Five years until the Internet of Things arrives? Why I hope it's a lot, lot longer

Blame the smart fridge, but there are still too many unresolved - and even unasked - questions about the Internet of Things which will slow down adoption.

The promise of the Internet of Things is a household (and more broadly a city) where connected systems work together to free up our time, allowing us to do the things we want to do, not the chores we have to do.

A standard vision runs something like this: my smartphone will warn the house that I'm running late due to heavy traffic, and so it needs to turn the heating on a little later than usual - but also to turn the lights on to make the house welcoming and deter any burglars. My fridge (there's always a fridge in these scenarios) will tell the washing machine that I'm having pasta for dinner - and so it should get ready to boil the sauce off my shirt. After that the fridge will update the shopping list to add some more Parmesan, and check with the wine cellar to find a bottle of wine to go with dinner, and have it ready to open.

At CES this week, companies are out in force to promote their own versions of this IoT future, suggesting that the concept is rapidly moving from science fiction to science fact.

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I'm not so convinced.

Frankly, my thermostat plays a very small - if important - role in my life. I don't particularly want to have a personal relationship with it. Same for my washing machine and fridge, which are about as smart as I need them to be. I don't want to have to start apologising to white goods when I bump into them, or worrying about whether they have a soul when I decide to scrap them.

The concept of the IoT has been around for years - decades, in fact - but now cheap sensors mean that it's possible to network pretty much anything from a belt to a toothbrush. Just because we can, however, doesn't mean we should - one thing the tech industry has never been very good at is working out the difference between the two.

To me, it seems most of the IoT scenarios are concerned less with making my life happier and more about positioning me carefully on a conveyor belt of consumption.

As such, the smart home concept is another step towards productizing and monetizing our behind-closed-doors private lives - and towards reducing our choices as well, because making your life simpler very easily slips into making your life smaller, too.

If you let the algorithms control your decisions, they can only chose the options they are programmed with - the ones that will make a profit for someone. Owning a fridge with a built-in hotline to the biggest supermarkets makes it just that bit harder for you to buy your vegetables from a local market, for example. A queue of movies ready to go online makes it easier not to go out and meet friends or take a walk in the park.

There are obvious security questions and privacy issues around the emergence of the IoT as well, which the industry has yet to resolve. Most people just about understand that their browsing behaviour online is repacked and sold on. But the data we generate as we move about our homes could be just as telling: will your habit of binge-watching boxsets in bed be used against you at some point?

Some interesting research shows how the data from a few separate sensors can be used to find out an awful lot more about you: right down to what you had for your dinner (if your smart fridge hasn't spilled the beans already, of course).

There are plenty of environments where the IoT makes a lot of sense - sensors on industrial systems or city-wide projects, for example. These might be less glamorous than the sentient dishwasher, but are providing better value than a plant pot that tweets when the soil dries out.

There are benefits to a consumer version of the IoT, of course, especially when it comes to helping an ageing population stay independent for longer, as one example. But all of us need to think much harder about the issues involved before the technology becomes mainstream. We need to decide what we think is appropriate for our IoT devices to do, or share, long before they become commonplace.

And first of all the industry has to make a much, much better case for how the consumer version of the IoT will really improve my life, and not just fill out their product roadmaps and bump up their quarterly earnings reports.

Further reading on the Internet of Things

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