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CeBIT 2015 Robochop aCeBIT
Image: DW/Z.Abbany

Are you sleepwalking into a networked nightmare?

Zulfikar Abbany, Hannover
March 18, 2015

Our long-held vision of an Internet of Things is here. Ours is an age of an all-encompassing network - from connected cars to lampposts. Should we have taken more care with what we wish for?


It's a disarming experience to suddenly find you're laughing about "The Circle" - Dave Eggers' "1984"-style take on Silicon Valley - with a Google executive.

We're at code_n, a small venue at CeBIT 2015, focusing on the Internet of Things, smart cities, networked devices and intelligent communities. The feeling in the air is we're positively destined to become intelligent communities just as soon as we can shake our current state of stupid.

Jens Redmer, the Google executive in question, says:

"We see a number of trends. Many more users are getting online, even though two-thirds of the world's population is not yet online, so there's a lot of work to do and a lot of business potential for us. And then secondly [sic], many more devices are getting online. So we see cars online. Here in the hall you see connected lampposts that are feeding the smart grid… we see fitness trackers, wearables…"

I say:

"I don't know why, but you're making me think of the Dave Eggers book, The Circle. Tell me I'm dreaming!"

He laughs and says:

"Well, that's a pessimistic book. We take the optimistic view of things."

I say:

"Oh, I haven't finished reading it. I haven't got to the pessimistic bit. So far it's all fine to me."

CeBIT 2015 Jens Redmer
Google Germany's Jens Redmer can laugh about The CircleImage: DW/Z.Abbany

He says:

"It's not going to get optimistic, I can promise you that!"

And we both laugh.

Preaching to the connected

But what else would you expect at a conference for the converted? It's hard to find dissenting voices - or merely critical ones - when you're surrounded by the flock.

"In the smart city or intelligent community, there are tremendous benefits," says William Hutchison, a smart cities expert and, as executive director of Intelligent Communities, co-winner of the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year award for the Waterfront Toronto project. "It's economic benefits, social benefits, and environmental benefits."

"But you have to drive it, it's not just going to happen," says Hutchison. "Let's say we want to automate the bank and create advanced teller machines, it's not just about having the city's IT department do that, you have to involve the citizens because they're the ones who'll be living the new life."

This "new life" is often described as one in which our fridges will detect we're low on milk and order some more - without our having to do anything.

CeBIT 2015 William Hutchison
Smart Cities expert, William Hutchison, sees the benefits of intelligent communitiesImage: DW/Z.Abbany

It's a new life in which our cars will drive themselves, and the lights in your street will go on when they detect you, as a resident, are in the area - via a device in your pocket, a connected/networked bracelet, or chip in your arm.

Social determination

This is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Some call it M2M (machine-to-machine), others telematics, or telemetrics.

In essence, IoT describes technologies that communicate between themselves - about us - but leaving us out of the conversation.

They do our thinking for us. We're told it's for the sake of efficiency, sustainability, connectivity, convenience - and to enable governments and large corporations to collect masses of data about our every move. Again, it's said, for our benefit.

"It's about connecting things to the Internet," says Magnus Melander, a Swedish entrepreneur and CEO of W-Bird, an IoT business consultancy.

Surely it's also about connecting people?

"Oh," counters Melander, "people and business are connected to the Internet already, and now we're just adding things."

CeBIT 2015 Magnus Melander
Magnus Melander: "most of us have chosen to let us be connected, passively"Image: DW/Z.Abbany

People may well be connected to the network, but to what extent do we understand our level of connectivity? Put another way: what room is left for us to determine our futures when machines determine the present?

"It's a good point, because most of us have just chosen to let us be connected, passively, and those of us who use Apple, if you generalize, we have just given that up, together with the trust that Apple will make sure my stuff is free from viruses or whatever," Melander says.

"There's another bunch of people who want to be in control, which is nothing wrong, maybe better. But in my life I've decided there are a couple of things, like updating my Apple TV, I don't even want to bother about. The way we live life today consumes us completely, and we have to focus on other things, otherwise you will be stressed, which is a very big problem in the Western world. People are stressed, and I think it's because they have not made the clear decision for themselves what to focus on and what to give away."

Resistance is futile

So don't stress. Reflecting on predictions from 2009, a European Internet Foundation report on The Digital World says "successful enterprises of 2025 will be those that exploit rather than resist."

And, well, at the very least we can all have a little fun while we're being exploited, can't we? You could, for instance, control Robochop via a 3D web app and have it create polystyrene furniture for you.

CeBIT 2015 Clemens Weisshaar
Robochop co-designer, Clemens Weisshaar holding a block of polystyreneImage: DW/Z.Abbany

Robochop is the Internet of Things in motion. It is Industry 4.0. It's a lot of fun. And it's controlled by people.

"We're very much about generation fulfillment," says Robochop's Clemens Weisshaar, who designed the interative installation with Reed Kram.

"All these visions from the 60s, 70s and 80s…," says Weisshaar, "the technology is there now, and we can just do it. The robots themselves have been around for decades, but now we can hook them up to the web and connect them directly with people - that's a recent development."

So we do it because it's possible - like the atomic bomb was made possible, but did we really have to drop it?

What of the Internet of Things - do we really have to do it?

"I think we do, because connecting all these dots will lead to a lot of 'value-generation,' and we will be able to manipulate our environment in a positive sense. Think about connected cars, how you can shape traffic, and infrastructure benefits you can create simply by building smart systems," says Weisshaar.

"So we not only should do it, we also have to do it," he says. "It depends on how you build these systems - humans have to be the center of things. And here, we can involve people and they can get exactly what they want."

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