These are exciting times. Technology is rapidly changing the way we do almost everything, even the simplest tasks of our daily lives.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explained what is happening and even coined the term the “Second Machine Age,” a time when the use and capabilities of the technologies we’ve created over the last nearly 70 years is quickly accelerating, as a result of the compounding effects in computing power, Moore’s law, and the digitization of just about everything.
It started with music – the iPod -, then the smart phone and mobile apps, and it’s now moved on to a multitude of connected devices, both in the industrial and consumer space. This is very exciting, yet very difficult for most of us to cope with.
My purpose here is to reflect on a few of these challenges and barriers to both our understanding of what these technologies are, what they do, and also how far they might go. As the before mentioned authors said, we have reached an inflection point and things are just getting started.
- The Learning Curve
The first barrier we all seem to run into is simply to learn what these technologies are and what they intend to do for us.
I am sure I’m not the only one who notices a general resistance to adopting technologies that might seem like magic. This happens with every new technology wave, but as we are hit by IoT and 4th generation technologies at home and at the workplace, there’s a feeling that we just can’t keep up.
And it’s true. In a way, we can’t. There’s just too much going on. Even for relatively young folks in their 30s and 40s, it may feel like there just isn’t enough time to learn many of the features in our mobile phones, much less understand how we can control our sound systems, security systems or vacuum cleaners, to mention a few.
The Genius Bar was one of the genius moves by Apple in the first decade of the 21st century. People needed hand-holding. Younger people may need less of it then older folks, but guess what, those younger people are quickly getting older (in technology dog years any way), and very soon they will not be able to keep up either. Aren’t we already seeing 25 year old’s asking 13 year olds about technology features on their phones or game consoles?
It’s all moving way too fast, and it’s incumbent upon technology vendors and their partners to make a real effort to help us deal with this learning curve, the “elephant in the room.” We can’t just keep throwing technology at people and expect that they’ll be able to absorb it all.
- Is this necessary or just a novelty?
There’s no doubt that we’re living an explosion of connected devices which are meant to make our lives easier.
It is no accident that the revolution has started in the security arena. People value their security and that of their loved ones above all, and everything that can help keep them secure sounds like a good investment, both in terms of money and time.
The first successful wave of IoT and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies involves cameras, sensors, self-monitoring apps, cameras on doorbells, facial recognition, and other related technologies and features. These make sense.
As normally occurs in the first phases of a new technology wave though, we’re seeing many other applications, most of which make some sense too. But is acquiring a voice-operated hub to ask her for jokes or for the daily cultural bite really a necessity in our lives? Are most people really looking to turn lights on and off through a voice interface, or would they still rather just get up and turn the switch on? These are niceties for sure, but are they essential? The same goes for monitoring our dietary intake or that of our dog for that matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I think all of these products are quite exciting and I own a number of them, but my point is that many of these products and companies will not truly scale until they can move beyond the novelty phase. And for many consumers out there, they still need to be convinced that they absolutely need these things and should continue to digitize their lives, homes and workplaces.
- Device integration
This one has more to do with the technical challenges in getting all this stuff to work. Going back to the Genius Bar example, there is little doubt that many people need someone to show them how to make all these devices functional, install them physically, configure their apps, and make them useful.
I happen to believe that a number of the leading consumer electronics/IoT vendors out there are doing a pretty good job of walking people through these initial steps. But integration is still a barrier to adoption for most folks and will continue to be for some time, especially as this all becomes mainstream and we get to the late majority of adopters.
The more connected devices people have, the more challenging it is to maintain their ecosystem and the more points of failure there are (the service provider’s modem, Wifi, Wifi extenders, device hardware, apps, settings, AI algorithms, etc.). I know of people that have gone all in, with digital/wireless/Internet-connected music systems, home lights, smart TVs, security systems, etc., only to scream in exasperation the first time the lights don’t turn on like they’re supposed to, or they get locked out of their own home.
These things happen, and they’ll continue to happen. It’s the nature of nascent technologies. They need to mature. But in the meantime, there are certainly opportunities for vendors, partners, integrators and crowds (crowdsourcing) to help out, by accompanying technology adopters through the pain of learning and self-implementing their IoT environments.
- Feature immaturity
In the race to be first, technology vendors are building features into their products as fast as they can. Some of those features actually work and provide value to their users. Some don’t as much.
The reason is that these are complex technologies. Most competent vendors can put out a hardware device that connects to the Internet. The difficulty comes in the software algorithms that make many of these products “smart”. That is where technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence come into play. But these are hard to build and hard to make really precise.
