Harvard Hero Moment #7: The Internet of Things and the cutlery drainer

Will Cook

10 Oct 2019

Connecting the unconnected has always fascinated me. Long before I knew who Kevin Ashton was, or even before I really understood what the internet was, I’ve always been intrigued by making “dumb” objects “smart”. As a seven-year-old – with an efficient eye - I linked my parents cutlery drainer up to a swinging motor to speed up the pace of drying the dishes (and save myself a job in process!). Now, there was no internet connectivity present here, but the principle of adding technology to a static “thing” to deliver an improvement was. Over the following two decades, it’s this enhancing capability of technology in our day-to-day lives which I think makes the Internet of Things (IoT) a true tech hero. Yes, today we often discuss the internet in terms of the world entering a virtual reality. But for me, the internet is at its best and most empowering when it expands into the real world.

Beating the buzzword

From air pollution management to smart lighting; heart rate monitoring to train line defect detection; elephant poaching mapping to supply chain tracking and fall detection for the elderly to wine quality enhancing: by connecting the previously unconnected we make our lives safer, more sustainable, longer and even more enjoyable. I’m not denying that IoT has perhaps been the buzzword of all buzzwords since Ashton coined it some 20 years ago. And it has at times come precariously close to moving from “hype” to a “trough disillusionment”. But continuous innovation particularly in connectivity means the IoT’s benefits are truly being felt today. Ubiquitous connectivity has the potential to turn vast and complex data about our environment into actionable insights, revolutionising our lives.

From hero to villain?

And here lies my cautionary reservation about IoT and my one small doubt that it will remain my tech hero: it’s all to do with the ownership of that complex data. Perhaps, I’m too optimistic or just simply naïve, but I do believe the primary reason for the creation of IoT was to make our lives better. But just like it flirted with potential failure over the past 20 years, IoT now risks becoming part of Shoshanna Zuboff’s “Surveillance Capitalism” – where organisations monetise people’s personal data to the tune of billions of pounds. It’s undeniable that we’re at a crossroads when it comes to data ownership globally. But if IoT is to work for all, the data which ultimately fuels it must be owned by all. For example, with just one Nest smart home thermostat, currently a contentious user would need to review around 1,000 privacy contracts to understand where their data is going. That has to change, and the rules of engagement must be clearer and equal.

Smart cutlery drainers and beyond

But I do believe society and capitalism are waking up to the fact that a balance must be struck in data ownership. And it’s for this reason IoT remains my tech hero. After all, it can blend our physical and digital worlds to truly transform our lives and maybe (just maybe) one day notify my phone that my cutlery is dry.