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10 January 2014

“Walking Around a Wikicity Will Be Like Having an Invisible Butler”

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Juan Ignacio Vazquez, Iñaki, likes to talk about the Disney effect to explain the concept of the Internet of things, objects connected to the net of networks. The magical brooms sweeping in the film Fantasia (1940), with Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, are now the autonomous robot sweepers present in many homes, says this professor of Telematics at the University of Deusto. And the magic mirror from Snow White (1937) is a mobile phone connected to the Internet that responds to voice questions. Vazquez (Bilbao, 1974) knows of what he speaks. Currently, the professor is a member of the Council for the Internet of Things, an international think tank that creates new value proposals for everyday objects that can now be connected to the Internet, such as a chair that monitors the user’s posture or a food processor that proposes balanced recipes. But they also reflect on its dangers: possible traffic with millions of bits of personal data and the creation of new targets for cyber terrorists.

What is the Internet of things?

It is a new paradigm that is created when objects, consumer products, have some additional, almost magical abilities. Objects connected to the Internet are a new phenomenon, but the concept of magical objects has existed since antiquity. I’m sure that we all remember the legends where the gods gave the warrior a sword or a magic shield that had special powers. While this has been pure fantasy until now, at present we have enough computing and communication capabilities at a reduced cost and a sufficiently small size to house them in objects in our environment: in clothes, in shoes, in broom sweepers as happens in the case of Disney, in kitchen furniture. These objects can perceive what happens around them and may reach consensus with other objects in our home about what is going on, if a person has fallen to the ground, if there is a little smoke, whether to open the windows. Objects can work together, sharing information, making decisions independently, always for the welfare of the user.

How would our day-to-day life be in a few years if the Internet of Things can develop?

We may possibly have our home full of sensors, including sensors on the tips of our plants, as already occurs in commercial products, and we will be able to know what state they are in in order to water them in one way or another. Maybe we will also have sensors in much of our clothing, as has already occurred with sports clothes, to analyze and improve our performance. It’s almost like having a personal coach that is free or very low cost because we have an object that analyzes this information.

Iñaki Vázquez at BBVA Innovation Center

What are the risks of the Internet of Things?

Possibly the greatest risk, and the European Commission is working on it, concerns privacy of information. We are talking about thousands of sensors deployed in our vehicles, in our homes, in our clothes, in our cities, on the sidewalks we walk on, in our places of work. All this information will end up in different places on the Internet, in some cases controlled by large corporations, and in other cases perhaps controlled by a specific manufacturer of a type of sports clothing that we don’t know if it has alliances with others who sell such information, maybe anonymous or maybe not anonymous enough, and which can be correlated with other information that allows someone to learn our identity. We are working on mechanisms for people to have the right to silence the chips, the right of people to say, “I don’t want my information to be collected.” What happens is that technology in moving faster than the legislation, and it’s only when the technology is sufficiently deployed that the problem is identified. There is no universal mechanism by which a citizen can know what products are capturing information about him or her. And that information, if sent to the Internet, we don’t know who is making use of it.

You compare sensors in clothing to the invention of the microscope.

The Quantified Self essentially means that we are going to have around us a lot of items or objects, clothes, key chains, wristbands, our bathroom scale, which will continuously measure various parameters of our body, of our activities, which we couldn’t access before. It is the translation into figures of our activity in order to have an analysis of everything we do: a sensor on the pillow that knows how much we sleep, a sensor in the clothes knows how much we walk, my scale knows how much I weigh. It’s about collecting all the information that exists, but that until now we had no ability to see, in order to make decisions about and improve those aspects that affect our lives. And it’s very similar to what happened with the invention of the microscope, there was something there, there was something that existed, but as long as it couldn’t be seen, it couldn’t be studied.

You also speak about wikicities.

I have coined this concept because it reminds me a lot of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an extraordinarily democratic repository of information where people write information on a topic and that information is validated and verified by other people. And other people, the majority, consume that information. It’s democratic and it’s completely open. If cities, smart cities, are going to have thousands, even millions of sensors, this is really going to be a source of information, much like the people who provide material for Wikipedia. Many times I see the concept of a wikicity as a repository of shared information, but now it’s the sensors that bring the information. I can be a traffic control system that analyzes the information provided by the traffic sensors, I also analyze information about pollution that the sensors capture, I analyze information on weather forecasts that weather sensors record, and I can even modify some aspects of traffic control at certain times of day to minimize the impact of pollution at specific times depending on the ambient weather, depending on the amount of traffic, etc.

How would it be to walk around a wikicity?

Possibly what a user could see walking around a wikicity, a smart city, in a few years, is that the city is at your service. There is someone walking, they are perceived and the lighting is established so that the person can walk quietly along the street that maybe was not properly lit before and that now is. We may have the feeling that there is an invisible butler walking at our side with a small knob turning things on around us while we carry out activities in the city. And, moreover, the city managers will have a lot of information on control panels to see what types of civil work need to be done on certain sites to improve the traffic, the noise, the pollution at a specific place. Or detour traffic for a site at a certain time of day in order to have a lower environmental impact.

Do you see a future in which manufacturers give away products connected to the Internet, like a chair, in order to charge for an associated service, such as a program that monitors sitting postures?

I see a future where many manufacturers of many inexpensive products, less than 30-60 euros, can partially or fully subsidize the cost of the product as long as you sign up for a subscription to use it. There is another possible aspect – how are many existing websites currently financed? It’s through advertising and sponsorship. Perhaps many physical products will be given away if they are sponsored or if they allow for the insertion of advertising that later permits the capture of patterns of user behavior in order to make a profile and be able to offer additional services. For instance, it is possible that within the not-too-distant future, we will see t-shirts with flexible screens connected to the Internet, which are given away for free or almost free provided that they are worn to show some aspect of advertising from time to time. It is possible that many appliances and other connected objects will be able to make recommendations for us.

Ventana al conocimiento

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