According to foreign media reports, the Internet of things technology seems to be irresistible at present. It can help us order goods, analyze data and even build a smart city. People in the industry promise that Internet of things technology can benefit everyone, but is it true?

In San Francisco, a young engineer hopes to “optimize” his life with sensors that track heart rate, breathing and sleep cycles. In Copenhagen, Denmark, a moving bus transmits its location and number of passengers to the municipal traffic information network every two minutes, so as to effectively plan the signal time of the three intersections ahead, so as to let the driver unimpeded. In Davao, Philippines, a spinning webcam overlooks the warehouse of a fast-food restaurant, monitoring everyone in and out.

This is what we call the “Internet of things” – linking all the different devices together through the Internet. Technical expert Mike kuniavsky is a pioneer of this idea, describing it as “embedded computing devices and data communication distributed throughout the environment”. I prefer its original meaning: colonize daily life through information processing.

Although the word “colonization” seems aggressive, with the advent of the Internet of things, all kinds of human ambitions will indeed be met. The Internet of things is not a single technology. The connectivity of devices, services, providers, and all the content involved has to achieve the same ultimate goal: to collect data, which can then be used to measure and control the world around us.

If a project has such a high design plan for our daily life, it is very important to understand what its main idea is and what the interests it pursues. Although the Internet of things has no rules to speak of and the quality can not be measured, we can obtain more specific meaning through three scales of observation: our body (“self quantification”), our home (“smart home”) and our public space (“smart city”). Each scale shows the impact of the Internet of things on us, and each level has different things to guide us.

At the personal level, the Internet of things exists in the form of wearable biometric sensors. One of the simplest is the Networked Digital Pedometer, which measures a person’s walking distance by calculating the number of steps and provides an estimate of the energy consumed during the activity. More sophisticated devices can measure heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and even sweating.

In theory, if wearable biometric devices such as Fitbit and apple watch are designed to cater to users’ self-discipline, then the purpose of colonizing the home environment through similar networked products and services is to provide a very different experience: convenience. The goal of this “smart family” effort is to shorten the process from the appearance of desire to the satisfaction of desire through equipment.

A perfect example is the gadget Amazon sells, a one click purchase tool called dash button. Many Internet of things devices are only traditional devices with network connectivity. Dash button, on the contrary, cannot exist without the Internet. Amazon’s own description of the device and how it works is perfect, so I’ll repeat it here: “Amazon dash button is a Wi Fi connected device that can be re ordered by pressing a button. To use the dash button, simply download the Amazon app from the Apple App store or Google play store. Then, log in to your Amazon Prime account, connect the dash button to Wi Fi, and select the items to reorder. Once the connection is successful, you can place an order automatically by pressing the dash button button.

In other words, it’s a single purpose electronic device, and each device can only be used for a single specific product. Press the button when you need it again. This device can be used for your pet food, washing powder or bottled water you need to order automatically.

Can the Internet of things really make our life better

I will not downplay the value of similar products to users. For users who need to take care of their elderly parents, those who need to take care of their infants, and even those who spend more than an hour buying a box of cat food, this product has a certain value. But compared with Amazon’s revenue, each user’s income from the product is very small. Of course, with this gadget, you will never lose cat food. But at the same time, Amazon can get valuable data such as when, where, and frequency and intensity users need goods. This is an asset, and Amazon will use it in various ways, including the use of this data to develop behavioral models that accurately map our aspirations in order to achieve greater efficiency.

What’s more, devices like dash button allow users to complete transactions with as little thought as possible, even without having to click on the touch screen of a mobile phone or tablet to place an order. This is the precise data that the industry calls “conversion”, because it is unremitting: the check of each check box and the filling in of each input field directly point to the final user transaction percentage. And the fewer steps in trading, the more likely people are to spend.

And product manufacturers are constantly trying to eliminate these steps, hoping that one of their IOT products can become an indispensable part of daily life like a smart phone. Recently, the development of the whole industry to “smart home” is only one aspect.

At present, this strategy is mainly focused on the so-called “smart speakers”, and the first generation has entered the market, including Amazon echo and Google home, each of which can become the core of the whole smart home. Amazon echo is a simple cylindrical speaker, while Google home is an inverted oval. But in fact, it doesn’t matter how smart speakers look, because their main function is a physical “virtual assistant,” providing users with a convenient and integrated way to access a wide range of digital controls scattered throughout the home – from lighting and entertainment to security, heating, cooling and ventilation systems, etc.

Google, Microsoft, Amazon and apple all have their own virtual assistants based on natural language speech recognition technology. Most virtual assistants are feminine names, voices and personalities. Because relevant research shows that users of all genders like to interact with women.

At first glance, such devices seem harmless. They just sit quietly on the edge of our consciousness, and people interact with them only when they need to. However, when we think about it carefully, we will find many problems.

Think about the way Google virtual assistant works: you mention your interest in Italian food. According to an article in the New York Times, “Google virtual assistant will recommend some Italian restaurant ordering apps, such as OpenTable, and so on.”.

This example shows that while the recommendations provided by these virtual assistants are seemingly neutral, they are based on a number of built-in assumptions that many of us would doubt whether we need to examine them carefully.

For example, ask restaurant owners and front desk staff what they think of OpenTable, and you’ll soon learn that user convenience is entirely based on increased workload, and OpenTable has all the relevant data. You can also learn that OpenTable intentionally cuts down on the number of reservations per diner during busy times.

