Would extending the social network ‘chat’ experience beyond human interlocutors to our programmed connected objects help to root the Internet of Things more deeply in our everyday lives?
The social dimension has been largely absent from our early forays into the Internet of Things. Although some everyday objects have already entered the Internet era, the social aspect has yet to be integrated and the IoT as it exists today is more about programming, monitoring and automation than real interaction. A typical example is the connected thermostats made by Nest, which provide us with a means of optimising temperature regulation without the need for any human intervention.
The trend to-date has been just about simplifying our everyday lives by automating decisions and actions via connected objects. Now however Bruno Cabral, Cibele Vasconcelos and Cássio Prazeres – three computer scientists from the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil – have suggested that people might soon be extending the ‘virtual’, online interaction that has nowadays become the standard way of communicating with friends and acquaintances to the world of connected objects. The objects might also use the same interface to ‘chat’ with each other. They have dubbed this the ‘social web of things’. To see how it might work they created a ‘social network’ along the lines of those in everyday use, but integrating household equipment and gadgets into the system.
The Bahia research team installed sensors on all the electronic equipment at a house – i.e. wall thermostat, micro-wave oven, lighting, music system, etc – and programmed each gadget. They then grouped the appliances into sets according to the room in which they were located and assigned a URL address to each set. Email addresses were then assigned to each of the rooms, creating a sort of ‘personal account’ per room. For the purposes of the experiment they subsequently set up a new ‘social network’, on which all their connected objects were registered. Once they were connected to the network, the experimental users were able to use the interface to SMS basic questions such as “What is the average temperature around the house?” to the various rooms and appliances.
However, as the purpose of the University of Bahia experiment was not to incorporate artificial intelligence into each appliance, they basically had to programme in advance all the potential questions that users might wish to put to the connected objects. Underlying each question asked via the gadgets’ social network was a specific programme which gave a particular machine a set of orders to follow.
The Bahia experiment was conducted along fairly narrow lines but the ‘social web of things’ approach nevertheless represents a radical new departure from the standard IoT model in use today. Aside from the fact that the appliances could actually ‘talk’ to each other and if necessary run the house without any human input, the researchers concluded that being able to interact with objects in this rather natural manner through the social interface tends to ‘anthropomorphise’ – or humanise – the gadgets in the eyes of the users. So the question is, is this a way to improve the performance of the Internet of Things or a means of taking the social web to another psychological level?