Back when this stuff was science fiction, there were two names for it. Some people called it “embedded computing.” MIT showed us how countertops would sense food on them and offer recipe substitutions.
Culinary benefits notwithstanding, my big takeaway from visiting Homes of the Future (Microsoft, Phillips, P&G, Accenture, Intel, etc.) was that these Things had the terrifying profile of a wicked mother-in-law: incessant self-expression, conclusions based on a shred of context, and an agenda that crept into every crack.
Along the way, pundits reframed the phenomenon as “quiet computing,” casting Things into mute servitude, like the Thing that controls my power steering. However, more and more, providers are fusing marketing DNA into these little silicon servants. Now they will talk.
To offer a few dystopian, yet plausible scenarios:
My car is full of Things. But it’s a Thing. So we now have nested structures of Things, like Russian dolls. Will my car, for example, as the envelope of security for the Things within it, follow my rules? Will sub-Things be properly subordinated? Message from car: “Are you sure you want to disable your gas tank’s ability to find you cheap gas?” Makes me tired just thinking about it.
Mildly entertaining Things: Will my fridge send stern messages about healthy food consumption, but then suggest Coke (of course it will)? Or, text from dryer: “It’s getting hot in here lol.”
Listening Things: Siri-like voice recognition will hear the pain in my voice while dealing with my dog’s latest bladder-control failure. It might conclude I need a drug to take the edge off. Perhaps the latest pill from Pfizer? “Shall I call the doctor?”
Here’s the problem: The incremental opportunity for Things to say something vastly outpaces the corresponding potential for incremental relevance.
For example, I get along just fine without speaking with my light bulbs. In the future, they may inform me of their need to be changed, but maybe I don’t care about that. How would they know? All their programmers know is that I should buy more.
As humans, we are pretty well optimized to filter out the meaningless. Turn up the volume and I will turn down my ears, but Thing-informed messages carry so much weight, I will have to listen. So it may be wrong and it may be right, but it will talk to me.
Things will be motivated to cry almost-wolf. “Ted, your furnace is within 10 minutes of exploding. Shall I turn it off, or increase your Allstate insurance coverage?” The new world will require some sort of editorial for Thing-babble.
As an industry, how can we get ahead of this? Our track record is poor. In the past and present, our abuse of messaging opportunities has resulted in a consumer revolt: ad blocking.
The principle in online advertising seems to be that receptivity is nice, but not necessary. So Things will have a priority for marketing messages and few controls.
We might regulate. However, the downside is, we will throw out the baby with the bathwater. Things can do a lot of good. I want my machines to help me, but we lack a common framework for how and when to get them to shut up. Who will make the rules? Who would?
Will my driverless karma run over my Luddite dogma? Strap in, we’re going to find out.