The future is not smart devices or wearables—it’s a thermostat

Looking ahead.
Looking ahead.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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At the MIT Media Lab in early October, a standing-room only crowd gathered to hear a  Siemens representative deliver a keynote speech on “the fourth industrial revolution”—often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). Two large screens flanked the speaker’s podium, displaying a PowerPoint presentation. “Join the challenge and help to shape the future!” the screens read. “The future will happen with or without you!”

The ambivalence of the two statements—help change the future and the future is inevitable—served as a fitting way to begin the 4th International Internet of Things Conference, a three-day affair bringing together leaders in academia and industry from America, Europe, and Asia to discuss the latest research and development in integrating the material with the virtual.

The last International Internet of Things conference was held in China in 2012, where the government has made Internet of Things-based development a national priority. (That same year, then-prime minister Wen Jiabao declared in a state speech, “Internet + Internet of Things = Wisdom of the Earth.“) This year, the conference’s primary sponsor was Siemens, a German-based engineering and electronics corporation that rarid $40,000 for the privilege. National governments like China and private conglomerates like Siemens are increasingly jockeying for market position to capitalize on the new technology. It took a few years before anyone figured out how to monetize the Internet; the big players want to make sure that this lag doesn’t happen again.

Speaker after speaker took the stage and breathlessly cited the same hyperbolic statistics. It was said that by 2020 the Internet of Things will be a $7.1 trillion industry, with 75 billion devices and trillions of embedded sensors ceaselessly translating the physical world into data. But some big numbers served as a warning. Between 85% and 90% of all internet-enabled devices in existence remained unconnected to the cloud, and 70% of them were easily hackable. The men in the audience (and they were overwhelmingly men) nodded soberly. For all our technological advances, many of our things remained vulnerable and stupid. It had been decided that the IoT was the future, but for that future to become reality, adoption had to be accelerated—these numbers had to change.

I had naively expected the conference to be focused on consumer applications—smart devices and wearable technology. I imagined the demo fair portion of the conference would sell me on smart necklaces, smart refrigerators, and the iPhone apps that would control them. However the true icon of the IoT age is not the device or wearable technology, but the sensor. The smart device (the physical world equivalent of the app) is simply the final stage of development: a shiny, deliberately simplified interface that provides the illusion of control for the consumer.

Like concept cars at auto shows, smart consumer devices are specifically designed for our attention. But while it’s true that Opening Ceremony’s innovative smart bracelet is actually available for purchase, the company’s current market is as limited as the market for its jacquard zip front tank (now available in dimensional fingerprint pattern). IoT gadgets for the rich make for good clickbaity pieces about how the things we own end up owning us, but to concentrate solely on consumer devices may be missing the forest for the trees.

Consider the case of the thermostat, a device that already has both a consumer and industrial IoT application.

Earlier this year, Google made headlines by acquiring the startup Nest Labs for $3.2 billion, signaling the corporation’s commitment to expanding into Internet of Things technology. Nest Labs is best known for its consumer product the Nest Learning Thermostat, a $300 smart home device that learns its user’s room temperature preferences. Using sensor technology, the Nest can differentiate between day and night, weekday and weekend, even whether someone is home or not, and adjust accordingly without human programming.

In acquiring Nest, Google now has access to even more highly specialized data for its ever-hungry algorithms. Additionally, Google has opened up Nest’s platform to developers, positioning the Nest Learning Thermometer as a hub for other smart-home devices to operate from. Right now, Google profits off of the free data users exchange for using its free services. But if Google wins the smart-home standardization wars (over competitors like Apple and Samsung), not only will they get to mine a new source of free user data, but consumers will have paid them for the privilege.

While Nest Labs was hailed by many at the conference as one of the first winners in the smart device gold rush, their products were nowhere to be found. Instead, I sat in on a presentation by a representative from Honeywell, an American conglomerate that manufactures the thermostats used in most commercial settings. The representative explained that we were living in a “smart phone paradigm,” in which new products were quickly updated and only incrementally improved from their predecessors. Rejecting this paradigm, Honeywell was seeking to embed itself further in the commercial, rather than consumer, market where its products and systems would be used for decades, not months.

The Honeywell representative said that he could eliminate the need for specialized building technicians and reduce facilities personnel with the products his company was developing. Instead of having designated HVAC specialists on staff to monitor the system for malfunctions, building managers could install Honeywell sensors that could detect the exact location of the problem and send out alerts in realtime. If a tenant got cold, the goal was to develop sensors that could instantly respond if she simply said “it’s cold” out loud, obviating the need to call facilities.

This is what I learned in Cambridge. Cutting edge smart homes, sensitive to their inhabitants’ every preference, will be available to those who can afford it, and the market value of their collected data will subsidize the next round of “innovation.” Meanwhile, smart buildings will provide similar services on a commercial scale, putting technicians, laborers, and assistants alike out of work. The future will happen with and without us.