Simplexity and the Internet of Things

The internet of things pic

What is now proved was once only imagined
– William Blake

In the brilliant (alas, cancelled) Forever series, Episode 17: Social Engineering, Detective Jo Martinez, and her ME Dr Henry Morgan are called to the apartment of a young murder victim whose flat switches itself on whilst they are there. The morning radio comes on, the coffee maker starts to percolate, the heating switches on, and the blinds open, all controlled by an alarm on the victim’s phone.

The victim turns out to be a Faceless hactivist who hacks into Times Square’s billboards to play footage of politicians behaving badly, and into New York City’s municipal systems to alter everything from traffic lights to residents database information. So, it makes sense he would wire up his creature comforts to make his flat more ambient. The only downside, according to the NYPD cybercrime unit, is that his network was hacked. Someone logged in to turn on his boiler and cut the pilot light, which resulted in his being gassed. Murder by remote control.

The story might be fiction, but in reality, having a wired flat is very much a reality. According to the US Federal Trade Commission there are around 25 billion devices connected to the Internet which will double by 2050.

These devices are available in every context from heart monitoring implants to field fire-fighting search and rescue operations. Each device collects data and then autonomously flows the data between other devices using APIs, data formats and network protocol stacks in order to improve overall performance.

It sounds complex, but when coupled with a familiar device like a coffee machine and resulting nice ambiance, Mmm smell the coffee, the result is one of simplexity – an emerging theory which balances the need for simplicity and complexity, and the design focus for the future of the Internet of Things (IoT).

In June this year, Wired magazine produced a supplement about the connected home, 30-odd pages full of futuristic devices that are already on the market and connect to the IoT. A few of my favourites were:

  • The Triby Fridge Memo, an e-ink display you put on the fridge and when you write on it, it sends messages to the rest of the family.
  • The smarter am app which will customise your coffee, so if your fitness tracker says you slept badly, it will make you a double espresso to get you up and at ’em.

Gimmicks aside (cocktail mixer and fizzy water dispenser, yes please), a really useful one is the CO2 detector which in the event of an emergency would talk to you, your thermostat, and turn off your boiler.

The biggest problem us consumers have is deciding who will look after our smart homes. Is it Google with Nest? Or Apple and its golden handcuffs of proprietory software? Shame really, as these simplex gadgets have been around for many years just waiting on an industry standard to allow them to talk to each other.

But, it is not just the devices in this ambient intelligence interestingly enough which need monitoring, it is us humans. HCI designers have been saying for years the human is a factor in the design. With IoT, this is truer than ever before. Humans become devices to be monitored.

One way is with physiological computing. The physiology of a human is monitored and used as input to a system. So, if you arrive home and are a bit hot, your home might turn the heating down. Or, a computer game could modify its level of difficulty according to the amount of times you shake the controller in frustration.

Feeling wired: The human as a thing

Recently, Douglas Coupland asked in the FT: How much data am I generating? Involuntarily and otherwise. Everywhere we go, we generate data with Oyster cards and shopping bills at Tesco. Coupland wonders which algorithm is at work mining away in some big data pool in order to learn everything about us. His main fear is that it will all be monetised and we will end up being part of some sort of pay-per-click click junkies.

Ironically when I reread Coupland’s article online, it kept asking me if I wanted to tweet a quote. And, often when signing up for something online, I am asked to share this with friends on Facebook. Just imagine a wired house of consumer products: You’ve just left a note on the  Triby Fridge Memo, share this with your friends. Your coffee is a double espresso today, tweet this to your boss. Gah!

But, it is not just posting online which causes oversharing and potential security risks. Many people don’t change the settings on their new devices when they bring them home. So, devices are left to broadcast openly across the Internet which allows a would be burglar to scan local IP space and then gain access to footage of people at home, build up a pattern of behaviour and then break in, when everyone is out. To say nothing of the virtual visitors who tiptoe around and tamper with your systems when you are at home.

But even those humans who change the passwords on their devices, might still write their passwords on post-it notes and stick them somewhere everyone can see them, or worse still, use the same password everywhere. Designers know that humans are the weakest link in any system, which is why biometrics are being proposed as the way forward. If we use what humans have already it will be less painful than implanting chips under our skin or needing to remember our wearables.

We are all unique

We are all unique, well, not really, our fingerprints, contrary to popular belief, are not unique identifiers, but the retinal scan has an error rate of 1 in 10 million – not bad! Even so, if someone wants to access your system they will. Using brute force attacks as a starting point, it is easy to imagine someone compiling a database of fingerprints or even retinal scans to virtually or physically enter your home. To counter this, unique biometric identifiers are being explored such as gait analysis and Nymi’s heartbeat recognition.

Say the intruders have got in and left with your best kit, everything is not lost, the broadening application of block chain authenticity could help you retrieve them. It is possible to stamp your devices, rather like your bicycle.

