General Thinking

COVID could save IoT

COVID could end up being the renaissance of IoT

I had talked at one of the events a couple of years ago about the lack of adoption of IoT. At the event, we were discussing the interfacing. For a lot of us who used a computer before 1995, our introduction to computers was through the command-line interface. We would have to remember commands to get anything done and it was a drab world to live in. 

And then Bill Gates copied the graphical user interface (GUI) from Apple; which Apple had copied from XEROX PARC and brought it to the. It changed the way we interacted with computers. It made computing a lot more useful and made it accessible to many more people. Things became far more intuitive. The smartphone is an extension of the same interface.

The touch interface is still the GUI only with a different interaction paradigm. 

I had mentioned at the time that the next paradigm that is arising is the Voice User Interface.

With the rise of Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), there are a host of voice recognition services that are now available in the market. Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa and Google has Skynet (?). At the same time, all except Microsoft have their smart speakers to deploy these services at home. While these services have not penetrated our lives as much as they would have hoped, COVID has presented them with the best opportunity to date.

What Opportunity?

Touch is a huge problem in the COVID universe. It is how the infection can spread across people. Almost all of the electronics in every house and office is designed to be touched. Doors, Door Locks, Switchboards, coffee machines, lifts, other appliances, etc. Almost all of them can be controlled through Voice-based solutions if the right interface is in place.

Amazon most certainly has a leg up on all of the others with Alexa Skills and the integrations that it offers. Home Automation was considered the next big wave of technology in 2015. None without exception failed. Nest that was acquired for 3 Billion dollars by Google has not made any mark.


Nobody wants to pull out their phone, summon up an app, find the right screen and switch off the light. It’s inconvenient. I always maintained that the intuitive thing to do is to provide voice interfaces for all Home Automation. Almost all of these devices can be easily connected with all of the smart speakers. 

Alexa, switch off the lights.

The current situation has the potential to unleash the home and office automation revolution that was predicted back in 2015. Voice-controlled coffee machines, switches, lights, fans, doors, lifts, AC, TV, etc. How this all plays out and who makes the first move remains to be seen. It would be a shame if nobody takes advantage of this situation to bring this revolutionary technology to the market. 


The evolution of IoT

There has been a lot of work that has gone into IoT devices and I often find startups which pitch consumer facing IoT solutions to me. Apart from the fact that there is zero differentiation and high reproducibility, my questions often hang around whether people feel the pain or not?

Do you ever WANT to switch off the fan using your smartphone but are unable to?

I get a lot of round about answers but nothing really convincing has ever been said.

My next question surrounds implementation. The need to find and bring in an electrician in order to install any of these devices means the friction is just too high.


If this then what?

I was reading a fascinating blog by Ben Evans over the weekend where he postulates that the smart home will start with smart devices like your fridge and TV and so on. In fact we are already seeing many of these in use across homes. The trouble – how do you interface with them? Voice based devices like Alexa might be the answer.

As the behaviour sets in, you may just WANT to tell Alexa to switch off the lights.

I am extremely skeptical about this, as I explained in detail here. Essentially, I think this mischaracterises the nature of the breakthroughs that machine learning has given us in voice recognition: we can now transcribe audio to text, and we can turn text into a structured query, but have no scalable way to be able to answer more and more kinds of such structured queries. ML means we can use voice to fill in dialogue boxes, but the dialogue boxes still need to be created, one at a time, by a programmer in a cubicle somewhere. That is, voice is an IVR – a tree. We can now match a spoken, natural language request to the right branch on the tree perfectly, but we have no way to add more branches except by writing them one at a time by hand. If Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant can give you cricket scores but not rugby, it’s because someone wrote the cricket score module, by hand, but hasn’t written a rugby score module yet.

Worse, even if you do create hundreds or thousands of such queries (which Amazon is trying to do with Alexa Skills), you haven’t solved the problem, since there is no way for the user to know what they can ask, nor remember what skills Alexa does and does not have. The ideal number of skills for such a system is either 3 or infinity, but not 50 or 5000.

This means voice can work very well in narrow domains where you know what people might ask and, crucially, where the user knows what they can and cannot ask, but it does not work if you place it in a general context. That, I turn, means I see these devices as, well, accessories. They cannot replace a smartphone, tablet or PC as your primary device.

This has quite possibly been the undoing of the general purpose smart assistant that Apple wanted Siri to be. While at the same time might be the impetus for creating a device that can do very predictable things. If you are doing anything in the area of IoT, I would advice this as mandatory reading.


My thoughts

The more I think about it, the more it feels like the IoT revolution will actually start out from TV, Fridge, Microwave Oven, Etc. The things that we are used to having around at our homes already and are behaviourally more likely to buy. As these devices get connected and the habit of controlling them through voice becomes more natural to us, we will then think about moving to smart lights and so on which takes a bit more effort to setup. But the advantages of voice based interaction would far outweigh the friction of setting up the smart power plug.

This transition will be years in the making. Because we do not tend to purchase a fridge, a TV or a microwave every other year, we buy them every 5 or even 10 years!

For a startup, consumer IoT does not look like the right place to be at this point in time. Many of them are just too early to the market with the wrong product!