As a result, smart diners don’t use OpenTable to make a reservation, but call the restaurant to locate. Google home, by contrast, uses the service by default.

This is not an accident. It reflects Google home’s design priorities, preset environment and product philosophy. For the whole smart home industry, it is mainly a homogeneous group composed of young designers and engineers. More important than their homogenization with each other is their difference from others.

Most IOT devices are designed by people who adapt to services such as Uber, airbnb and apple pay. For these people, the above services have come into their lives, and they think these services are common. But statistics from the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., show that quite a few people have never heard of or used such services, but they will become commonplace for all over time.

This way of interacting with online information also brings about other problems and challenges. For example, it is difficult for users to determine whether a virtual assistant’s recommendation is the result of an objective search or a paid advertisement from a merchant. The main problem with virtual assistants, however, is that it provides a meaningless way for the world to make users reluctant to long-term depressed desires that are less important to the process leading to satisfaction.

The virtual assistant can monitor the voice of the environment and be on standby in real time. As a voice interface to interact with the user, they listen to the voice in the home to detect when the environment generates “Keywords” to wake up the device. In this way, these devices can collect more data, which can be used for advertising business or other commercial purposes.

Because virtual assistant doesn’t know the environment we are in, it only depends on keyword judgment, which leads to all kinds of funny situations. There was a report about Amazon echo broadcast on the national public broadcasting network, and all kinds of clues in the broadcast were interpreted by echo as user commands, resulting in all kinds of confusion.

Users get some of the conveniences of life from virtual assistants, while their service providers get everything – all the value data about your life. Let’s think about what we have lost on the basis of the convenience brought by the Internet of things. Are we really unable to cope with the restrictions in the non connected world? Is it really difficult to wait for the oven to warm up after going home? Is it worth giving up a lot for remote control?

Now most of us know that our phones are constantly gathering information about our location and activities. However, we often neglect that every block is also collecting information in real time, which is often called “smart city”. If the wearable device is the user’s self-control and understanding, and the purpose of smart home is convenience, then the ultimate goal of smart city is to control, through real-time control, more effective use of space, energy and other resources.

A variety of network information gathering devices are being deployed in public, including CCTV cameras, advertising screens with biometric sensors and vending machines. In addition, there are indoor micro positioning systems called beacons, which, when combined with smart phone applications, send information about nearby products and services to users.

In urban space, there are countless information generated at every moment. Our past has left traces of information. Every square meter of seemingly calm space has produced various kinds of user data. No one knows how to use this information. At the city level, the guiding ideology of the Internet of things is the most important.

Siemens engineering company’s definition of intelligent city provides the most vivid and accurate description: “in the decades from now on, the city will have innumerable independent, intelligent information systems, complete data on user habits and energy consumption, and be able to provide the best service… The goal of such a city is to optimize the regulation and control of urban resources through autonomous information system. “

There is such a philosophical position that in principle, the world is completely knowable, the various things contained in it can be counted and readable, and the relationship between each other can be fully coded through the technical system without any deviation. When this concept is applied to urban affairs, it actually means that there is a unique right solution for everything, which can be achieved through the correct input of technical systems, and without any distortion on the basis of public policy.

In fact, every aspect of the idea is questionable. Most obviously, it is not true to say that anything is completely known. Even if sensors can be deployed in any corner of a city, they can only capture information that can be observed. In other words, they will not have all the information they need to make sound policies.

In addition, the inherent bias of human beings will inevitably change the color of information and data collected. For example, people unconsciously generate data that is beneficial to their cognition. Under pressure, a police officer in charge of “setting a quota plan” may focus on violations that she usually ignores, and conversely, her commander, under pressure to make the city safer, may classify the felony of personal assault as a simple misdemeanor. This is especially true when monetary or other incentives depend on meeting performance thresholds.

There is also the issue of interpretation. The proponents of smart city seem to believe that every human behavior has a single significance, which can be recognized and responded by automation system remotely, without any possibility of error. The most extreme advocates of this approach seem to believe that any data collected from the real world can be uniformly interpreted.

However, the data is never completely “fair”. In fact, due to the different ways of data collection, it is prone to bias. If the installation height of the sensor is changed by several meters, different air pollution values can be generated. A slight change in the classification of crime can change the whole community’s perception of risk. And anyone who votes knows how sensitive the results are to the wording of the survey.

All known information processing systems, existing levels of human cognition, and existing organizations run counter to this so-called “perfection.”,. In fact, no matter how powerful a computing system is, any experienced engineer will never use it to express perfection.

In addition, for complex urban problems, the concept of one solution to package everything is also confusing. A city is often composed of individuals and communities with various preferences, and it is impossible to fully satisfy all people at the same time.

If there is such a solution that can be implemented in algorithm, it is totally untrustworthy. If there is such an algorithm to balance all kinds of resources automatically, it will be very convenient. However, it seems that the people who write the algorithms have too much trust in the municipal management decisions.

Quite simply, we need to understand that developing such an algorithm to guide the allocation of citizens’ resources is itself a political act.

The policy recommendations derived from the calculation model are also difficult to apply to sensitive issues such as resource allocation. Some of these results may be artificially intervened, covered by weighted decision factors, or directly ignored.

In fact, the perfect capability implied in most smart city terms is totally out of proportion to the technological system we know. It is not built on the basis of urban operation. So, while the Internet of things offers many new possibilities, no matter how much convenience and self-control the Internet of things brings us, we should also treat the whole field with suspicion.

Editor in charge: CT

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