time

The Internet of Things

You know sometimes I wonder if I haven’t fallen asleep and woken up in some strange world where new things aren’t invented fast enough to keep up with our desire for them and we don’t notice the blindingly obvious being fed back to us as innovation.

Behold my July 7-14 issue of TIME magazine purchased out of misplaced nostalgia for the magazine itself and also for the rosy future it promised.

timeThe house of the future will have

  • Walls that can weather a hurricane!
  • A garden that filters your air!
  • Solar panels that eliminate your energy bills!
  • A yard that keeps you active!

The cover image doesn’t inspire. Nobody’s expecting the future to look like The Venus Project but, as illustrated, the house doesn’t make a very good case for a beauty of performance. It gets worse. Step inside.

Smart 2 Before we go any further, can I just object to the position of that toilet relative to the kitchen, dining table, and living room?

Inside we have:

  • Energy saving shades
  • A customizable lightbulb
  • Hurricane-proof walls
  • A home controlling hub
  • A filterless coffeemaker
  • Natural air purifiers
  • A 3-D printed shelf
  • A hands-free toilet
  • An all-knowing plant monitor

Walls that won’t blow down, curtains that save energy, a filterless coffeemaker … are all epically underwhelming and because of that all the more worrying.

The only feature that might interest me is the “all-knowing” plant monitor. I don’t really need or expect an oracle. I’d be happy with a few sensors linked to a water source and if they came with the package, a mobile app and webcam so I can supervise and enjoy my plants in remote realtime. Currently, lacking this technology, I usually ask a friend or neighbour if they wouldn’t mind watering my plants when I’m away. It’s a soft and social way of solving a problem. The Internet Of Things will eliminate the need for such soft solutions and erode our capacity to devise them.

THIS INTERNET OF THINGS THINGY IS THE NEXT BIG THING.

It used to be called Home Automation but home automation came to mean stupid switches and sensors acting as they’d been set to act, unable to be changed from our mobile phones via the internet. After that came Smart Homes but pretty soon everything was a smart something and all value-adding cachet vaporised like snowflakes in hell. Now, with the all-encompassing Internet Of Things, Everything That Matters (or that you’re being asked to care about – a.k.a. consumer electronics) is going to be connected via the internet. Let’s see what your home is going to be doing for you.

Smart 1 Gadgets will be triggered into action when you open the door, IF NOT BEFORE! Walk in the door and get ready to enjoy your life.

The cat will have been fed so it won’t pester you as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to worry about nurturing this creature you’ve chosen to keep for company. Mind you, my experience of cats is that a fed one is no guarantee of additional quality time either avec or sans cat.

The lights will get turned on. My primitive apartment has some light switches next to the front door and sometimes I flick them on when I come in. And sometimes I wait until I decide what I’m going to do and how much and what kind of light I need. I’m not a candle person. Dimmers are okay. In one apartment I lived in, the downlights had a remote control. First world problems.

The room will be warm. Or, depending on where you live, cool. My A/C takes about a minute to return my apartment to 23.5°C from a max. of 26° without. It’s not a big deal but, having lived in London, I can see how it’d be a good thing not having to keep your overcoat on for 30 minutes until your flat gets warm. Some air conditioners now come with a phone app for REMOTE remote control. You might have seen this air conditioner advertised.

quirky_aros_2

My music will be playing. Again, for me this isn’t a game changer. How will the home hub or even me, for that matter, know if I’ll want to listen to anything, let alone what, when I get in? It amuses me when, based upon my purchase history, iTunes makes all the wrong recommendations.

A cup of tea will be brewed. Pass.

Dinner will be “finished”.  Once I had a slow cooker and it was good to come home to the smell of a soup or stew cooking and/or ready to eat. It still required preparation but it was in no way onerous, just transferred to the morning or the night before. Overcooking was an issue at first and I mildly regretted not buying the one with the timer. First world problem.

