We are delighted to launch the very first episode of our new podcast - Smarter Everything.

Listen to this episode here.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an incredible feat of human engineering that has allowed us to imagine the unimaginable. Everything is smarter, from the largest and most expansive networks to pocket-size devices. So what's the downside? Join host Bret Jordan as he navigates the ironic paradox of upgrading our lives with connected devices that have the potential to jeopardize our security and privacy.

In this episode, Bret, Afero's Chief Security Strategist, sits down with Joe Britt and Dr. Hugh Thompson for a fascinating conversation on the the future of connected devices with Availability, Usability, and Security as core to the future of fully connected experiences.

Here are a few key takeaways from the episode:

  • What will the future of connectivity look like, and how will it affect our daily lives?
  • What exciting consumer products are already here?
  • What potential implications does the widespread use of smart products have for society?
  • How are security and risk considerations impacting the development of connected products?

Show Highlights

Back in 1999, Kevin Ashton, while working at Proctor and Gamble, proposed putting radio frequency identifier chips (or what we now call RFID chips) on products so that they could be easily tracked while moving through the supply chain. Since then, the idea, the hype, and the promise of smart and connected devices has grown and evolved dramatically. While the first smart devices were computers, then phones, and then tablets, today a smart device can be just about anything, so long as it can be connected to or use the internet in some way. Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of hype about what smart devices will be able to do for society. Unfortunately, the reality has not yet lived up to the hype, despite a lot of work done by hobbyists, technologists, and early adopters.

In the first episode of Smarter Everything, we explore where we are in the evolution of Smart Things and where we expect to be in the near future. We uncover the roadblocks to success and why progress to date has not lived up to the earlier hype. We talk about what smart and connected devices will mean for us going forward. Joining Bret in this conversation are our special guests: Joe Britt, co-founder and CEO of Afero, and Dr. Hugh Thompson, Managing Partner, Crosspoint Capital Partners and Program Committee Chairman of the RSA Conference.

Bret Jordan: What is the thing that you've seen recently in the smart and connected world that you've really been intrigued by?

Hugh Thompson: It's hard to pick, I'll give you an example. My son is very excited about something that's the equivalent of a Rubik's cube but is using magnetism to get rid of the frictions. You can very quickly move these cubes around and solve them, but it's completely connected. And it's not just one thing, it's everything. It's getting to the point where you're surprised if you buy something and it's not a ‘connected something’.

Joe Britt: There's cool devices like the one that Hugh mentioned, but I think there's this interesting tension between things that are techy and cool for people and then things that are cool in a meaningful way to humanity. Before this show, I was trying to think of analogies for things that were techy and cool and advanced when they first came out, and now they're just table stakes. We take them for granted. And the first one I thought of was running water. You’d think it would be really strange if you went to your friend's house and they didn't have an indoor bathroom or sinks with running water. But that did not become commonplace in the United States until the 1930s. So we've lived with that for a very long time.

Back to your question, Bret, about what's the most exciting thing I've seen? Well, the most exciting thing I've seen is the emergence of a recognition that taking the security of these connected products seriously is incredibly important and something that has to be paid attention to.

Bret Jordan: The thing that I think is the most exciting, and it's really simple, is the smart plug. You get them at Home Depot, my wife loves them and now it's like whenever we go, we have to fill the shopping cart up because she's like, I want to plug here and I want to plug there and she wants to pull up her phone and be able to just say turn on Christmas. And I think that is what makes me so excited is we've gone from a world where it was just hobbyists and technologists that were doing all of this coding and all this really weird if-then statement things to make everything work.

Bret Jordan: You were talking about a thread I'd like to pull on and that is about evenly distributed technology, could you talk a little bit about that?

Joe Britt: Yeah, I think you're referring to a William Gibson quote and he said that the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. It's a great idea. I was talking about the water analogy earlier, the 1930’s in the US. The first place that got water was a hotel in the 1830s, right? So it was possible 100 years before everybody had it. And there were similar things with electricity. You were talking about the Christmas tree lights, right? I remember reading that when home electrification first came along, people were really concerned. They're like, this could burn my house down. I don't understand how it works.

And so there's this latency from technology being available to technology being commonplace. And if you look at every kind of major consumer technology, whether it's radio or television or the telephone or the internet, there's these long lags and then there's this crazy exponential growth. And while people have been talking about the smart home for a long time, there's a number of components that have to come together to create the perfect storm to allow that exponential curve to take off, right? All we need now is the spark that's going to actually catalyze the reaction and make everything take off. So it's an incredibly, incredibly exciting time to be in this space and working on this stuff.

Hugh Thompson: And Joe, just to add to what you're saying, just think about the smartphone market as an example. There were some very interesting and innovative smartphones, say from Nokia years and years ago, foldable phones, not in the same way that the screen folds on the Samsung Galaxy fold, for example, but very innovative, very interesting, and super high utility. But when the iPhone came along, it was amazing how quickly the accessibility of this kind of technology became.

I’ll also mention another piece to this, which is maybe the darker side of it. Like if I bring some new device into my home and it's got the capability to record audio or to record video or sensory things, maybe there's some high utility to it. But I never think of the downside of well, actually, who can listen to this audio and where is that audio stored and how does it get there? I think serious questions will come up. And it may not be from individuals. It may be from government agencies or Federal Trade Commission or just watchdogs on behalf of consumers who ask, is this safe? It may be fun, but is it safe? And so I think we're going to head into an epoch of connected devices where the average person asks about the security, the provenance, and what care is being taken of the data. And this device, on the back end, is going to come into full focus.

