Consumer Products

Beer, Skynet, and the Internet of Things

By Andrew Lintott - Last updated: Friday, January 29, 2016

Connected BuildingsThe overwhelming response I get when talking to people about the Internet of Things is confusion: “What is it about? I heard you can turn on the upstairs lights from your smartphone… why would a rational person want to do such a thing?”

Hey look – I can contact my washing machine from my sofa using my tablet. In the future my fridge will be able to take a selfie and send it to me. Isn’t technology grand!

…responses along that line. So with this in mind I thought it would be helpful to go back in time and back to basics and think about beer: Stafford Beer.

You see, over the course of the 20th century as technology advanced it became increasingly necessary to control things. At first it was fun stuff like steam engines and aiming big guns at moving targets, then more mundane things like industrial processes and power steering in cars and water heaters and then robots and endless unseen things that go on inside electrical circuits. Academics became aware that all these tasks had things in common such as the need to maintain a system at a certain set point by changing how much energy (or whatever) you feed into it, or the need to monitor how far the system was from the set point and react to it. The study of controlling things became a field of its own called Cybernetics and was very broad ranging – even including systems containing people as components.

In the 1960s Stafford Beer, a British theorist and professor at Manchester Business School, first proposed the Viable Systems Model (VSM). This is an abstract representation of any system that has a purpose, such as survival, or maintaining a function in a changing environment. This is a big idea. A really big idea that could apply equally to a consumer product as it does to a government running a state. Our hero Stafford Beer almost achieved the latter in Chile. I suggest you read about that – it’s a fascinating story (Damn Interesting in fact).

Connectivity settingsSo back to the Internet of Toys – er Things – and the point of controlling your toaster from your sitting room sofa. At the moment we are in the earliest stages of IoT, and… well it’s a bit gimmicky. Unfortunately the type of IoT products available now are very basic and usually involve direct human intervention to control them. For example, there are ways to control things like heating remotely so that your house is toasty warm when you arrive home even when your routine is not predictable, but this is underwhelming.

So what is the point of a door or a window being able to transmit its status to the world? What if all the windows and doors in a building can do this? Then you have a system. And instead of poking about on your smartphone, a smart controller is monitoring and controlling all of the windows and doors and heating/cooling controls. Suddenly you have a system with a purpose. It could be optimising the use of energy, or ensuring the building is always configured for its planned usage each day, or whatever goal you wish to set for your purposeful system: Save you time, money, energy, hassle, work and do less mundane decision making. To do this you apply a controller (a real life implementation of the VSM) and put in place all the decision making necessary.

So IoT is part of the way of making Stafford Beer’s vision of a cybernetic future real. The other part is implementing the intelligence to control all of the system components in a coordinated way. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is that VSMs can exist within other VSMs. So a smart house can be part of a smart community that is part of a smart city inside a smart state.

Then there’s Skynet.

One big fear is that whoever is putting the smart bit into your smart system doesn’t exactly have your best interests in mind – and you won’t know until you find yourself in a cyber-controlled dystopia. How do you avoid that?

I for one think that is an unlikely possibility as long as consumers expect and demand a suitable level of choice, privacy, and control and that there are multiple consumer options available. I’m betting my future on informed consumers exerting positive consumer pressure – so don’t let me down people.


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AuthorAndrew Lintott


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