The Internet of Nothing and The Internet of Things

Nahum Gershon
March 14, 2018

 

As I was walking through the huge display halls at the last Consumer Electronics Show, CES 2018, I happened to see a display of a bathroom mirror. It was not a simple bathroom mirror - it was also a touchscreen.

Disregarding How People Conduct Their Lives

If you would like to know the weather or your own weight while looking at the bathroom mirror, touch it and it will let you know. When Achim Ebert, a friend, commented that this mirror will quickly become dirty from all of the touches, I went back to the exhibit and asked if this mirror is self-cleaning. The answer was no.

So, I thought to myself if you were so anxious as to need to know the current weather while in the bathroom, using a voice assistant like Alexa might be more straightforward and most importantly, this action will not leave any fingerprints on the mirror... This mirror is one example of an implementation of technology that does not tend to fully consider how people really like to conduct their lives or what their needs are. This “nothingness” is what I tend to call the Internet of Nothing (see footnote).

Beep, Beep, Beep…Or Too Much Distractive and/or Irrelevant Data

Unfortunately, this past example of “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…” is not the only manifestation of an aspect of what is called the Internet of Things about neglecting some important human needs and expectations.  For example, I have recently installed a set of cameras inside and outside my house. I do enjoy seeing at will the inside and outside of my house from a distance, but, there are some difficulties. First, some of my cameras interpret changes to the captured image as motion.  So, if a light is turned on or off automatically, the change in illumination will be interpreted by the camera as motion and will generate an unnecessary alert. In addition, the cameras outside the house do not distinguish between irrelevant and relevant motion and this was quite apparent during a most recent wind storm.  

Another difficulty is with making the camera detect motion in specified areas. According to the instructions of two cameras I have, you are able to set up regions where motion is to be detected. But, a single lens camera cannot determine the distance of an object from the camera without additional intelligence.  One of the cameras, for example, is set to detect motion up to 5 feet from the camera. Still, occasionally, I get warnings for cars passing by on the road that is 40 feet away from the camera.  As a result, I get many false alarms during a typical day.  These "beeps" are in addition to the many interruptions I tend to get from my cell phone during the day (emails, text messages, etc.). This situation could be a problem as research has shown that frequent interruptions could decrease concentration and thus reduce the effectiveness of work. They even might cause some unwelcome changes in the brain (see [2]).

In spite of these difficulties and distractions, I do get sometimes important reports on the surrounding area of my house from these connected cameras. Last month, for example, one video showed how USPS has delivered an Amazon package. Instead of obeying the instructions to ring the doorbell and if there is no answer, to place the package in front of the door, the USPS worker is seen in the video throwing the package up in the air from a distance of 8 feet away from the door. Luckily, the content was not damaged.

The Accuracy of Sensors Might Be Low

Another aspect of Nothingness is poor accuracy. Experiments conducted showed that fitness trackers could be inaccurate ([3] & [4]). For example, the same tracker would report different values of activity depending if it is attached to the arm or to the core. Two other identical trackers located in the same place on my body reported an elevation change although the path walked was flat. Moreover, these two identical trackers reported vastly different values for the elevation change. These experiments illustrated that not all sensors are alike and that one needs to make sure that the sensors used are accurate enough for the purpose for which they are used.

As for fitness, on the other hand, it might not be so important to get the exact number of steps as long as the deviation from reality is not too large and as long as the tracker use motivates the person to be physically active throughout the day.

A Single Point of Failure is Worse Than Two or Three

So far, we have been discussing properties of single devices. But, besides aspects of the Internet of Nothing of single devices, there are also some aspects related to systems of devices. I started to think about it as a result of what initially seemed to be an unfortunate incident.

While I was on travel about a year ago, one of the Internet of Things hubs at home stopped functioning. I called the manufacturer who has a responsive phone service and I was told that the hub needs to be restarted. When I noted that I am out of the country, I was told that it could be done only from home. I commented that a hub that is designed to help people operate things from outside their home needs to be designed so that it could be rebooted remotely, either by the owner or by the manufacturer. 

The main point for me though was that how lucky I was to have a number of different IoT systems running at home so that if one fails that other ones still function. This is a simple principle of systems design - designing more than a single potential point of failure - redundancy of sensors & detectors and non-homogeneity of the system (e.g., various manufacturers, hubs, sensors, power sources and internet providers).

From the Internet of Things to Also the Internet of Nothing

These considerations have lead me to propose evaluating systems of the Internet of Things using two scores (like Pros and Cons):

  • The good & effective characteristics - The Internet of Things.
  • The difficulties that prevent the system to function as intended - The Internet of Nothing.

Focusing on both scores would lead to a more realistic & balanced view of the systems pointing out directions for improvement for the benefit of the users and to help reduce the potential of an unrealistic hype. Yes, technology is not above all. People & their needs are.

Footnote

This disregard for human and social needs does not seem to be limited to just the Internet of Things or even to technology. Recently, for example, Sidewalk Labs has emerged as a top contender for Toronto waterfront project that intends to use a tech-focused approach to the redevelopment project. Sidewalk’s slogan, “We’re reimagining cities from the internet up,” does not mention people. "Even when addressing issues like affordable housing, urban congestion, and health, solutions based on predictive algorithms rather than human experience can engender healthy skepticism” [1].

References

  1. Jackson Rollings, "Google's Sidewalk Labs emerges as top contender for Toronto waterfront project”, The Architect’s Newspaper, October 5, 2017: http://bit.ly/2FkfwUi
  2. Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”, MIT Press, 2016.
  3. N. Gershon, "Wearables, Humans, and Things as a Single Ecosystem!”, IEEE Internet of Things, November 2015: http://bit.ly/1PVIQgu
  4. N. Gershon, "The Internet of Things (Everything!) and Health” , The IEEE Life Sciences eNewsletter, February 2016: http://lifesciences.ieee.org/lifesciences-newsletter/2016/february-2016/the-internet-of-things-everything-and-health/

 


 

Nahum GershonNahum Gershon focuses on social media, the Internet of Things, strategic planning, visualization, combining creative expressions with technology and real-time information delivery, presentation & interaction (including storytelling) in mobile, wearable as well as traditional devices including how they could improve both organizational environments and our personal lives. He like to play with ideas, words, and real devices. Nahum Gershon has served in many capacities at the IEEE over the years, in schmooz.org, and is a Senior Principal Scientist at the MITRE Corporation.

Nahum is a well-known community organizer, mentor, and communicator and is quite socially oriented. He has a significant international & multicultural background (citizen of the world, speaking a number of languages) and is right and left brain enabled. He enjoys life!

 

 


 

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