Everything that can be connected, will

A decade ago, most of us would have scoffed at the idea of inviting data-hungry devices into our homes, never mind holding conversations with them.

Now we willingly install them in our living rooms, kitchens, even bathrooms and bedrooms! Why? In exchange for convenience, access to information, and to benefit from a novel, if strange sort of digital companionship.

From voice-enabled speakers to doorbell cameras to evermore connected cars, these familiar yet different electronic experiences are just the next phase in our co-evolution with technology: any thing that can be connected, will.

In 2014, the number of mobile phones outpaced the number of humans on earth, and that doesn’t even account for the appliances, cars, machines and other connected devices in the so-called “Internet of Things”. Did you know the amount of connected devices in our world are interconnected are increasing at a radical rate? More than five times the rate of humans.

And it’s not just connectivity. Our things are communicating with us, they’re communicating with companies, and they’re communicating with each other. In the last two years, this has created more data than in all of human history. What’s more, using artificial intelligence, they’re learning about us, how to predict what we want, when we want it, and how we’ll want it. We’re told that such ambient data-driven intelligence will drive customer experiences we can hardly imagine:

  • Groceries showing up on our doorsteps before we realised we even needed them.
  • Our own personal bot assistants, AI agents whose sole function is to enhance our daily lives and productivity, improve our health and wellness, and act on our behalf.
  • Or our cars becoming alive— not just self-driving, but self-repairing, self-replenishing, negotiating with other cars and infrastructure, reproducing new value.

But something is missing

Consumers aren’t lining up for smart devices, nor asking for artificial intelligence or autonomous robots or services. The ETA for autonomous vehicles is creeping further and further out. For all the connectivity, all the data, all the companies vying for the same market share—our attention— where is the real “killer app”? What is separating the reality from the promise?

This interconnected ecosystem in which devices, machines, and data from across our lives actually work together and on our behalf requires a change. A radical shift is in order.

Businesses have to open up

They have to move from deeply ingrained highly centralised modes of operating and monetising from the past, rooted in walled gardens and proprietary assets, to open, interoperable, collaborative models of the future. While on its face, this sound counterintuitive, even counter-competitive to most business leaders, the reality is this trend is already well underway:

  • Companies are opening up to unlikely partners, sometimes even competitors by rendering their products platforms for others to build on. Salesforce, Amazon, Google, and many others rely on massive networks of other businesses that build services on top of their products in app exchanges. It’s not just software platforms, but hardware too: virtually every smart home appliance manufacturer has been forced to make products interoperable. Did you know the Amazon Echo integrates with over 4,000 other products? The list grows every day.
  • Companies are even sharing innovations, business information and data. Tesla famously shared patent data associated with electronic vehicle development and shares anonymous driving data with the US Transportation Department and in turn, other automakers, in an effort to accelerate the industry.
  • Companies are relying on strangers to design ways to make their products better. Here, the ‘wisdom (or at least ideation) of the crowd’ takes on new strategic value. Companies are turning outwards for inspiration through a pipeline of outside startups, partners, developers, and university programmes. Some organisations, like Johnson & Johnson set up ‘open innovation’ programs that issue challenges for the community to work on.

You might be wondering, what does opening up have to do with that AI bot-assistant? Or my (not yet) smart home?

Here’s the thing: Data has started to shift the economy. Noticed an increase in subscription models and more mobile apps? We’re shifting away from economies driven by analog materials and widgets, and towards one driven by information, on-demand services, and hyperconnectivity.

The not-so-little secret about data is that it becomes more valuable when it’s shared across more contexts. The only way for that AI bot assistant to be useful is if it understands you across multiple parts in your life. The only way for smart homes to actually become smart, nevermind products to be delivered to your doorstep, is if the devices and services in them can interact with each other. The only way for organisations (whether businesses or cities) to really capitalise on connected devices, smart cars, intelligent infrastructure, or on-demand services is if they learn from one another, interconnect with world around them, and foster collaboration across other organisations.

Hyperconnectivity enables this new world, but the technology is ahead of the culture. Sharing information is a great catalyst for innovation and efficiency, but it is not without risks. In the age of ubiquitous information, trust has been eroded. As we struggle to discern fact from fiction, objectivity from marketing, and negotiate privacy for convenience, our culture is grappling with simultaneous needs for transparency and opening up, with intense challenges in security, data protection, and safety. Many of the questions, concerns, and risks we face today are without legal or regulatory precedent.

What is most essential is we all play a role in designing, building, protecting, and questioning the unprecedented benefits and risks of an increasingly hyperconnected world.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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