From thingamajigs to Internet of Things

IF, LIKE me, you resort to a combination of nonsense (‘whatchamacallit’ and ‘thingamajig’) and expletives when dealing with gadgetry, there’ll be some comfort in the findings this week that one in four of us can’t use our tech devices properly.

A rather benign survey, released by a technical brand on Thursday, told us what we already know — most of us don’t read user manuals and are pretty clueless when it comes to the intricacies of Bluetooth and the cloud.

However, the real issue with technology is not that people can’t use it — but that they can. For one recent and chilling example, consider Volkswagen’s diesel deception. The car manufacturers fitted 11 million cars with software that sensed when a car was being tested and then activated equipment to reduce emissions.

How smart, cunning and devious was that? As Marcelo Rinesi, a specialist in ethical technology, put it, “Volkswagen didn’t make a faulty car: they programmed it to cheat intelligently”.

What is perhaps even more disconcerting is that the scam was rumbled inadvertently by a small research team at West Virginia University whose funding came from a non-profit organisation.

You could lie awake at night worrying about the dark web and the endless potential for technological misdeeds but it’s much easier to practise deep denial, all the while tappety-tap-tapping on Facebook, watching cute-kitten videos on YouTube and/or window-shopping online.

From thingamajigs to Internet of Things

Occasionally, though, you’ll find yourself thrown off your surfing stride when a line like this makes it through the ether: “17 ‘Internet of Things’ facts everyone should read’ (Forbes magazine). It mightn’t stop you dead in your tracks, particularly as the No 1 thing we need to know about the Internet of Things is that 87% of us have never even heard of it.

It’s definitely time to start listening, though, because 4.9 billion things will be connected to the internet by the end of this year. I can’t even think of 49 things that might be suitable for mobile, virtual and instantaneous connection, not to mind 4.9 billion. A few, such as smart phones, computers, watches, even fridges, might be on your radar, but it’s clearly time to start thinking bigger. Much bigger.

The Internet of Things is “a developing technological marvel”, according to its advocates. It is already crossing all borders — geographic, industrial and technological — to create and connect smart cities, smart buildings, smart cars and, indeed it follows, smart people.

If that all sounds a little remote — and it does — technology forecaster Daniel Burrus does a great job of giving the less smart among us an idea of how smart could work. He gives this example. In 2007, a bridge loaded with rush-hour traffic in Minneapolis collapsed and fell more than 60 feet into the Mississippi river killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. The steel plates holding the bridge were inadequate for its load.

Now — not even in the future — bridges can be built, or rebuilt, with ‘smart cement’, ie cement equipped with sensors that can monitor stresses, cracks and any warping. Those sensors can predict and hence prevent problems. The resonance of that single example will not be lost in a country still mourning those lost in the Berkeley balcony tragedy.

The applications of the Internet of Things are vast and, for most of us, unimaginable. It’s almost laughable now to think that Marty McFlytime-travelled to the shiny future of October 21, 2015 and all he found were flying cars and self-tying shoe laces.

From thingamajigs to Internet of Things

But few could have predicted how machine-to-machine communication — and the data that generates — would be transforming our world. And yes, you could argue for the better.

Sensors that can sniff out gas leaks will save lives; fridges that can monitor food will cut down on waste; wearable technology can encourage healthy living; and cars that tell you when their battery is going to go flat will save time and money.

Every single sector from healthcare and agriculture to industry and business will benefit, but here’s the downside. When you get smart, you need a vast data-gathering infrastructure to join up the dots. To get an idea of just how big Big Data is, consider this mind-bending statistic: If we gathered all the data from the beginning of time until the year 2000 it would be less than we now create in a minute.

The business community sees this as a tremendous leap forward. Big Data is a godsend for the commercially driven. If our lives are managed, shared and stored online, what better way to target customers, what better way to sell them more stuff? And remember that stuff will be embedded with electronics, software and sensors so that it can collect and exchange even more data. Worse still, what if Marcelo Rinesi, chief technology officer at the US-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is right and your appliance doesn’t even bother to ask but completes a silent background software upgrade that turns your fridge-freezer into a discrete spy in the kitchen corner.

Paranoia? Science fiction? Well, isn’t that just a version of what happened at Volkswagen?

At least now there is some talk of regulation and the discussion on technology and ethics is starting to gain traction. Earlier this month, UCC professor Maeve McDonagh warned that privacy and data legislation was ill-equipped to deal with the Big Data revolution while Professor Barry O’Sullivan, of UCC’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics, called for a national conversation on the rights and wrongs of data use.

That conversation can’t come soon enough because technology is galloping ahead of policy. It will provide many opportunities, but just as many disruptions.

But at what cost? To find out what lies ahead, let’s look back for a moment. One image from the fictional past — Jonathon Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels — perfectly encapsulates our sci-fi present/future.

From thingamajigs to Internet of Things

If you want to imagine how the Internet of Things might affect the ordinary person, picture how the inhabitants of Lilliput imprisoned Gulliver by tying him down with hundreds of tiny ropes. Are we not modern-day Gullivers waiting to be tethered to a virtual cloud by thousands of digital Lilliputians?

Click on a supermarket site and an infinitesimal digital tether goes out from your computer to the cloud; click on Amazon and another thread goes forth; download an app and another harmless shackle is pinned to your being; use your discount card and an imperceptible strand links you forever to your purchase.

All of this is the work of seconds. In 24 short hours, you’ll have enmeshed yourself in a digital web that is hard to imagine though very visible — but to whom and for what purpose?

Yes, it’s time for that national conversation: we need to talk about the Internet of Things.


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