Your refrigerator can do your shopping. We’d been hearing this for a while so TIME magazine doesn’t go into too much detail. Some of us have the knack of remembering stuff. Some of us have a habit of making shopping lists. Some of us might phone the store and get something delivered. And some of us may phone a significant or convenient other to pick up something on their way home.

What I’d like to know is if, like British supermarket online shopping, your refrigerator will tell you the store didn’t have X in a small size so it got you a big X, or that spinach had sold out so it bought kale instead and here’s a fab recipe? Unless you keep your olive oil, whisky and laundry detergent in the refrigerator, you’re still going to have to keep track of all that stuff. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to let our faculty for remembering things slip away from us. There’s precedents.

  • Late 19th century building technologies such as the elevator enabled the intensive exploitation of property via high-rise buildings. We didn’t take the stairs anymore. We grew fat.
  • Early twentieth 20th century domestic technologies were driven by the desire to save on physical labour – partly due to lack of domestic help. This gave us washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and other domestic appliances. Jobs got done faster. We grew weak.
  • With all this time of ours freed, later 20th century domestic technologies focussed on convenience. The automatic record changer, the remote control, the built-in. We grew lazy.

The stakes are a lot higher with this new round of communications technologies.

  • For even the short time that we’ve had mobile telephones, we’ve managed to lose our ability to make appointments to meet people at specific places and times. We’re becoming selfish.
  • If, at 5pm, our refrigerator asks “Don’t you think it’s a bit early?” as you reach for the ice cubes or, not much later, say “Isn’t that your third?” then we’ll lose our capacity for autonomous decision-making.
  • If we don’t need to remember what we need to buy in order to eat, we’ll grow stupid.
  • If we won’t need to remember to water the plant, feed the cat and, by extension, the children we’ll lose empathy for other living things.

3023518-poster-p-1-designing-a-bright-future-for-her

My doubts about where this is going all have to do with neuroplasticity.

The brain responds to training. It rewires itself to make it easier for it to think about things it thinks about a lot. It makes no judgment as to whether those thoughts are good for you or not. So if you think bad thoughts then bad thoughts will become easier for you to think. If you think certain thoughts for long enough, then you will become less receptive to thinking alternate thoughts. Your thinking becomes “set”, your opinions more difficult to change. People often say this about old people and, although evidence seems circumstantial, it does seem to appear that the older we get, the greater the danger we’ll get stuck in a groove that keeps getting deeper.

What’s worse is that brain resources that aren’t being used are deployed for other matters. The most serious one that’s been identified so far is our capacity for making creative associations between diverse bodies of knowledge. The internet is threatening our capacity to do this.

How often have you come across something on the internet that looked interesting and, rather than reading it and perhaps making a few notes of what you found interesting, simply bookmarked it so you can find it again?

Links between related pieces of information saves us the trouble of making our own AND POSSIBLY BETTER OR MORE CREATIVE links between perhaps more diverse sectors of knowledge. Have you never woken up with a solution to some problem or seen it in greater clarity than before you went to bed? Have you never experienced that brief endorphin rush from remembering something or making some connection you had never seen before? We’re losing that.

Skyworks Solutions makes the semiconductors and amplifiers, attenuators, circulators, demodulators, detectors, diodes, directional couplers, front-end modules, hybrids, infrastructure RF subsystems, isolators, lighting and display solutions, mixers, modulators, optocouplers, optoisolators, phase shifters, PLLs/synthesizers/VCOs, power dividers/cbombiners, power management devices, receivers, switches and technical ceramics analysts say are going to make all this possible. 

It’s not supposed to be good to get emotional about share dealings, but I did have some shares in Skyworks Solutions.

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I got rid of them as soon as I saw the TIME magazine article. I don’t think I want anything to do with The Internet of Things. I don’t want to see our capacity to make decisions and care for things go the same way as our capacities for walking, bending, remembering things, keeping promises, and getting up and crossing a room. I took a modest profit and walked away.

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