Up until now Bitcoin has been used as cryptocurrency a form of money that can be transferred securely and anonymously across a widely distributed peer-to-peer network. The Bitcoin blockchain is an auditable ledger of all the transactions that have occurred on the network so far. It is a trustless system because the Bitcoin network itself is guaranteed to keep a fair and accurate record of which bitcoins belong to whom. Removing the emphasis on currency and keeping the blockchain technology, it is possible to track the history of individual devices and keep a ledger of data exchanges between it and other devices, web services, and human users.

The only downside is creating massive data trails, but when you have lots of devices in your home, your office, and in cities talking to each other, to humans, to the Internet, well we are talking a lot of data anyway. Plus more machines needed to process it into something meaningful. How much energy will the IoT need? Currently, 25% of UK energy is consumed in the home and this will only increase.

Sustainability in simplexity

Panasonic in Japan has created the first sustainable smart town called Fujisawa. It is built on the site of an old Panasonic factory and is designed for a population of 3,000 people.

The town has a smart grid with everything connected to it. Each house and apartment block has solar panels, and fuel-cell generators which generate and redistribute energy around the house, and then the town grid juggles all these variables of renewable technology and town demands.

Engineers anticipate a 70% drop in each house’s carbon footprint, and have anticipated earthquakes too. Enough power can be stored for three days of off-grid operations.

And, this is where the IoT gets a whole lot more interesting. If we can use technology to generate energy and redistribute the resources that we have across towns and eventually countries, then there is the hope, that one day everyone the world over will be able to wake up in a secure home to listen to the sounds of their creature comforts making their home an ambient one.

The IoT has the potential to redistribute the future more evenly. Simplexity at its best.

Women Centre Stage

women

During a bout of channel hopping, my daughters and I started to watch James Bond Die Another Day. NSA agent Jinx (Halle Berry) shot a baddie in a gene therapy clinic and then chased and shot at another one who escaped in a helicopter. She then dived off a cliff into the sea below and swam to her waiting speedboat. The next scene switched to Bond, but my girls weren’t interested, they wanted me to rewind live TV so that we could just watch Jinx.

It is the same when they play Lego Lord of the Rings and Lego Star Wars on our PS3. They always choose open world mode so that they can make up their own stories and play with just the female characters.

I was desperate to see women taking centre stage when I was a girl too. I just didn’t have the technology to do anything about it. Everything seemed to be all about men and this is because many stories were and still are based on the hero’s quest or monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell who said that women’s stories are to be found in fairytales.

Fairytales are more women-centred, but they are not the female equivalent of the hero’s quest. They are a historical reflection of women in society. For a long time, women didn’t have rights, possessions, or power. They needed to marry and have children in order to survive in the world of men.

So far, my girls know fairytales because of Disney, which are jollier than the Brothers Grimm. Tangled‘s Rapunzel going off to see the floating lanterns is much nicer than the Rapunzel who gets swapped for a lettuce. Even so both stories are about the girl in a tower who gets rescued and married.

My girls play at getting married a lot and I wonder if their exposure to fairytales will limit their expectations and aspirations when it comes to their own lives as stories have power. So, I was satisfied when my eldest said she was playing at the Princess getting her PhD and then getting married – even if she did wink when she said it.

We tell ourselves stories all the time and shape our lives that way. So, when my girls are playing video games I like to think they are moving women centre stage.

Over on fangirl blog there is a blog series about rewriting the monomyth and what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model. So looking forwards would be a way to create a strong female stories which reflect feminine concerns and ambitions.

Historical novelist, Philippa Gregory has found a way of looking backwards to find strong female stories as she shifts women into the centre of the history we already know. She describes her approach in the back of Lady of the Rivers, part of her War of the Roses (or Cousin’s war) series. Gregory says that she has spent her life as an historian of women, their place in society and their struggle for power, especially that large proportion of women whose lives have been ignored by historians in favour of the lives of prominent men.

And that was what was so brilliant about the BBC 1’s historical dramatic adaptation of Gregory’s books. They intertwined three of her books about women to make The White Queen. It was the history that we know and love but with women in the centre. My girls enjoyed watching, more than once, the coronation of Elizabeth of York, aka the White Queen.

And, the BBC’s did a fabulous job of educating and immersing the viewer in that historical period using twitter, tumblr, and the internet. On their website you could find out more about childbirth and child care at that time to see if Margaret and Elizabeth enduring lots of time away from their children was common or just a plot ruse. You could watch again your favourite bits on the tumblr white queen site as they tried to exercise some influence over their lives by plotting and spying or with witchcraft and prayer.

And yet in the Guardian this week, there was a review of the latest films and books about witches and witchcraft stories for teenage girls. The article quotes YA writer Ruth Warburton saying that witch stories are timeless because there is a desire to see girls in less passive roles.

