The Internet of Things Needs Humans

As the Internet of Things (IoT) builds, we expect it to be autonomous and for things to communicate with one another and execute actions without human intervention. But while the buzz has always been about getting humans out of the equation, having the IoT world working without human intervention seems highly improbable. At least for now.

There is a popular vision of the IoT that it will automate everything. For example, a thermostat could easily be fitted with sensors that allow it to measure the humidity in the room. If the humidity in the room increases, it actually feels hotter, so the thermostat would communicate with your air conditioning to bring the temperature down. So you remain comfortable without even knowing about what is going on, much less lifting a finger to adjust your air conditioning.

Or your car could sense that you are near your house and it will turn on the house lights and the air conditioning so that everything is well-lit and comfortable when you arrive.

Maybe in the future.

We can think about a world where you can ask your car to go to the grocery store and pick up some items for you while you stay at home and read the papers. But in reality, that is not how the IoT is unfolding today. Exploring the IoT today, you often find yourself looking at the different ways that humans interact with the sensors, the devices, the network, and other things in the equation. Things are not really autonomous, or at least not yet. Right now, we need to accept that the Internet of Things needs humans and might more properly be called the “Internet of Things and Humans.”

Before we get to the time when things become autonomous and smart enough to work on their own, we will see an influx of Internet of Things applications that would involve humans in the process. Not only is involving humans necessary now, but it also gives you a lot more applications to work with when it comes to the Internet of Things and Humans.

Consider the smartphone. Your typical iPhone, Android device, or Windows Phone has a lot of sensors inside it. It can connect to your WiFi network, to the Internet and has its own data connection and intelligence. It can also access the cloud and can pair with other devices and communicate with it. The sensor data is acted on by you, the human. You are the actuator when it comes to your smartphones. Or it could be another human using another device that is connected to your smartphone.

Humans even play a more direct role in smartphones: They provide input into it. For example, there is an application called Motorola Assist, which connects to Google Play, that uses sensors to detect what you are doing. For instance, it can detect when you are driving and then it asks you if you want it to read incoming SMS messages out loud so you could continue driving and still know what the text said. Then it will wait for your response before it reads your text messages. In this case, the smartphone is using its own sensors to give you, the human, a choice of the best ways to provide input into it.

Then there are the Internet of Things and Humans applications that go the other way, where human input must be provided first for the whole application to work. For example, Google’s driverless cars rely on the data that it gets from human drivers who have gone through the same road in the past. Google already had this driving data when they collected Street View information for their maps.

The bottom line here is that we are all too ready to jump in and believe the hype of smart machines and devices taking over human tasks. While autonomy is a very possible possibility in the future, it is not here, at least not yet.

The thinking you should have when you think about the Internet of Things is not how to get the humans out of the equation, but how humans could interact best with the complex networks of sensors, actuators, and local and cloud intelligence. And how do all of these interactions give rise to new ways of doing things.

In the end, it is not a race towards autonomous and intelligent devices, but finding ways to optimize how the world works now that would give us great Internet of Things and Humans applications.

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