The Machines Are Taking Over

machines17:50 Friday 28th June 2013
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[C]HRIS MANN: Over 300 of the world’s leading internet experts are gathering in Cambridge next week to try and work out the future of connected devices. The concept of the so-called Internet of Things in theory brings billions of devices together, but the question for the 5th Future of Wireless International Conference is how to use the data and the content that’s generated. Professor William Webb helps run the not-for-profit industry forum, Cambridge Wireless, and he explained more to me. (TAPE)
WILLIAM WEBB: The concept here is we’re more used to being able to communicate as individuals, but we are heading towards a world where lots of our devices will start to communicate all by themselves. And this is sometimes called machine communications, or the Internet of Things. And those could be devices like washing machines or smart meters. or a cat collar that’s helping us track our cat down. And this is an area that’s predicted to grow enormously over the next decade, with perhaps billions of these connected devices emerging. And the conference is trying to frame that whole area really.
CHRIS MANN: When you say they talk to each other, what do you mean by that?
WILLIAM WEBB: They actually probably talk to some kind of computer system, that then makes sense of the information and does something with as a result. So if you take a smart electricity meter, that’s fairly simple to understand. That would send a reading back to a company like nPower or whoever. They would process that reading and take action according to that. Or you might have monitors that are looking at the traffic flows throughout the city. They would send that information back to the city council, who would then use a computer to analyse that and decide to change the traffic light phasing. So actually it’s often machines talking to some kind of computer, that take some sort of action as a result to change things.
CHRIS MANN: I suppose people have become more comfortable with this kind of concept through particularly the work of Apple, with iPhones and other apps, all synching together really. Yes, but this takes us a stage further. Is this going to be useful to people?
WILLIAM WEBB: I think it will be useful but in an indirect way. So the way I characterise this is it will just make everything work better. So your washing machine will know a little before it’s about to break down, and it will call out an engineer, or do something, or make it change.
CHRIS MANN: It will call the engineer?
WILLIAM WEBB: It could well call the engineer for you. You could get a call from the engineer saying I think I need to come round and look at your washing machine. It’s being reported that it’s bearings are overheating, or something like that.
CHRIS MANN: Will it talk to your smartphone to find out when you’ve got a window to be able to have a visitor?
WILLIAM WEBB: Well it could in principle do that, but I think that does lead to all sorts of complexities.
CHRIS MANN: You could look in your diary and find out your washing machine has made an appointment for you. Is that literally what could happen?
WILLIAM WEBB: Well in principle it could. The mind starts to boggle. I think we’re some ways off that. But actually I think most of these machines will do their communication without you directly instigating it. So the smart meter sends a reading, not because you’ve told it to. It just knows that every twelve hours it sends a reading. The washing machine, because it detects some abnormality. And that just makes everything work a bit better without you needing to intervene. So I think it .. in my ideal machine world, you don’t really know that any of these machines are talking. But they just work a lot better, because they can talk.
CHRIS MANN: And of course they can do all this perhaps when you are asleep, at a more efficient time, at a cheaper time.
WILLIAM WEBB: They can. And they can also use this information to turn on when electricity is cheaper, or when it’s being generated by some renewable source, or all sorts of things like that. And actually the interesting thing about this whole space is we’ve only just started to think through the possibilities. So I think if you go back to the start of the internet, ten or fifteen years ago, you’d say, well, this is great. I can access all this information. But you’d never have predicted Facebook and Google Earth, all these other wonderful things. I suspect we’re at the same point here for machines. We can think of a number of applications, some of which may or may not transpire. But actually, ten years from now, the inventiveness of humans will mean we have a wealth of stuff that we just never expected.
CHRIS MANN: When you develop in such a way there a number of dangers. One is that other people can access it, or someone you don’t want to can access it of course, and either use it for their purposes, or against you. And secondly there’s more to break down, there’s more to go wrong.
WILLIAM WEBB: Both of those are absolutely true. So privacy and security is something that we do need to think through very carefully, even for the most mundane things. So one example actually of machine communications is the smart dustbin that knows when it needs to be emptied. And that sounds great, but then actually you might say well, hang on, if my dustbin doesn’t signal that it needs to be emptied for weeks on end, will that be a signal to someone that actually I may not be in the house, and therefore I could be burgled. So I think with almost everything, if you delve into it, there are potential issues, and we need to make sure that those are all handled. And history shows we can handle them, but we have to look at each one with care, and treat it with sensitivity before we move too fast ahead.
CHRIS MANN: We’re going to be talking to one of your colleagues again on Monday night and se how the conference is going. But what do you expect to come out of it? What are you hoping to come out of it?
WILLIAM WEBB: I’m hoping that we will coalesce increasingly around a vision of how this is all going to happen. So at the moment we have all sorts of ideas for different applications. We have all sorts of different technologies. We  have a whole host of different companies who are all looking to play a part in this chain. And that’s great. It’s great to have this much excitement. But it also means we haven’t got that much clarity at the moment about who exactly is going to do what, which operator is going to deploy the first of these networks, which is going to be the first application, how is it going to develop, who’s going to pay for it? We don’t really know any of those things yet. And getting all these people together is a great way to start to tease out some of these issues. You don’t go from no knowledge to complete answer in two days. But you help build an understanding that drives things forwards.
CHRIS MANN: Professor William Webb of Cambridge Wireless, ahead of the 5th Future of Wireless International Conference.