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Our toasters are brave: on living with the Internet of Things

The talking appliances of the fairytale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ would hardly cause a ripple today for we would have imagined them to be connected to the Internet. From there to the computer-animated film, Toy Story (1995), which use anthropomorphic toys, is perhaps a seamless journey of imagination. Let us not forget the 1980 children’s novel by Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances in between.

Today, the “Internet of Things” (IoT), the term coined by Peter T. Lewis in 1985, is threatening to take control of the planet and turn the world around us into a real Toyland.

Interestingly, one of the first IoTs is perhaps what John Romkey created — a toaster that could be turned on and off over the Internet for the Interop conference (1989). In an article in BusinessWeek (1999), Neil Gross wrote: “In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.” Today’s appliances can communicate with each other, interact with people, and even to a degree act out compelling stories by themselves.

IoT has its role in every bit of life today; we withdraw money from ATMs; business organisations track consumer behaviour, which makes way for ‘smarter’ products and services, and a few sensors can “optimise” our lives by monitoring a person’s heart rate, respiration, sleep cycle on a 24x7 basis. We might know the location of buses we wait for while waiting at bus stops. An unsecured webcam overlooks the storeroom of a store. A few thousand sensors, systematically placed all around a city, might accurately track traffic rule violations, mob violence, or other irregularities. This might be the immediate style of functioning of today’s “Smart Cities”.

A growing market

During 2008, the number of “things” connected to the Internet surpassed the number of people on Earth.

According to Cisco, 50 billion connected “things” will be used globally in 2020. It is predicted “that the worldwide IoT market will grow to $7.1 trillion by 2020, compared to $1.9 trillion in 2013. By 2020, it’s estimated that 90% of cars will be connected to the Internet, compared to 10% in 2012”. But, we must keep in mind that the IoT would generate loads of data, ‘Big Data’ and ‘IoT’ being two sides of the same coin.

A lot of our personal and lifestyle data are shared through ‘smart’ objects, and we don’t even understand that. Your breakfast time, TV watching schedule, and even when your house remains empty are pieces of information sure to get exposed through the IoT, posing a serious security and privacy threat. Hackers may exploit such weak spots. Preventing such attacks is a daunting task. Software must be designed accordingly and remote devices locked down as well — an almost impossible task in today’s world. We need to be alert while interacting with the new ecosystem of appliances. The users of the IoT also have to be ‘smart’, keeping security concerns in mind.

The future

And is there any danger of recreating a ‘Toy Story’-type environment in practice, such as addictive personalities and leadership conflicts? For now, scenario-planning is still mostly drawn from the realm of fantasy. Think about Andy’s room in Toy Story . The arrival of a new toy, “Buzz Lightyear”, creates a sense of insecurity among the older toys, with the current leader, “Woody”, even feeling that this leadership is under threat. With different appliances being manufactured by different companies, this sort of ‘war’ is already very much on. How far might this go? And how does one handle such a dystopian future?

Also, an underused appliance might even want to move out — think of Brad, the Toaster. We need to decide how we would like our smart objects to behave and think about how to design communicative user interfaces for the IoT. The dilemmas visualised in Toy Story and Brad, the Toaster might be of use to designers.

So where are we headed with the IoT? Is its scope restricted to subjects such as personal health, homes and cities only? Again drawing from fiction, in the recent Hollywood movie, Her (2013), lonely and depressed Theodore develops a relationship with Samantha, an artificially intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice. This can be taken to show that the prospects and the danger of the IoT tend “to infinity and beyond”, viz. the catchphrase of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story . As every Toaster is now brave, there remains a shade of uncertainty.

Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata


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Printable version | Sep 13, 2022 3:36:28 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/our-toasters-are-brave/article22970965.ece