War of the worlds
Tuesday, in the middle of a symposium on the Internet of Things run by the Marconi Society, a thought occurred: if vendors get their way, other people's homes will be impenetrable fortresses in which nothing works for you, the guest, even if everything works for them, the owners.
I imagine the experience would be like using someone else's mobile phone. Take an example: twenty years ago, left alone in someone's home, you could swiftly execute a decision to watch TV by pushing a button. Today, the buttons you need are scattered among an array of remotes, none of which match any system component. You can watch something online on your computer only if your host has given you the wifi password. And so, tomorrow: the refrigerator will only open for the right RFID card, the washing machine door will remain closed unless the refrigerator authenticates you, and the thermostat will identify you as an interloper (because it has learned the residents' work schedules) and call the police. Speaking as a professional guest of some decades' experience, the prospect is dismaying. You will have to be introduced to the house as if it were the resident alpha dog and you were a new cat.
"People will not buy in unless it's user-friendly," said Thibault Kleiner, head of the unit within the European Commission that's in charge of the Internet of Things and 5G. ("In charge of" is the program's description; my translation is "Ha!")
Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, on hand to help present the 2015 Marconi prize to
fellow pioneer Peter Kirstein, said he wants everything in the Internet of Things to "just work". As Google's internet evangelist, he of course has Nest thermostats that even he admits "learn the wrong things". His nightmare, unlike mine, focuses on his *own* house, where he imagines having to configure 100-plus different devices, spending all day typing in IPv6 addresses. "There's a scaling issue for the individual." Ross Anderson has a solution: introduce Internet of Things devices to each other by touching them together, thereby building up a physically self-configuring system. That works at home, but, as Cerf pointed out, what about gas stations, where the device - that is, the gas pump - needs to talk to relatively few other devices but encounters new humans all day long. Will it need its own "right to be forgotten" mechanism or will we assume that (like today's online retailers that require you to create an account before you can order anything) every gas pump should remember everyone it interacts with in the interests of saving a few seconds if and when you return?
Going back to the home, will your house, like today's desktops, have user groups: Guests, Owners, Administrators? Will that mean that a snooping guest will be reprimanded by the bathroom medicine cabinet if they dare try to open it, like a high-tech version of filling it with marbles?
Security experts have been warning for some time of the dangers inherent in the Internet of Things. These include the mismatch between software update and appliance replacement cycles; the unlikelihood that anyone will want to risk bricking their car by updating the firmware; and the reality that all software has bugs. What life will be like if it all works may be even worse. In 2003, smart home projects imagined local processing. Today it's all in the cloud and for most people Google intermediates navigating information (both virtual and physical, via maps, cars, and Android), companies like Apple and Amazon are gatekeepers to the content we wish to access, and Facebook sticks its nose into all our personal relationships. So tomorrow: companies like Samsung, IBM, and Siemens will intermediate our interactions with even mundane objects like tea kettles and hair dryers. Cue the first "thing" on the internet: the Cambridge coffee machine.
The good news is that it really may not work. At the Marconi event, Vint Cerf's TCP/IP co-inventor, Bob Kahn, recounted 15-year-old's recent question: "How did you manage to convince all the governments of the world to build the internet?" Of course, they didn't: to a very large extent the internet grew from the bottom up as everyone adopted TCP/IP to get away from proprietary networking protocols that locked them expensively into particular vendors and limited their reach. Kahn is proposing Digital Object Architecture, which relies on repositories, registries, and resolution mechanisms to facilitate interoperability between the myriad protocols whose owners hope they can become monopolies. Can the open internet survive the influx of pwned "things"?
The bigger question is this: whereas the internet grew like wildfire as people rapidly opted for the benefits of being connected, who really wants the Internet of Things other than vendors? "Smart" toys like Hello Barbie are hella creepy, and the rest seems...unnecessary, something most people will have to be forced to adopt by cities and companies determined to collect more data about everything we do.
It took Wendy Hall to remind everyone of the obvious: "It only works if people use it." She went on to ask, "Are we creating the environment for anti-social machines to grow, where our only control is to buy them or not?" In focusing on technology - yet again - instead of its impact, we have as usual missed the point. The Internet of Things is the wrong goal.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.