A Plea to Engineers

By Robert Hult | July 14, 2014

Bishop & Associates’ Bob Hult offers a plea to engineers, praising all they’ve achieved but requesting a bit of restraint.

I recently attended the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where some of the most sophisticated high-tech equipment and manufacturing processes were on display. I am in awe at our ability to track swarms of space debris as small as a softball circling the Earth. We can predict the 10-year trajectory of a space probe that will encounter gravitational pull and solar wind millions of miles from earth. I cannot imagine the complexity of that spectacular four-stage landing procedure on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover – and they pulled it off the first time without the ability to do a real-world test. It seems the combination of supercomputer number-crunching power together with imaginative ingenuity can accomplish any challenge, regardless if that capability is applied to identifying the specific human genes that lead to cancer or the ability to remotely feed your cat using a smartphone.

Spying on Your Pets

Don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate and use many of the incredible consumer devices that enable me to work more efficiently, communicate more clearly, and recreate more pleasurably, but I think it is entirely possible that simply having the ability to do something does not necessarily justify actually doing it.

Case in point, I see TV advertisements promoting home security systems that allow you to lock your doors, turn on lights, change the temperature, and review video images of your home from a smartphone. These may be “cool” apps, but really, how many times will you actually forget to lock the door, need to adjust lighting, modify the setting of a programmable thermostat, and spy on your dog when you are not at home?

There seems to be a lot of buzz focused on wearable electronics that will integrate entertainment, comfort, communications, and location awareness, while checking your heart rate and white cell count. I don’t know about you, but I have more than one jacket and shirt, so a closet full of electronic clothing could quickly become a financial challenge. I suspect the folks at your local laundry would want to add a no-liability-for-damage clause, and people that had concerns about cancer-causing radiation from cell phones would have a field day with coats festooned with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, NFC, and cellular transmitters, not to mention the potential to spontaneously combust from a ruptured lithium ion battery. Wait until Ralph Nader gets a hold of this.

The Internet of More Than We Need

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but the Internet of Things is turning into the Internet of Everything and it has me concerned. According to Morgan Stanley projections, 75 billion devices will be connected to the IoT by 2020. If the same level of engineering expertise is set loose on the Internet, we will have toothbrushes that will mandate the number of strokes at a prescribed pressure with the threat of issuing a FTB (failure to brush) report to your dentist.

I may be called a Luddite, but I don’t want my refrigerator sending a shopping list directly to the grocer without my consent. (LG already demonstrated a refrigerator that you can chat with using text messaging in conversational language.) Toto, a Japanese manufacturer of toilets, offers commodes that feature automated lids, heated seats, and Bluetooth connectivity to play music programmed from a smartphone. Owning a washing machine that tweets me when it is finished is not high on my priority list. Will I have to buy new appliances when the manufacturer decides to stop supporting the operating system? The NSA is already watching everything we do. I don’t need to have merchants monitoring my buying habits in order to tailor their advertisements based on my perceived profile.

With everything connected to the web, privacy and security will be threatened. What would prevent a manufacturer of an Internet-connected appliance from generating some extra sales revenue by sending a kill order to its product? I have suspected for years that car manufacturers have been doing that with the check engine light. Instead of hacking into your bank account, burglars will simply hack into your home network, unlock the front door, and walk right in. How about developing a virus that infects their computers?

Rather than an Internet of Things, how about an Internet of Useful Things? Personally, I think the Google search engine and Wikipedia are perfect examples of tools that actually make my life easier and more enjoyable, but do not take away the spontaneity of doing or creating something by myself. They extend my senses much like the telephone did for the ear, and TV did for the eye. They extend my brain and provide the nuggets of information that can be assembled in creative new ways.

Build a Better Mousetrap (or Something Else I Can Use)

A recent article in Fortune magazine talked about “Lego Innovation.” Rather than developing entirely new technologies, many new products today are the result of creatively combining off-the-shelf components and software in new ways. Refining and extending existing technology has done wonders for the semiconductor fabrication industry and greatly improved the performance of internal combustion engines. New products like 3-D printers enable me to convert my ideas directly into physical objects, and largely consist of components available from your local electronics distributor.

I would like to offer a suggestion to engineers: Don’t spend time designing gadgets that relieve me of mundane tasks like locking the door and turning out the lights. If they would free up my mind for more creative uses that would be fine, but I doubt it would work out that way. Instead, apply these incredible technologies and your imagination to create products that keep us healthy, protect us from harm, enhance our ability to absorb and apply information, and allow us to more fully experience the incredible real (not virtual) world we live in.

That’s all I ask.

Oh, by the way, please make it affordable.

What are your thoughts on Bob’s opinions on focusing innovation to create an “Internet of Useful Things”? Leave you comments below. 

Robert Hult, Market Director, Bishop & Associates, Inc.

Robert Hult
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