Rafi Haladjian: ‟The era of connected objects as we know them is over!”

By August 14, 2015
rafi H

Is this really the end of the Internet of Things? Rafi Haladjian is now predicting a new era of invisible, ubiquitous objects.

Lebanon-born French serial entrepreneur Rafi Haladjian has been called the ‘Father of Connected Objects’. Prior to his announcement in June that Eridanis – a consulting & strategy firm specialising in IoT product development –  had taken a majority stake in his company Sen.se with a view to launching its Mother sensor hub on the B2B IoT market, Mathilde Cristiani interviewed him on the sidelines of the Web2Day event for a L’Atelier numérique (in French) broadcast on the BFM Business channel.

A visionary in the connected objects field and a confirmed IoT ambassador for the last thirteen years, Rafi Haladjian believes that connected objects as we know them are now undergoing a transformation. As the number of objects in circulation increases, they are constantly evolving and becoming invisible, intuitive and ever more ambitious in scope.

Mathilde Cristiani: Although today the Internet of Things is a subject on everyone’s lips, ICT Valley in Toulouse has been renamed ‘IoT Valley’, and so on, you stood up at Web2Day and predicted that the end is near for connected objects…

Rafi Haladjian: Well, in fact I believe that we’re making a mistake by talking about connected objects, focusing on the idea of developing new objects based on new ideas. We’re now in an intermediary phase, a transition phase from the days when we still had a small number of devices – for example a computer, perhaps a smartphone, a digital camera and so on – to the world of the Internet of Things, where for the sake of convenience we’ll have 50 or 100 connected objects. And the way people will manage with 50 or 100 objects in their lives will not just be the way you live with a single object multiplied by 50.

Let me explain what I mean. Up to now, we’ve had objects which commanded our attention. We’ve been able to sit down in front of them, pick them up, start them, charge up the battery and understand or learn the language. Now, if the next revolution is indeed going to be the Internet of Things, we’re going to have dozens and dozens of objects in our lives. We won’t be able to spend our time learning what each object should be used for, charging the battery, understanding the system. So the only change, the only novelty about these new objects lies in the total disappearance of all technology. The technology becomes so omnipresent that it then becomes something magical and disappears from view.

So by “the end of the Internet of Things” do you basically mean the end of connected objects that we can see and do something with?

Yes, exactly. I think that when we actually get there it won’t be about connected objects. We will of course unavoidably still have devices, technology and sensors. But – and this is very important – it’ll be more be about connecting experiences and connecting people’s lives than connecting up objects.

This might not seem like much. This might all seem like a little academic debate between things and life. But as an inventor of these objects, as they are called, I can tell you that there’s a real difference in the design, the invention, the type of object and the type of algorithm that you have to develop. The specifications for a project for the purpose of manufacturing an object and one which sets out to connect up experiences are not at all the same. When you want to connect an experience, you start out with the principle that the user won’t change his/her way of doing things. You don’t start by taking learning as a pre-requisite. People will live their lives in as natural a way as possible – eating cornflakes, taking the dog for a walk, opening the door, and so on.

None of these things requires any special learning. But we need to understand exactly what they’re doing, in very fine detail. And we not only have to understand once and for all, we have to keep on learning and adjusting. The object shouldn’t be visible; it should melt into familiar things, things we do on a daily basis. All this is very different from the image we have today of the connected object, which is basically the latest gadget you can buy on Kickstarter, with a red or green LED and a sensitive surface which can send notifications to an iPhone.

But in order to get to embedded connected objects which we can forget about, won’t we have to go through a stage of sensitisation where people will at first be using more connected objects?

Perhaps, but we need to remember that this is an intermediate stage. When you draw up a five-year business plan, you don’t regard what you’re doing as something absolutely final. You need to know what your long-term prospects are. I’ve been working with Olivier Mével for thirteen years now making connected objects. Everything that’s happening today we were already working on thirteen years ago. What we’re doing now is about what’s going to happen thirteen years down the road. Those are the subjects that we’re interested in, i.e. making objects which disappear and really make technology commonplace.

I suppose that this ‘disappearing act’ also has an impact on how we manage our private lives, on data management. Are we ready for that?

I think data management is something that we talk about a lot, but never really deal with. At Sen.se, we’ve made some fairly drastic decisions. For one thing, the data is only available to the user. The data isn’t shared, or sold on, and it doesn’t need to be. Our business model is about selling hardware. We don’t need to sell your data on to somebody else. After all, when you buy a Canon camera, Canon doesn’t claim that it’s entitled to co-ownership of your photos.

But in any case I believe that we hugely overestimate the value of data. This fantasy we have about companies being prepared to pay millions to know whether I brush my teeth or not is highly exaggerated. This information is probably worthless. But it’s much more of a shock to find out that in fact, your personal data is worth nothing than to discover that someone wants to steal it!

And in fact the objects we sell are anonymous. In short, when you connect your Mother and place your sensors, you can create an account with the name Tarzan and start to keep track of things. We’ll perhaps know that there’s a Tarzan who brushes his/her teeth twice a day but we won’t know it’s you.

But firms such as Facebook and Apple don’t allow users to be anonymous…

Well, I’m only talking about what we do at Sen.se.

Today people have the impression that data about them can be captured via connected objects. If we go back to the football match-fixing scandal involving Bernard Tapie and the Olympique de Marseille and Valenciennes teams, where poor old Jacques Mellick got caught out lying through his teeth about being on a motorway at a certain time… This was as long ago as 1993 and the motorway operating company was able to state that he didn’t go through the motorway toll gate when he said he had. Toll-road companies, retailers, telecoms providers, etc, etc, already have loads of data on us. It’s just that up to now the data has been invisible.

Nowadays we have invisible connected objects that count the number of steps you’ve taken, and suddenly we get upset, because we can now see what’s being measured. But in fact the data that these connected objects are gathering on us is trivial compared with all the things that are known about us.

But it’s not so much whether you’re brushing your teeth or the number of steps you’ve taken, it’s the aggregation of all these sources of data which gives quite a comprehensive picture of a person… Isn’t this where the value lies, and isn’t this what might be regarded as an intrusion on our privacy?

Well, let me say again that we overestimate the value of data. I’m not denying that some data is highly confidential. The problem with the debate on data is that we never deal with it in sufficient detail or in practical terms.

If brands and advertisers want to know who I am in order to target their ads at me, is that such a bad thing? I mean, spam is the norm. Today when you watch [private national French TV channel] M6, they’re trying to sell you RnB [music service], hair shampoo, car shampoo, even if you can’t drive, have no hair and loathe R&B. If M6 only knew that I hated R&B, I might gain some peace and quiet.

So I’m not sure that it makes sense in every case to insist on protecting a person’s privacy. This requires some further discussion. If we really want to raise issues around personal privacy, we need to lay them out and really see what the problem is. At the moment, these questions are being asked piecemeal, talking for instance about Google selling data to advertisers.

What’s it going to take to move to an ubiquitous, all-pervasive Internet of Things?

Time, and a learning process. But it’s like everything else. In any case we can’t speed up the process whereby something becomes mundane, taken for granted. This is perhaps the third major technology change that I’ve been part of – the Internet, mobile phones and now this. At the beginning it’s expensive or it doesn’t work at all. But you have to start somewhere.

And after a certain time, everyone says that the change is highly useful and very necessary. Today the IoT debate is the same debate as we had about the Internet back in 1994. You have to give things time. But still, let’s continue to invent, to design and make things and try to survive by finding the right business model.



Photo: Luc Legay. Under licence CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Lila Meghraoua

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