They not only need really smart algorithms to be able to do face recognition, for example, or tell if something in the camera actually moved or not, but they also need vast amounts of data to train. These algorithms are built to infer a decision based on everything they’ve learned in the past. So until the machines have actually done quite a bit of learning, their reasoning will not be quite as precise. To the regular Joe, an immature feature will look like a malfunctioning device and might be interpreted as not quite meeting the expectations of the product in question.
This will all come with time, and we’re getting there already, little by little. Features in products we buy and install at home will get better and smarter, not only as a result of smarter algorithms, but as a result of broader market validation of what’s useful to the consumer and what is not.
Until then, we’ll have to live with a certain degree of tolerance for immature technology and somewhat “dumb” product features or “skills”.
- Compatibility and connectivity
You probably wouldn’t notice this until you’ve actually bought some of these smart products and start to install them. As I said before, most vendors do a wonderful job of making product installation and configuration as easy as they can, but there’s no going around the fact that there are still technical challenges left to solve.
For one, a home network may present certain challenges of its own. Internet connectivity to your service provider may not be there or be stable enough. Same for Wifi.
Secondly, there are and will continue to be competing IoT ecosystems out there. Maybe you prefer Amazon’s Alexa, while others prefer Google Home or Apple or Samsung. Each device that you consider adding to your smart home, whether smart lights, security cameras, smart locks or garage openers, will connect to some of these. But probably not all.
Or there may be an app for Android, but not for iOS, let’s say.
The point is that this is a developing story. The IoT industry and the digitalization of the home and the workplace are unfolding before our very eyes. This is a baby, not a college graduate. So be prepared to live with some of these inconveniences when it comes to product compatibility, connectivity issues and feature immaturity or incompleteness.
- Security Concerns
As I mentioned before, many of the smart devices out there have looked to fulfill a void in people’s need for greater security, for themselves, their homes, their families and their workplaces.
From the tracker installed in a woman’s purse or our own mobile phones, to the AI operated camera that CAN tell between friend and foe, we are quickly adopting solutions that will make us feel more secure.
That said, what and who are we entrusting our safety to? Is that tracker tracking me all the time, even when I may not want to be? Who may be watching what I or my family do and where we go? This Big Brother concern has been here for a while. At least since Apple introduced features like Find Friends, as did Google too.
In many of our minds, there will always be a trade off between using technology for personal/home safety and letting go of a little bit of privacy. As we move forward, some of these concerns will subside, surely as some of these technologies prove their value in our lives. For now though, there’s no doubt that some people will think twice about entrusting their safety to some of these digital agents.
- Picking a brand
As normally happens for technology waves, there is a period of expansion of technologies, applications, vendors, and then there is a period of consolidation.
As I write this in 2018, I believe we’re still in the infant stages of the IoT revolution. The number of companies offering smart devices, many of which are almost indistinguishable from their competitors, is still large and growing. We can also see this in the number of competing platforms that have been announced in the market over the last year or two.
There are the big ones: Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, but in the CES in January of this year, I was able to identify at least five other obscure platforms from companies in various parts of the globe, all of which have the express desire to be the nervous system behind your smart home.
For customers, both consumers and commercial ones, this will undoubtedly continue to present a challenge as they try to determine which platform and which set of products and brand names to work with. For a while, it will look like they all say and do the same things. Just as it was during the infamous Beta versus VHS war in the 1980s, or Android versus iOS more recently, we will likely be divided into two or even more camps. That is, until industry consolidation solves this challenge for us, at least partially, and picks some winners, for better or worse.
- Where is this all going?
Lastly, there is the question of where this is all going for all of us. There seems to be much more technology than human beings can reasonably be expected to absorb.
There is literally something new every day. People in more conservative places or industries may still not notice it as much, but in places like California’s Silicon Valley, New York, Vancouver, and a growing number of hubs in North America, Asia and Europe, the pace of innovation is already overwhelming, even for people in the middle of the revolution.
This is an interesting question. It is legitimate to ask whether the promise of a digitized life, run at least partially by smart, AI-driven devices and technologies, at home, at school, at work, in our healthcare system, etc., will materialize without us losing much of our lifestyle and what has made our societies work a certain way for so long.
It is a good question, but I have the feeling that we’re likely on a trajectory that will be very hard to change significantly at this point. Our lives will get more comfortable, more challenging, more interesting, all at the same time, as a result of the technology revolution we’re currently undergoing. It is probably smart of us to start to embrace some of these challenges as we prepare ourselves for even greater things to come.