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5/13/2015
07:06 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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IoT World: Separating Smart And Dumb Things

At Internet of Things World, companies are trying to figure out what objects should get networked.



(Image: Thomas Claburn)

(Image: Thomas Claburn)

At the beginning of his keynote speech at Internet of Things (IoT) World in San Francisco on Tuesday, Young Sohn, president and chief strategy officer of Samsung Electronics, played a video. "What if everything had a voice?" the video's narrator asked. "Plants, buildings, cars, devices, your body." My chair would ask me to stop sitting on it, I thought to myself. And the next billion dollar company would be a maker of earplugs.

"What if everything could listen …? How would the world be better? Would we be wiser?"

I didn't say what I was thinking and that was for the best. It's also an example of why not everything should have a voice.

Wireless technology, miniaturization, and cloud computing have made it so that everything can communicate. Samsung's latest effort to realize that vision came in the form of its ARTIK IoT platform.

But not everything should communicate all the time. Now that the tech industry has made it possible for everything to have a voice, thanks to tiny bits of wireless hardware, it must figure out when devices should speak, what they should say, and how to interpret their messages.

Samsung and dozens of other companies at Internet of Things World know they can make the world better by giving things a voice. They can make enterprises, organizations, and communities function more efficiently by monitoring the production and distribution of goods and services. They can improve the health of individuals by allowing insight into biological and activity data.

But wisdom doesn't necessarily follow from communication. People have been conversing with one another for millennia, but we still haven't learned how to resolve our differences and dogmas without conflict. There's no reason to assume technology will make us wiser. If sensors in the arctic send a notification that the ice has all melted, there will still be climate change deniers. There are still people who combine smoking and FitBit. In fact, the push to create self-driving cars suggests we're irredeemable, at least when it comes to driving responsibly.

Technology companies can't save us from ourselves, but they can figure out what things should have a voice, when that voice proves beneficial, and how that voice should be expressed. That's where we are with the Internet of Things at the moment. Samsung's Internet-connected refrigerator may not make sense until every product inside can communicate its freshness and supply state to trigger restocking deliveries. But even then it may be too much automation for the average consumer.

Ron Evans, who runs a development company called The Hybrid Group, the maker of the open source robotics frameworks Cylon.js, spoke with me briefly in the exhibit hall at IoT World. He considers the Internet of Things to be another term for automation, something that businesses have been implementing for decades and will continue to do in the years to come.

Automation has real value, at the right place and the right time. What follow are a few companies trying to give voice to things and to ensure those messages are welcome and meaningful.

Automation alone doesn't lead to a better world. Imagine an API for condolences, a disloyal smart car that reports every driving infraction, or insurance companies tying policy prices to the caloric content of snacks purchased by credit card.

The Internet of Things could easily become the Tyranny of Things. It's up to us to make sure it's something better.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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