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PM Cameron leaps aboard Internet of Thingies

Germans, you do the engineering. We'll design the websites...

Business security measures using SSL

+Analysis Prime Minister David Cameron thinks he has spotted the "Second Industrial Revolution" – and it’s the Internet of Things. Speaking at the start of the CeBIT show in Hannover, Cameron foresaw British software and services companies working up with German engineering and manufacturing companies to turn IoT from a “slogan to a fact”.

Examples Cameron cited include “electricity meters that talk to the grid to get you the best deals, health monitors that keep an eye on your heart rate, water pipes that warn of a fall in pressure”... and the staple citation of home automation for the past two decades – the "fridge that can order you milk when it notices you are getting low".

Cameron pledged £73m in research funding and a gigantic £1m for a new European grant fund. It isn’t clear whether this is new money or an earmarking of old funds – or whether it will be channelled to academic researchers, or the emerging innovation quangocracy. (Innovation, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the new sustainability: no technical background or business expertise is required). He also cited Ofcom’s liberalisation of the spectrum.

What is the Internet of Things, really?

So what is the IoT and why would Cameron think it will usher in the biggest social and economic change in 300 years? It’s really an umbrella buzzword that encompasses well-established and mature industrial practices such as SCADA control systems and other "M2M" – machine-to-machine – communications, such as wireless terminals. With ever-falling price of sensors and networking chips, more things collect and generate data, and more things will talk to each other. The hype around IoT really comes from the belief that this will create more economic assets and resources that can be traded and used – many of these being existing physical things.

This isn’t new or radical. Creating economic assets out of unused stuff should be what networks do very well. eBay created a trading marketplace for junk in the attic. AirBnB enables tradeable assets to be created out of spare rooms, or your entire flat or house. The network brings about a large potential marketplace of buyers and sellers, and a services layer (the website, in those two cases) that’s a common interface. Extending the principle to other physical assets seems a natural next step.

Take for instance, a car that dials ahead and books you a parking spot. This is an example of IoT that involves two things that didn’t previously communicate, the car and the car park. It conveniently automates what we can do today already, via websites like ParkAtMyHouse and Parkopedia, but which most people do not bother with most of the time.

And trading is how these resources will be allocated efficiently: imagine a Wembley resident turning up at their council car park on Cup Final Day to find it empty but "full" – with all the spots reserved for match day fans. The price is necessary to allocate the resource efficiently (to stop travelling fans booking multiple spots) but in a regulated marketplace the resident will need a pass. PayPal co-founder Max Levchin’s must-read keynote at the 2013 Digital Life Design conference is probably the most ambitious statement of the vision. In Levchin’s vision, even humans are an analogue resource, waiting to provide a flow of data to a centralised resource.

Stop the treadmill

However, you might have spotted some flaws.

Not everything needs to be automated and provide a flow of tradeable data. You may be going on a diet – and not want the same full fat milk you ordered last week. Many parents prefer to gift toys that children have grown out of – rather than put them into an Internet of Toys. As well as convenience, an IoT removes choices, and in many instances there simply isn’t enough value in the service to be worth paying for – which leaves many IoT ideas as solutions looking for problems.

There’s also another problem with the IoT – and the clue is in the name. It doesn’t need "an internet" (in the singular). Very few examples justify Levchin’s architectural vision where all data flows to a central server and back to the edge. Once fridges can report our milk consumption in real-time, no doubt, some fanatical health bureaucrat will demand a National Database of Milk Usage to save us all from ourselves. But it isn’t clear why a National Database of Milk Usage is necessary - over and above the systems that milk suppliers and their buyers already have. Most efficiency and productivity from Internet-of-Things-like applications entail local data exchanges - and no central server.

In one of Levchin’s specific examples, discussed by Nick Carr here, his car insurance premium is raised in real time because he’s transporting two toddlers that day. Is that what anyone, even the insurance company, really wants?

So it’s much more likely that most M2M efficiencies will be small and local, and use short-range networks: such as radiator thermostats calling the home boiler today. The rest is data fetishism, or data-for-data’s-sake. Because some sensors capture data – this must then be collected. And because the data has been collected, it must then be stored and analysed, in case some pattern that was hitherto overlooked may emerge. This was the logic behind the NSA’s data collection, and the same imperative informs Google and Amazon. You don’t need to be a Luddite to reject it – and call for firewalls.

In short, much of what the IoT generally entails is productivity efficiencies, or "business as usual" – and far from any kind of Industrial Revolution. This is language as bullying, yet Cameron and his advisors seem susceptible to buzzwords without looking more closely at what they contain. A “second industrial revolution” has supplanted the Nudge unit as the latest fad.

Buzzwords as bullying

There’s good reason to be alarmed when politicians take a faddish and superficial view of technology. British engineers will certainly be dismayed at Cameron’s demarcation between German and British skill strengths: which perhaps accurately reflects the view of technology from inside the luvvie bubble.

For Cameron, the Germans will take on the manufacturing and engineering, and the UK, the “software, services and design”. But to do software and services well, you need engineering skills, and an engineer’s mindset. What happens when designers try and do engineering and services? Well, we already know what that looks like: it looks like the web-designer-led Government Digital Service – which features basic security flaws that would get system architects fired anywhere else, like this one.

Now if Cameron buys the IoT vision where much of the data flows to centralised servers, and engineers of this quality (whom he lauds) are safeguarding our national infrastructure – aren't we pretty much p0wned already? Last month, (behind paywall) James Dyson wrote about how 120 engineering positions at his firm had been left unfilled last year. These are the skills Britain really needs to excel at an Internet of Things. Cameron's endorsement doesn't really make the IoT more likely. ®

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