Internet of dull and dirty things

The experts promise a shiny new world. The reality, however, is less glamorous but more useful than you might think, writes Bill Bennett

For what now seems like years, experts have talked of the Internet of Things (IoT). Soon engineers, farmers and home-owners will connect billions of sensors and devices to the IoT. The sensors will report on local conditions. The data the sensors collect will then control other devices, often without any human intervention. 

The promise is that IoT will transform our lives.

On one level, it sounds great. Experts tell us to expect fridges that can order fresh milk before the last drop is drunk. Sleepyheads will be able to buy coffee pots that switch on when they wake up. Home lighting will adjust as the sun rises and sets. Pet owners will be able to feed their hungry dogs and cats remotely. Robots will vacuum the floor while the house is empty. They will even tidy Lego bricks left on the carpet. 

It may sound like nirvana. Don’t get sucked in. We’ve been here before. 

Internet-connected fridges first appeared in 1999. They didn’t catch on for two reasons. First, they were expensive. They cost up to $25,000. If that wasn’t enough to put you off, the fridge knew when you needed milk and could order a litre from the local store. At that time, a litre of milk cost $1. Having it delivered cost $30. 

The British have had alarm clocks-cum-tea brewing machines since Victorian times. The Goblin Teasmade was popular from the 1930s on. You can still buy them. Today, they have retro charm. So much for 21st century automation. 

You don’t need a big imagination to see what could go wrong with remote pet feeding. As for vacuuming robots: the Roomba has been around since 2002. It’s never taken off because, well, it isn’t great at vacuuming. 

Home automation, sometimes called smart home technology, hasn’t captured the public's imagination either. Unkind people might say the failure is spectacular. Google has only sold 2.5 million smart thermostats since 2015. It thought it had another iPhone on its hands. 

The true story of the IoT is that useful applications are boring. They open and close farm gates, so cows can wander into the milking shed. They measure rainfall. 

People used to say: where there’s muck, there’s brass. The idea is dirty, unglamorous industries make money. That’s where you find the real IoT opportunities. It's no accident that a popular New Zealand IoT app involves measuring cow effluent. It's not glamorous, but it is useful.