisecond. It relies on a surge of drivers flooding onto the market as soon as the prices as go up. I’m not sure why this is completely necessary; you don’t need a computer to tell drivers they’ll get more work on a Saturday night than on a Monday evening. It removes the dependability (for the punter) of roughly knowing what your fare will be.

The other group looking forward to an IoT is the collection of naggers and the scolds. In this fantasy, the fridge not only tells you how much butter you’ve got, but also tells you off for having too much. This may seem far-fetched, but it’s how Google quietly sells its vision to policy-makers: it’s for the greater good, for Public Health – a kind of “ambient paternalism”.

So even if this vision comes about, and people use it and it and works perfectly (some huge ifs there) a lot depends on how it’s done. Few people would object to the police using data to deploy resources to crime hotspots, it’s what the police have always done. However, most would think a “Pre-crime Department” to be creepy and intrusive.

As it turned out, quite a few people had thought the nagging fridge was a horrible prospect… and might kill it. Others thought nagging would save the concept.

Jonathan Elliot from Tata Consulting described a world where we’d use vibrating forks, giving us real-time feedback on the meat it was prodding, and toothbrushes that gave real-time feedback on the state of our plaque. One member of the audience wondered if all this stuff hadn’t be dreamed up by engineers. Another PwC veteran said they’d constructed a “Smart Home” 15 years ago and nobody had used it. Another PwCer from the audience said the worry wasn’t so much surveillance itself, but data leakage: the prospect of your insurance company finding this stuff out in real-time what you’re eating. This was a good point – does anyone think that insurance companies won’t ask for this data? Or that having asked, they won’t get it?

PwC’s Paul Midian thought we might have to appeal to the Greater Good to sell the IoT into the home. Like “reminding people we’re running out of resources” will get them to accept embedded measurement and monitoring equipment, so they can monitor their own consumption of things. This got short shrift from moderator Claire Fox, who pointed out that ‘resources are depleting’ is a political judgement, and the politics of it were highly contentious. This is true – haven’t we reached peak energy resource? Nobody talks about peak oil so much since the shale revolution.

Questions of security and privacy hovered in and out of view. Consumer trends forecaster, the engaging William Higham, didn’t think surveillance dystopia would come about as he can’t get his printer to talk to his laptop most of the time. I said my printers were unreliable too, but we needed a better assurance that the technology would not work badly, than hoping that it wouldn’t work at all. This was rather like inviting people onto a new train with the comforting words: “It’s going to crash when it reaches cruising speed, that’s guaranteed, but don’t worry – it’ll break down long before it reaches cruising speed”.

Get me a ticket!