We spoke to technology author and columnist Dean Anthony Gratton about the present and future of the Internet of Things. This expert in wireless communications has the rare talent of explaining technical issues in a straightforward and easy to understand manner, illustrating with examples from everyday life that provide insight for both newcomers and those well informed.
You have written several books about technology and future uses so your knowledge of current and future uses of the IoT is deep, how often are you surprised by technological advancements?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “I’m not surprised at technological advancement when it happens. But I am disappointed with the recycling of ideas rather than true advancement. A classic example is the generational increment with smartphone or tablet technology. I’m surprised at how long we’ve all been talking about IoT without actually realizing what we were talking about; for example, the Smart Home, which I was talking about back in the late 1980s and which is now only truly starting to come to fruition in the minds of consumers – with technology like Amazon’s Echo (or Alexa as she’s known in our household) making it possible to truly interact with our environments. Two decades back we were conjecturing about talking refrigerators and kettles but without a purpose. Today, the IoT is starting to make sense of our former concepts and adapt them into a useful reality.”
Is the IoT fulfilling its mission statement of “everything connected”?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “It is most definitely getting there. The IoT has plateaued at a level where it’s now synonymous with the Internet. So, anything that can connect to the Internet is placed conveniently under the IoT-umbrella. For me, this is quite a shift in my thinking since my deep-seated thoughts lay in viewing a smart object or ‘thing’ as an embedded device. This is still largely true, but it is becoming widespread to consider that any device that’s connected to the Internet is part of the IoT. And I see this move in definition happening across the industry. I do have some caveats, however, as to what can be regarded as part of the IoT. You see, it’s about purpose and scalability. For example, Amazon Dash – genius idea from Amazon [similar to Click & Go buttons]. These smart devices have the sole purpose of re-ordering products within the home, which are conveniently placed in the exact location where the products are stocked so that as soon as you notice, you are running low, you are just a button press away from placing an order. This is so much better than a talking refrigerator that mentions that your milk is low!”
You coined a term a few years back the Lawnmower Man Effect (LME) to classify the ability and expectation afforded to a new generation of consumers who seek to have a permanent connection to access anything, at anytime, anywhere. LME seems to be growing on more and more people. Is LME necessarily a bad thing?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “The LME is a supposition that I penned some time ago and is representative of everyday consumers who expect to retain that all-important internet connection. It’s akin to turning on a tap and expecting water and likewise, turning on a light switch and expecting it to illuminate. Last year the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to regard the Internet as a utility just like gas, electric and water and be placed under the same doctrine as traditional utilities. So, my LME supposition solidifies our everyday expectation of being connected and having access to anything, at anytime and anywhere.”
You talk about the “Smart Agent” in one of your books? Can you explain the concept?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “In my book, I describe how the Internet exists today due to humans providing petabytes of data and how, nowadays, us humans no longer have the time or inclination to continue amassing this wealth of information. So, a Smart Agent just like a smart object or thing, is tasked with one or several roles – you see, it has a purpose. I suppose, we can compare an agent to a sensor of sorts where, for example, it has the responsibility to collate data about its environment – such as temperature, humidity and luminosity. A more exhaustive example would include the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or Industry 4.0 where sensors across production would ensure the welfare of a product being manufactured. A Smart Agent is a device that is tasked with one or more responsibilities that help harvest data about a particular subject and share that information with humans – in essence, it’s more than a smart object or thing.
Are Chatbots a good example of those first-gen smart agents?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “I love this question because it extends my Smart Agent concept. I would regard my original definition of a smart agent as the core or basic foundation to the IoT and envisage Chatbots as a second or third generation Smart Agent. If my agent has a sole purpose or responsibility, as I mentioned earlier, then these same agents can use Chatbots to effectively share data in a narrative to humans more often in real-time. For example, in the UK the smart grid or metering programme is being developed and rolled out across the nation. Currently, consumers are provided with an In-home Display (IHD) that allows us to view our consumption of gas or electric in pseudo real-time. A Chatbot could be used to offer such data in a narrative. I’ll use another example: At home, I use Amazon Echo and can ask Alexa numerous questions about the weather, times of trains or flights and other things. In time, I can only envisage such technology becoming more astute and intuitive about what we need and when – it’s inevitable and, personally, I can’t wait!”
What improvements in the area of Smart Agents will we see in the near future?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “I dare say, your previous question started a stream of thoughts where an agent can use Chatbots to deliver information in a human voice or readable form. It’s a skewed perspective and we will gradually empower agents to provide us with their sense of purpose that we have defined.”
As a software engineer and wireless connections expert, two critical components for the IoT, where do you see the IoT heading? In what areas is it meeting expectations and where is advancement stagnating?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “I do feel that the IoT is still very much in its infancy and once the hyperbole has settled we can begin to crisp our focus as to what it should provide. I still hear a lot of noise and, hopefully with the several standards bodies that have emerged over the last few years, we will begin to shape IoT’s future and purpose. One exciting sector, for me, is the IIoT and Industry 4.0, something that’s a serious consideration across Europe. To empower the assembly line, for example, with smart agents would ensure a better product and assured quality. I really believe what causes any technology to stagnate is the associated hype that accompanies the notion and, today, the IoT is attempting, with the help of the industry, to shake off the unnecessary bling.”
You are a Bluetooth specialist, and the truth is that Bluetooth has advanced very much in recent years to become a critical technology for personal devices. What role do you foresee for this technology in the IoT?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “Yes, my early career and my first book, for that matter, did cover Bluetooth, but I do regard myself as a wireless professional – you know, someone who is comfortable with any wireless technology and can confidently explain its role and purpose within the consumer and industry domain. As such, I see Bluetooth, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, EnOcean and cellular all playing a part in delivering an IoT ecosystem. To achieve an effective IoT solution may require one or more wireless technologies – for me, there is never a ‘one-size-fits-all’ paradigm.
Where do People fit in this Internet of Things? Will they have an acting role or be more beneficiaries than active participants in the future?
Dean Anthony Gratton: “Why should people or consumers care? You see, people like me who ‘make’ technology (the activists) need to understand this malarkey, whilst consumers (the passivists) simply need to enjoy the benefits it provides. If you like, the consumer wants to turn on the tap and get water, they don’t want to know how it gets there! We still have consumers wondering if they are connected to 4G, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Why can’t we just simply provide what they want without the details? In my early career as a software engineer developing first generation Bluetooth products, I tussled with the concepts of discoverability, pairing and connecting and it still holds true today. Likewise, with Wi-Fi connectivity we are seemingly burdened with Wi-Fi Protected Set-up (WPS) or a Personal Identification Number (PIN), which will allow us to connect to our Access Point (AP) or router. It does seem somewhat long-winded and I really hope we can start to shape a more intuitive yet secure future with our technology.”
Originally published in Telefonica IoT.