What makes something smart?

Joe Polastre
4 min readOct 17, 2014

There’s a proliferation of the term smart, such as “smart things”, “smart home”, and even “smart nation”. But what makes something smart? How does a dumb thing become smart? There’s a lot of confusion and misuse of the word smart when it comes to the Internet of Things.

Enter the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is the concept that everyday objects may be connected to the internet so that we can interact with them. There’s already a lot of things connected to the Internet, and have been connected for years or decades. For example, your electrical meter is sometimes called a smart meter and is connected to the Internet.

By connecting the objects around us to the Internet, we’re afforded greater convenience. Forget to turn off the lights? You can use your smart phone to turn off your GE smart lightbulbs. Forgot to turn the thermostat down? No problem, your Honeywell smart theromstat can be controlled over wifi. You can unlock your home over the Internet with a smart lock. Even your smart television is connected to the Internet. Notice the key word for all of these things is that they’re connected to the Internet.

I’ll let you in on a little secret.

None of these things are smart. None of them.

What does it mean to be smart?

Just because something is connected to the Internet does not mean that it is smart. Yes, it may be part of the Internet of Things. It may be online, available, and controllable from your mobile phone.

But smart implies intelligence. Just because you can control these things over the Internet doesn’t make them smart. The Internet is just a glorified remote control. They’re still performing the same discrete tasks they were programmed to do 10, 30, even 100 years ago.

To be smart, the thing has to learn. It has to adapt, anticipate, and act on your behalf.

One of the best examples of a smart device is the Nest Learning Thermostat.

Ironic that Nest doesn’t market it as smart. The term has been so overloaded that Nest (smartly) realized that consumers would respond to a better description of what it actually does. What problem do people typically have with their thermostats? They’re too complicated to program, and so most people don’t program them at all.

Nest realized this challenge, and taught the thermostat to learn. As you turn the temperature up and down, Nest crunches the numbers to figure out what time of day, with what frequency, and by what amount you change the temperature. It probably looks at your local weather to figure out if it is cold outside. And with the addition of Nest’s smoke detectors, they can even detect how many people are in your home and where they are. Sounds a bit scary, but it is all part of a big algorithm to adjust to you, without you having to do anything.

Now that’s smart.

Introducing Ambient Intelligence

Ambient intelligence, where devices automatically respond to the presence and needs of people, is what makes something smart. The concept is not new. Originally hatched in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers predicted it would come to fruition between 2010 and 2020.

Ambient systems have the following properties (from Zelkha & Epstein 1998; Aarts, Harwig & Schuurmans 2001; via Wikipedia):

  • embedded: many networked devices are integrated into the environment around you
  • context aware: these devices can recognize you and your situational context
  • personalized: they can be tailored to your needs
  • adaptive: they can change in response to you
  • anticipatory: they can anticipate your desires without conscious mediation.

We need to re-define our terminology.

Connected things are everyday items that are now online and accessible.

Smart things automatically and invisibly act on your behalf.

What’s next?

Most companies have an aspiration for their products to evolve to be smart. They talk about turning on your air conditioning when you unlock your front door. They anticipate that the collection of things connected to the Internet will come together to form a smart system. Each thing still does its discrete task, with an omniscient controller somewhere in “the cloud”. The system may be smart, but the things are not.

Revolutions don’t occur in small steps — incremental improvements, like the addition of Internet connectivity, is convenient but not radical or disruptive. It is time to throw out every expectation we have for the things we use today. Expect your next toaster won’t act like a toaster. Your next desk won’t just be four legs and a flat wooden surface. Even the paint on the walls around you won’t be like any paint you’ve ever seen before.

It’s already happening with cars and thermostats. What’s next?

This article was written at polastre.com.

Photo of Einstein from The Associated Press