Great! But where are the stories of young females using their nous instead of their supernatural powers? I can only think of The Hunger Games in the hero’s quest mould which no doubt my girls will enjoying playing, reading, watching when they are older, even though it is not that jolly to be going off to fight to the death.

Or, perhaps we don’t need a female version of a hero’s battling quest. Already, my girls are using technology to design female versions of the stories they like in order to please themselves, which include a lot less fighting and more cape swishing and having a nice time. This appeals to me no end and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Upgrading your embodiment

Stelarc and his surgical arm ear copyright Nina Sellars

In 2002, I watched Stelarc at the CHI 2002 conference in Minneapolis, give his keynote speech entitled The body is obsolete.

We used to talk a lot about obsolete software. Nowadays we mostly talk about giving software an upgrade. In the same way, Stelarc is not saying that the body is no longer needed, as that would imply that he believes the body is separate from the mind, as Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism postulates. Instead, Stelarc is saying that the human body needs a redesign to keep up with the mind.

By redesigning his physiology, Stelarc feels that he can extend his philosophy of life because in this technological age, we are overwhelmed with information and we cannot creatively process it. Thus, we need a more creative attitude to the body. Instead of designing ergonomic systems which adapt to the body, why not redesign the body so that it can be more easily plugged into technological advances?

Over the years Stelarc, a performance artist, has experimented with his own body to extend himself. In 2007 he had an ear with a microphone inside attached to his arm, with the aim of connecting it to the internet, so that people could hear what his ear is hearing.

Sterlac is not alone. Computer scientist Kevin Warwick wants to upgrade humans too. In 2002 he had a chip inserted into his left arm’s nerve fibres, which enabled him to control a wheelchair and an artificial hand. The chip also received signals and could stimulate/simulate artificial (meaningful?) sensations in his arm from the signals. I listened to Warwick present his research at Westminster University in 2005. He wanted to take this work further and ‘jack into the nervous system’ in order to override the restrictions of our bodies.

However, humans are constantly bombarded by signals to their senses and have limits on what they are able to interpret at any given time. Because of these limitations, we augment our cognitive capabilities by employing and interacting with the environment around us. We use calendars and write lists so we can use such information when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorise it and store it in our heads. And the information which makes it past the filters of our senses and into our brain is done so in such a way because of our past experiences, which in turn impacts the interpretation of our future experiences.

This interpretative experience of the world is known as embodiment or situatedness (otherwise known as social situatedness). We understand and process knowledge which is situated in social, cultural and physical contexts. We give meaning to the knowledge because of where we are, doing what we do, in a specific moment of time.

So, if you are going to override your embodied nature – or your limitations – by jacking into your nervous system or hearing extra streams of information, you are going to have some new experiences. Your body might learn to adapt, as we humans are adaptable creatures. Alternatively you might have a meltdown.

Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock popularised the term ‘Information overload’ which describes the difficulties humans can have understanding and making decisions when presented with too much information.

So, the questions that spring to mind when you upgrade your embodiment:

  • Is the information meaningful?
  • Is it protected? Safe and secure?
  • Is it enriching? Has it a purpose?
  • Can you wear this technology or perhaps pop it down your underpants instead of having surgery?

Steve Mann augments his reality with wearable computing. Mann wears sunglasses which display constantly streaming information based on what he is seeing. This information assists his memory and enriches his world view because it is situated. It comes with a context and is meaningful to him in that moment and if his technology stops working he can take it off his nose, sit down at his desk and fix it.

In contrast, Mark Gasson deliberately infected his chip implant with a computer virus in order to experiment with the security risks of implantable technology. His implant stopped working but he is leaving it in his arm. He says the experiment was motivated by more and more people getting chip implants.

Many people have surgery for cosmetic reasons, so it should not come as a surprise that people would voluntarily choose unnecessary surgery to augment their healthy bodies with technological implants. However, Stelarc has said that he is constantly redesigning his own body because it is difficult to find people who want to undergo surgery. No surprise there when he lists the various setbacks he has experienced such as infection and necrosis.

Controlling a wheelchair with your mind when your limbs no longer work and an extra ear on your arm transmitting whatever someone is saying when they are standing next to you, are two applications of implantable technology. Both the artist and the scientist are motivated by the desire to upgrade the embodied nature of the human condition because they feel that the human body is insufficient in today’s technological society.

Ironically, robotics researcher Rodney Brooks among others argues that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills. Robots and machines need bodies. Thus, they need to be embodied and situated to have a context and constraints within which they can successfully interact with the world.

So, as humans aspire to override the very aspects of the body which make them human, robotics research is replicating these human limitations in order to successfully create functioning artificial beings.

We live in interesting times.