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What does it mean to be ‘smart’?

21st January 2013
Luke Connoley

Interaxon's Muse - Brain Sensing Headband

Interaxon’s Muse headband can sense your alpha and beta brain waves… but does that necessarily make it smart?

Like the now-ubiquitous lowercase ‘i’, used as a proxy for real, fake, imitation and wannabe Apple products, the ‘smart’ tag has, during the past few years, been applied to an increasing array of products. But what does it mean? Are these devices really ‘smart’, or is it a simple marketing tool used to create a nominal difference between yours and a competitor’s products?

‘Why would I buy a phone when I could have an i-Phone?’ goes the marketing narrative – and likewise ‘Why would I buy a 55 inch ultra-high definition TV when I could have a smart 55 inch ultra-high definition TV?’. I’m being facetious, but the point I believe is a real one.

The US Consumer Electronics Association’s Chief Economist and Senior Director of Research – Shawn DuBravac – noted in his insiders briefing at CES this month that ‘smart’ has generally been used to mean ‘connected to the internet’, or at the very least ‘networked’. This definition certainly fits with our experience of smart technology – but this raises a question: If I hook up a WiFi chip to my standard kettle, lamp or fork at home, would they become smart? ‘Obviously not’, you cry out. But maybe?

We saw smart versions of all three of these domestic appliances at CES, and many more. Yet we believe ‘smart’ has to mean more than ‘connected’. Hardware cannot be by itself smart – what makes it smart is the software. A connected fork is smart if it advises us on whether we are eating too quickly; a connected lamp is smart if it changes its output based on ambient light or if it can be controlled remotely with a phone or other device.

As our lives become ever more appified, some people feel that they cannot live without their phone. But if a phone breaks, any other synced device can immediately pick up where the old device stopped. It is the app – the gatherer of information and curator of output – that they cannot live without. Is a smart TV smart if it can access the internet to play back programmes on demand? We would say no. Is a TV smart if it makes good suggestions for other programmes, services and information sources based on what you have watched – and tailors these for each person in the household? Now that’s more like it.

What does this mean for the smart workplace? The smart workplace needs more than a collection of smart devices affixed to the walls, ceilings, floors and desks. It needs more than a collection of flexible working and BYOD policies. It is the full integration of people and technology to provide measurable and useful outputs which will define the truly smart workplace in the coming few years.

Smart technologies are here today – but it is worth asking one final question; what does ‘intelligent’ technology look like?


In technology, wireless
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