What does the future hold for connected objects? What will they be used for? Eric Guichard gives us some answers.
Interview with Eric Guichard, a social anthropologist who specialises in the Internet and communication technology, following a debate entitled ‘Connected objects, much more than gadgets’, which took place in mid-March at the NUMA digital space in Paris.
L’Atelier: We’re led to believe that English-speaking countries are more open to connected objects. Do you think that French people are ready to use them in daily life?
Eric Guichard: I think that both in France and in the English-speaking countries it’s all about prevailing trends, where some people succeed in creating momentum and then others will either follow or stand aloof. So we have to be very careful about defining English-speaking countries as a homogenous group who are distinct from the French because that would be a rather naive nationalist view to take. If you just look at the many differences between the rich neighbourhoods of Los Angeles and the poor downtown areas, you’ll see that we can’t really say that Americans or ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are a homogenous archetype. And I think French people are quite prepared to use connected objects. In many ways they’ve always been surrounded by them. When they look at the industry all around them they can see that it’s packed with objects that are connected to each other. The difference is that today there are all these smaller objects for use in the home, in day-to-day life. But while there’s a lot of talk about connected objects, we need to realise that 95% of the products we’re talking about will disappear in the next two to five years, thrown into the dustbin of history. So we intermediaries and interpreters need to take care not to fuel fads and fancies. Another point that we need to understand is that the phenomenon of connected objects in daily life is a long-term process.
What are the areas with most potential for the development of connected objects?
I see two. The first is the automobile, plus urban transport, given that we can say that the [French high speed railway system] TGV is already interconnected. And when we start to imagine that with the latest chips, with [open-source electronics prototyping platform] Arduino, ordinary items such as a glass can now be interconnected, we perhaps forget that a car or a train for instance may also be interconnected and driven remotely. However, even auto industry specialists admit that they haven’t got there yet. Although in the next seven to ten years we may see more modern interconnected cars being manufactured, we’ll still have to wait at least twenty to see cars that are capable of stopping to avoid a pedestrian. The second area with strong potential is, I believe, the software industry, because behind every connected object there is a software programme that is itself connected. The problem is: what happens when a bug appears in the programme? How do you deal with a situation where all the traffic lights in a city are stuck on red or electricity at all the hospitals is cut off? We need to develop reliable software, guaranteed bug-free. This area of research already exists and is expanding rapidly.
I think these two areas are going to take on a bigger role, but it will happen very gradually. This is not really a revolution.
Connected objects are now arousing debate over data privacy. What’s your view on this?
The question of data privacy is an issue in its own right that’s entirely independent of connected objects. Google, for example, has information on me that I myself am not entitled to access, and that has nothing – or almost nothing – to do with connected objects. But I think that at the present time we’re in an extreme situation, which I don’t think can continue long term after Snowden’s revelations about the collusion between multinational companies and the United States authorities through the NSA’s activities. The problem of data abuse, of unacceptable intrusions into our lives – and even identities being stolen – is already with us. So the law will have to be revised so as to prohibit interconnections between data systems, to make it illegal to collect data on a person without that person’s knowledge, and to ensure that everyone has full rights to all data on him/herself, which certainly isn’t the case at the moment.
Do you think SMEs hold some good cards in the field of connected objects or is it more the job of large companies to drive things forward?
I think that in this field there’s no set answer. The Internet is an area where there isn’t much heavy investment, at least not on the IT side. You can create a market with just one good idea, and there’s a place for niche businesses. So I think that the dynamic will take place between people who have good ideas on the one hand, and those who develop and roll them out on the other. For instance, nowadays there’s a new type of smart home ‘do-it-yourselfer’ emerging and some of those people will create attractive, fun products. On the other hand it will probably be large firms that actually develop the products.