Among its many other cultural and economic assets, Google is accumulating a comprehensive record of what is troubling us, and one of the things that appears to trouble us quite a lot is the perplexing question of the Internet of Things (IoT), in particular its relationship to smart home technology.
Last year, the Internet of Things was one of the highest-ranked Google search terms, along with Wimbledon, Charlie Hebdo and … Caitlyn Jenner.
Perhaps the best query being Googled about IoT is: is it real? And this is a tough one to answer. Technology is full of marketing and hype. But IoT is real. What it will look like, precisely, in the future (even tomorrow), Google can’t answer – but I think of it as the eyes and ears of the inanimate world.
Essentially, then, IoT is about connecting lots of “things” together. These things can be anything from toothbrushes and tablets to TVs and thermostats. Anything consumers have that is “internet smart” can be said to be part of the Internet of Things.
Think of this scenario: you’re baking a cake and use up the last of your eggs. You can now simply say to your smart device “Hey Lucy, remember we need more eggs.” And Lucy – the device – adds eggs automatically to your shopping list. Lucy’s internal gyrations are completely invisible.
And the IoT is not only largely invisible, it is also spreading very, very fast. Estimates suggest that there will be 50 billion connected devices across the world by 2020. Quite aside from the enormous change that implies in how we live our lives, that is a simply staggering revolution in data gathering – of which more later.
It’s not yet completely clear when the tipping point will be towards mass adoption of the IoT. My view is that we’re getting pretty close to that point from a technology perspective. I just think that the general consumer is unaware how connected they are. And the Internet of Things is turning previously inactive “things” into “intelligent” things.
Perhaps the best-known area of IoT application is around the concept of the “smart home”, with smartphone-controlled heating thermostats such as Hive and Nest receiving much attention in the press. Yet a recent survey from Deloitte indicates that smart home adoption has not yet reached the UK mainstream, with the numbers of those owning a connected thermostat, surveillance system or lighting at 3% or less in May 2016. This lack of adoption may stem from a variety of reasons including price, functionality or usability, but for me the fundamental issue is the hub. I believe that once it becomes the norm to have a smart hub in the home, the development of further connected devices will quickly follow.
The future TV landscape, and in particular Ultra HD on large 55+ inch screens, will play a part in this by opening up a wealth of opportunities for user interface and applications development, with TVs increasingly becoming viewing portals which can display the activity of a Smart Home.
For many industries, in particular the insurance industry, in which I work, the value in the IoT – the potential goldrush – is at the intersection of gathering data and leveraging it. All the information gathered by all the sensors in the world provides our industry with an unprecedented opportunity to deliver truly individual underwriting intelligence which will have an enormous benefit to consumers and insurers alike. Pricing will be personalised, rather than tailored by postcode or the blunt instrument of demographic profiling. Smart devices which show in detail how people live their lives will help insurers to tailor cover to individual needs, so customers won’t be paying for cover they’re never likely to use.
Yet with all this rapid development come risks as well as benefits. A key concern for many manufacturers and brands – and, increasingly, consumers themselves - is around data security. The more data you collect, the higher the risk, and any connected device is only as strong as its weakest link. IoT allows clear insight into every aspect of an individual’s life, not just their email account or bank details. The recent denial of service attack which temporarily took down sites including Netflix, Twitter, Paypal, CNN and the Guardian was so successful in part because the hackers took control of huge swathes of smart home devices such as thermostats and printers with weak login credentials.
In my opinion both manufacturers and consumers have a part to play in combating data risks. Manufacturers will need to invest heavily into keeping one step ahead of the hackers, while consumers must ask themselves how much information they are prepared to share in order to reap the benefits of smart home technology.
In the words of the great American thinker BF Skinner, writing all the way back in 1969: “The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do.” Despite his fears, I’m confident that with the application of smart thinking as well as smart technology, we’re standing on the brink of a consumer revolution.
By Ali Crossley, customer and development director of Junction, part of the BGL Group