Bret Jordan: I think you both bring up some really interesting points, obviously the security side, what do consumers need to understand and how is that going to impact them, especially as the proliferation of devices grows exponentially? How does the consumer know? Is the IoT labeling mechanism a good option there? What happens with policy and regulation? What about the EU Cyber Resiliency Act? What about the stuff coming out of the UK from DCMS and Ofcom or stuff out of the White House? What about the Singapore policies? There's a lot I think that we can unravel there. Everybody can use this now. And so you can get to that point where you just walk into a home and people say, oh, turn on the lights, and you can just turn on the lights, or I'm in the kitchen, turn on the lights in the kitchen. And it should just be that simple. And I think we're right at that cutting edge when that's possible.

Joe Britt: This is super fascinating. I mean, you were talking about coming in the house and saying, okay, turn on the lights, and the lights come on. Getting to the point where you could turn the lights on in your house, even manually with a switch, and have it be safe, that took a while to figure out. And it definitely required things like standards bodies and government regulation to actually make it happen, like Underwriters Laboratory gives consumers confidence that the heater they're about to plug into their house is not going to burn the place down. And so I think any time you've got a revolutionary technology, it's like the saying: With great power comes great responsibility. And who does that responsibility fall upon? I think it's unreasonable to expect the consumer (who is adopting this stuff just because it was made simple) to have a deep, deep understanding of how it works. That's the responsibility, ultimately, of governments and the companies that build those products. And the companies that build those products benefit from governmental guidance that can come in the form of carrots or sticks to help make sure that they are aligned with the best interests of the population at large, the ordinary people that are actually using the products.

Hugh Thompson: I think, certainly it will come down to regulation so that there is at least a minimum bar of safety when something is inside your home. And that's where I think things get really interesting and Bret alluded to it earlier. The IoT labeling discussions that are going on in the US, in Europe, and in other places, a lot of the discussion is coming down to the design of the labels. So what does it look like to a consumer who’s about to pick up a connected dinosaur toy? That's the thinking. Hopefully we can at least innovate and design a way to communicate to a consumer so that they can understand that utility may come at a cost of risk.

Bret Jordan: I think it's hard to not make it overly complicated. We've seen this with various other government regulations. We see it on the cyber warfare cybersecurity side. Even with the release of the CMMC version one, it was really complicated. And now they're learning that actually what we need to do is just make it really simple. And so you need to have a base level of security.

Shifting gears a little bit, let's talk about the usability and the concerns around usability of some of these smart and connected things. We've hinted around at a couple of these. Hugh, you've talked a little bit about it. Joe, you've talked a little bit about it, but what can users do today versus what do they really want to be able to do?

Joe Britt: I go back to the example Hugh gave for the iPhone. I mean, that was obviously a master class in figuring out what to not include in the product. And I think that's a really hard discipline for many because the temptation is there. It's so easy to just add this feature or that feature, but ultimately it has to come down to what is the use case for this thing? What is somebody actually going to want to do with it? The person who's paying for it? And when we think about the smart home, we think about lights and switches and thermostats; these are all very pedestrian products. I want my room to have light. I want to be able to change the color when I have a party. I want to be able to have the temperature in the house be comfortable.

And so the challenge for any smart home product maker or developer is to strip away all of the technology, make it go away, and always stay laser focused on what that use case is and then do the hard work of making the connectivity so trivial that it fades into the background and the user doesn't even think about it.

Bret Jordan: What would be the one thing you would like people to take away from our discussion today?

Hugh Thompson: I would say that this is an incredible time just to be alive. Right? You look at what is happening and how much more interconnected we are, first of all with each other. It's incredible. And the fact that you can make those relationships, even with each other, more intimate by having these connected devices, that maybe they give you peace of mind, maybe they help you share experiences. It's a very exciting time to learn, jump into it, and experience its utility.

But it's also important on the other side to think about how – as you're gaining that utility, as you're bringing and welcoming these devices into your home, into your lives – there are associated risks. And at the end of the day, I do think it's going to fall heavily upon regulators and testing standards authorities to come in so that we don't have to think about those risks. But we're still early in the space, so it is something that the average person needs to have at least some awareness of in the back of their mind.

Joe Britt: I mean, I'm struck by how I think this conversation is tying back very neatly with the quote that Bret brought up at the beginning about how the future is already here, just not evenly distributed. And the challenge for technologists, product developers, retailers, governments, regulators, everyone, is to ensure that this very powerful technology is packaged and distributed in the appropriate forms. Forms that are, above all else, safe and trustworthy, and then useful and practical, always keeping in mind what it is that the user really cares about and not getting too infatuated with the technology. Always thinking about what the real world use case is.

But as we've discussed, there are so many ways that this stuff can be used for good and for bad. And so the onus is really on us as creators and technologists to make sure that we're always thinking about it with the benefits of the user in mind. And that is a really powerful responsibility, a really important responsibility. And so I'm really glad that we were able to have this conversation today, because I think it’s underscored a number of things that we've all been thinking about for a while. It's really great to put these ideas out there and see them in a new context as we share our thoughts on it together.