My Furniture Is Talking About Me. Should I Care?

Get used to a world in which virtually everything in the physical world is tagged and identifiable on the internet. Not just white goods like fridges or dishwashers, but tables, chairs and other everday objects…all talking to each other and creating more efficiency in business and daily life.

This is the vision of a planet connected by the Internet of Things and whether you think this sounds like a wonderful streamlined future or the definitive death-knell of privacy, it is going to happen. And some of the key conversations that will decide the future form of this Internet are taking place in Geneva, as part of the World Summit on the Information Society forum, which brings together UN Agencies, civil society, the private sector and Governments.

Despite the wide-ranging changes the IoT is likely to bring about, there is little mainstream discussion or understanding about the subject. For this reason, I was very keen to meet and interview the writer David Worlock, who has advised the likes of the European Commission, UK Department of Trade and Industry and the Soros Foundation, is a member of the Industry Advisory Board at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies and is currently Chairman of the Business Information Industry Association (BIIA).

Worlock was in Geneva on the 8th of October at the invitation of the British Swiss Chamber of Commerce, to talk about the importance of Big Data and the IoT. Given the difficulty some have in explaining simply what the IoT is, I started by asking him to do just that.

The Internet of Things is the creation of data from linked devices which themselves are attached to the internet. They could be static objects. For example, you could walk around a museum in which everything was tagged and could describe itself to you. The data which arose from that becomes more data within the IoT. So data collection through object-based environments and the reuse of that in the whole cycle of internet communication.

But what’s the point of tagging everything?

Well, if you’re selling those objects the tag is of vital significance. It tells you who selected what, who used what. One of the key areas for me is what it says about usage. Some of the key companies in the IoT use it as an investigative market research tool which provides the real answers and not the answers customers thought they should give! And we’re all about mapping behaviours when we tag these objects.

You mentioned a huge figure of 21% of global profits to come through the IoT between now and 2020. And you think this is an underestimate.

Yes, but not just tagging objects. Also the productivity gain you achieve from that. So we will hugely improve the way in which business operates. As well as gains in knowledge and predictive behaviour.

We’re talking in Geneva, where the UN is bringing together Governments to try to bring in universal standards. And the IoT is an important part of that: we’re talking about inter-operability and we’re not there yet. There are still competing standards. So is the true IoT a long way off?

We need standards. They need to percolate up through corporate environments and gain agreement. Companies that want to strike out in their own direction have to come into line. This has been happening over the last five years.There are two major groupings of corporate and national players coming together to create IoT standards. This is of profound significance and I hope that will move towards global standards through ITU and ISO. What may militate against that is if some of the really big Chinese players feel this is not in their interests. Then we may have a halt or interruption. But I think that in the next few years I think we’ll see a big consolidation of standards as well as players.

How will society change?

I have a strong feeling that we will come to value personal interaction more, and travel more! I firmly believe that the value we add face to face is a unique quality in a machine to machine world. We will set up electronic trust, risk management, digital environments which map all the environments we have already. But in the world to come will want to add a spice, an extra value which is about face to face

When there more automation, when machines are more efficient than we could ever be, what do we add to the equation?

We are the thinking animal.One of the responsibilities we have is to think out of problems we create by virtue of the civilisations we develop. We have a fairly good track record over a fairly short period of time of doing this. We always then create fresh problems, many that we can’t foretell, because they derive from something we did in our networking behaviour which created a knock-on effect. So I’m not sure that prediction is the artform we should be looking at. We should be looking at analysis.

I do not believe that Artificial Intelligence and the things it brings are anyway near the risks imagined. For many people on the planet it spells liberation from drudgery, demeaning work and an inability to communicate or express what their society needs to have expressed. I’m not blind to the problems of unemployment or skills, labour relations which will arise from all this. But we’re a pretty good animal at sorting issues of that sort. We’ve met them before. They cause pain but we get through. And I don’t see any reason built into the IoT why we don’t get through the problems that arise from it and the Artificial Intelligence revolution.