Is it going to rain today? Your umbrella glows brightly to say yes, you’re going to need it later. Forgot to take your blood pressure medication? Your pill bottle cap sends a text to remind you. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s here today: the Internet of Things.
“The Internet of Things, in general, is everything talking to everything, rather than just people accessing information through the web,” explains David Rose, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab.
He predicts a future where the most basic objects in our daily lives will become “enchanted objects” communicating with one another. “The cost of connectivity and the battery requirements are falling, so you can embed a little bit of smarts — a little bit of computation or a little bit of connectivity — in almost every product, even the most banal products like toothbrushes and razor blades and dishwashers.”
From Legos to wearables
Rose began inventing enchanted objects back in the ’90s, when he first arrived at MIT, through his work on the Lego Mindstorms Robotic Invention System.
The project: create “smart” constructions that can do tasks, such as moving backwards if they’re about to fall off a table or raising the room’s curtains when the Legos sense sunlight.
“Embedding sensors in these ordinary plastic common objects — for me, that was a really big eye-opener,” says Rose. “If you can embed computation in Lego bricks, it’s probably going to be able to be put anywhere.”
Wearables such as the Fitbit, for instance, allow employers to expand the reach and scope of wellness programs beyond the workplace. And these devices can help employees adopt healthier behaviours such as getting more exercise — particularly with a little friendly competition.
“Wellness programs understand that if information is compared, it’s more likely to be attended to,” explains Rose. “So if you have something that’s counting your steps, it’s more motivational not just to see your steps but to see you versus someone else, or to pool people together into teams and have them compete for a goal. And that is happening more and more.”
Dealing with a deluge of data
But the future of enchanted objects isn’t all fun and games. A constantly connected world leads to concerns about data privacy and confidentiality — and it may also increase risks and responsibilities for employers.
Take the new Apple Watch, which can infer stress levels based on heart rate variability. “So now you have a device that can measure your level of stress continuously,” says Rose. “And then there’s an interesting question for employers: Do you encourage people to understand their level of stress? Do you implement stress management programs? Do you encourage people to share that data with each other or with loved ones? [Or] do you actively try not to pay attention to it?”
Is there such a thing as too much information? How do you manage it, and who has access?
Rose cites the Internetconnected pill bottle cap he invented as another example. The cap was designed to encourage adherence by texting or calling the patient if he or she forgets to take the medication. It can also share that information with others, such as a caregiver or healthcare practitioner.
“We took the data to doctors and said, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to know [if people aren’t taking their meds]?’ And many of the doctors said, ‘No, actually, I wouldn’t like to know — because then what am I supposed to do about it?’ So I think for employers, there’s the same conundrum there,” he says. That’s the trade-off: more data may mean more liability.
“If you’re blissfully unaware, then you’re not culpable.”
Alyssa Hodder is editor of Benefits Canada.
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