‘Things’ Are People, Too

Editor’s note: Jim Hunter is chief scientist and technology evangelist at Greenwave Systems.

If you’re thinking this article is about creating a historical record that our future robot overlords may read and reward me for, you’re not entirely right.

To keep this particular writing distanced from Terminator-induced concerns, I will constrain the definition of “things” to devices that empower us and our loved ones with light, comfort, safety and security, as well as technology that provides entertainment and transportation. Basically things designed to help us be better humans.

A few years ago, my toaster decided to go beyond the call of duty. Instead of just toasting my Pop Tarts, it also elected to toast my cabinets, my countertop and my curtains. In fact, most of my kitchen was toasted. The key reason this overzealous thing burned my home was lack of communication. It was not able to talk to my smoke detector, it was not able to talk to the outlet giving it power, and it was not able to tell me that it had gone too far. I did not blame the toaster, except for the fact that my Pop Tart was much more toasted than normal.

Instead, the burden of failure falls on the makers of the “things.” The toaster and the smoke detector work in the same business of fire. It seems to me that they should have been designed to have each other’s back. So I began to wonder why they didn’t, and how they could.

Long ago we recognized that circuits were better with math than our most gifted scientists. So it’s no surprise that we used math as a universal language for “thing” speak. Now that we have begun to blend every aspect of our lives with oodles of chatty chips trading 1s and 0s, we want to be included in their conversations. Or, at the very least, benefit from the Cliff’s Notes of their conversations and have a say in their decisions.

However, the vast majority of us neither speak math nor have any deep desire to. But we do understand a hybrid between math and our human lingua franca of choice. We call it the Internet. The one that allows us to stalk our children on social media and make questionable online purchases at 2:34 a.m.

Enter the Internet of Things. Makes sense, right? If we don’t want to learn a new language, we force our language on others. It’s kind of what we humans do. But it’s not that easy, because we made the chips and things in our own image or, rather, images. That is to say, we taught different math to different things; most things that speak math cannot talk to other things that speak math. Oh, what a tangled “web” we’ve weaved and will continue to weave if we stay the current course.

Rather than think about this particular technological predicament we find ourselves in as a problem, I believe we have a huge opportunity to create a better relationship between us and our things that will ultimately lower the friction between man and machine.

To leverage the opportunity before us, let’s start by changing our perspective. Stop looking at your “things” as … things. Instead, start seeing them as people or, more specifically, employees. If you make this simple association, the way that you think about interacting with things — yours and others — changes drastically.

Consider communication. Instead of being tied to specialized applications just to talk to each of your different things, envision using the same social and communication apps/conventions you use with people. After all, to talk to your employees, you don’t have to bring up a different phone app for each of them.

Want some thing to hear you? Talk to, tweet, email or message it. Want to schedule a thing to perform a task at a certain day or time? Schedule it using Apple or Google calendar. Want to make a thing relevant to you? Tag it.

You can take this new way of thing thinking beyond simple communication. As a digital employee, established paradigms become infinitely useful.

The management hierarchy becomes relevant with this new perspective. It does not make sense that every “employee” should be super chatty with the CEO about every little detail. Instead, managers can be put in between you and your ‘things’ to give you executive summaries of the information you care about most. This hierarchy is not a new concept. Security systems provide a plethora of sensor status summarized to a single simple secured/unsecured condition.

Need a new thing to do a job for you? Hire it, or have your manager hire it. Some thing not doing what you hired it to do? Fire it. Drop it like a hot toaster. Replace it.

As we further explore this new thinking, we will begin to understand interesting new interaction models. One such model is grading these thing employees by providing feedback as to the quality, reliability and value of information they are delivering.

This feedback can be given in a variety of ways, such as showing preferred interest in certain information over others, and occasionally grading a device or information based on its value to your personal organization. These grades can be shared with not only the thing in question, but also with the extended associated network that includes the manager of the thing, provider of the thing, maker of the thing, and even other CEOs and managers who may be interested in hiring the same thing.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of how carbon and silicon can interact. But it certainly will cause you to begin to think differently about your toaster. To borrow a beautiful new slogan that Microsoft gave us this year, “When you change the way you see your world, you can change the world you see.” This is certainly something we, the IoT industry, must do to get a handle on the big challenges our silicon employees present in terms of interoperability, usability and security.

Finally, and before I get tagged as a silicon sympathizer, things are not people. A quick look around our world and we realize that there is a long way to go before a fire-wielding kitchen thing flambés because of its own spite or malice. I am, however, suggesting that while it is not acceptable to objectify people, perhaps we can and should “peopleify” objects.