In the last few years, Microsoft has taken steps to change its strategic philosophy from that of a production company to that of a services company. This is no secret and the strategic pivot has been well-documented. But what you may not realize is what role the Internet of Things (IoT) will play in this transformation.
On June 8, 2016, Microsoft released a short video it hopes will convey its strategic thinking behind the power of IoT to create profitable opportunities for the company. The message, in a nutshell, is that IoT creates a massive amount of data that has to be collected, processed, stored, and analyzed—and Microsoft is just the company to develop the infrastructure to handle it.
Microsoft's video is mildly amusing and does a decent job of describing how the idea of interconnected sensors and devices can make our lives run smoother. The examples of grocery store inventory logistics, smart-city management, and global oil exploration show how IoT has been working, and working well, for years. The supply chain, for instance, has been using many of the tools we now call IoT for a long time, even if we never thought of it that way before.
But the video's last example takes the IoT concept a step further, into an area that is much murkier than Microsoft may realize. The video actually touches on the infamous "refrigerator ordering my milk when it goes bad" canard.
I realize that the video is most likely trying to be funny, but it got me thinking about why companies trying to sell us on the benefits of IoT could fail in their efforts if they take the concepts too far. We don't want systems, artificial intelligences, or any other automated data-analyzing learning machines making decisions for us.
Tools yes, decisions no
Decision making is the line in the sand that companies selling IoT services will have to avoid crossing at all costs. Microsoft and other companies can provide the information people need to make better decisions. But the decisions themselves will have to be made by the people, because decision making often requires a human component.
This is one of the reasons autonomous driving cars have not become the norm even though the general technology has been available for years. Think about this: How does an autonomous driving car decide when to stop for an object in the road? Will your autonomous car stop for a squirrel? How about a cat? How about a dog? How about a small child? How does your car know which is which, much less be able to decide whether to stop? Does it, therefore, stop for all? What if it is just some autumn leaves or a water puddle? Can it then analyze how deep the water is? These are real decisions a self-driving car must be able to make in real time. Decisions human beings, assuming they are watching the road and not texting, make all the time.
The end of the Microsoft video gives several examples of the system making decisions for people based on data collected from a future mythical refrigerator. In one example, this future fridge decides that its owners have been eating too much ice cream and therefore schedules a workout to burn off the excess calories.
I don't know about you, but I don't want my refrigerator, which I paid for with my own hard earned dollars, telling me I'm fat and then scheduling exercise activities for me. I'll decide how I live my life, not my refrigerator. Trying to sell most people on such an idea is doomed to failure.
Microsoft is changing its strategic direction toward services over products. In general, it is the right move to make. The strategy matches a new reality in which you often won't actually own stuff so much as pay to use stuff until you don't need it anymore. In such a scenario, the only thing worth owning in the future may boil down to only two items: data collected by a multitude of interconnected sources paid for via subscription and the decisions you make based on that data.
Microsoft may provide the data, but it should stay far away from the decision making.
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Even if machines have access to all the data needed, are you willing to let them make decisions for you? Share your opinion with fellow TechRepublic members.
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.