The Internet of Things: Science or Fiction?

By Laura Haight
Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal, Greenville, SC on July 19, 2013 

It is easy to get caught up in technology’s lowest common denominator - the mobile app - as the definition of how far we have come and where we are going.

It’s true that barely a day or two go by that I don’t think: “Wow, that would be a cool app!” You see things all over and imagine how life could be improved, tasks streamlined, obstacles removed if only there really was “an app for that.”

Often our vision of a better world, however, is small and tightly focused on us. I thought it might be helpful to stand back and look at a bigger picture of technology that is bigger than a smartphone and its potential to make the world a much different place.

The Internet of Things. You hear it mentioned quite a lot and it is where each step in the technology journey has been taking us. Right now, connected appliances are a hot commodity. LG’s Thinq line has appliances communicating with you via your smartphone - the laundry is done, the over is ready, we’re out of milk! That’s cute but the next step is for the refrigerator to talk to the thermostat.

As the Internet of Things evolves, the refrigerator will learn the ebb and flow of activity in your home and be able to regulate its own power usage based on peak and off times. The home climate control will sense your presence or absence and adjust itself accordingly to keep the home comfortable and energy efficient. Coming home early from work? The car knows that, so the fridge is alerted to get to work and get the beer cold!

Does that seem silly, selfish, unnecessary or lazy over-the-top consumerism? Not when you consider the amount of energy wasted each year. In fact, the U.S. is #1 in the world - in energy waste with more than $130 billion a year. ( Adaptive technology can save billions in technology and, by extension, increase our environmental sustainability.

Major automakers like Toyota, Audi and Mercedes Benz are already working on driverless cars and Google has had an “autonomous” Prius scooting around Silicon Valley since March 2012. (Watch this video). Would this really change the world or just have a high coolness factor? Consider: one third of the average city’s land is devoted to parking; space that could be parks, playing fields or affordable living spaces. How does autonomous driving potentially change the face of cities, check out this Harvard University policy blog.

For some, there’s more fiction than science in these visions of the future. And there are no small number of obstacles to be overcome or problems to be resolved.

Historically, we as consumers have been very slow to adapt to technologies that affect energy. There have been electric cars in development and on the road as far back as at least the 1960s. And yet a half century later, hybrids and electrics are struggling to gain adapters despite the unpredictable cost of gasoline and limitations of fossil fuel extraction. But we have been quick to jump on technologies for entertainment and lifestyle - flat screen TVs, Bluetooth components, and, of course, mobile phones presaged by the release of the iPhone only six years ago.

Technology development shows us what can be. But technology commercialization lags behind and usually follows where the consumer is willing to go.