Productivity and the internet of things
Fri 3 Oct 2014 by Nigel Pinkerton.

If you have been around any IT professionals lately or read the technology pages you may have heard a lot about the “internet of things”.  For the uninitiated, the internet of things is the growing interconnectivity between devices that doesn’t directly involve a human being.  If your security system is online, or you can log in from work and check if your heat pump is running, you are already there.

On the face of it, the internet of things doesn’t seem like such a radical idea.   You may have just realised you have been benefiting from the internet of things for years without giving it a name.

So why is the internet of things such a hot topic at the moment?  A speaker I was listening to recently summed it up well.  He noted that we currently spend a good deal of our time looking after our devices and getting them to do things for us.  What if in five or ten years’ time you woke up and realised that your devices were looking after you?  What would you do with all that time?

I’m not necessarily talking iRobot style domestic servants, although it probably will come.  Hopefully sans the killing and robots trying to take over the world.  Is it really that hard to build in a failsafe or two? 

In the near-term the improvements are likely to continue to be more incremental.  Remember when getting somewhere you hadn’t been before took twice as long because you had to stop and read a map or ask for directions?   Now you probably have a device in your pocket that keeps itself familiar with just about every address on the planet automatically, so that when you visit India and want to find your motel, it can tell you how.  No more dodgy taxi drivers trying to take you around the block a few times.

Closer to home, how many items on your shopping list are there week after week?  Consider a fridge or pantry that ordered its own supplies over the internet, perhaps to be delivered by drone.  This would leave you free to pop into the local store when you had a craving for something different like chocolate or a cheese platter, unburdened by the need to stock up on milk, eggs, and flour.

How about a lawnmower with GPS and proximity sensors?  You could mow the lawns once in a particular pattern to get the lawnmower up to speed.  On each subsequent fine day the lawnmower could back itself out and measure the length of the grass.  “Master will be much pleased” it thinks, “to come home to find the lawns mowed today.”

Machines are much better placed to make certain kinds of decisions than we are.  Consider a swimming pool that knows exactly how much chlorine is required to bring its water quality up (due to inbuilt sensors) and knows exactly where to order the cheapest chemicals from.

I’m not much for predictions, and I don’t know how long it will take for some of these ideas to materialise.  Technology is not the issue in many cases, but cost and willingness to adopt (the latter of which cost is also a big part).

Many inventions over the last few hundred years have increased our potential leisure time.  Even just 100 years ago, much of the day was taken up with basic survival and necessities like washing clothes and cleaning.  Technology has given us more options on how we spend our time.  Generally the trend has been for real incomes to rise as people spend more time on more productive things.

Perhaps this trend has limits, considering the level of real income that would be required for you to work a four-day week and kick back at the beach.  If we continue to become better at what we do at work, and need to worry less about mundane things like mowing lawns and grocery shopping, where is that time going to go?

The only way to know for sure is to let it run its natural course.  But speaking personally, in 20 years’ time if I could maintain or increase my standard of living yet still increase my leisure time I would.  Who am I to argue with my pantry about what to include in the grocery shopping this week?

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