Tyranny Of The Beep: Taming The @#$! Sensors

The Internet of Things could spark an explosion in senseless computing.

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons, Co-founder, HarQen

August 4, 2014

4 Min Read

It's 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your phone is?

Let me guess, it's on your nightstand acting as an alarm/sleep-monitor/pager, happily buzzing the night away.

In leadership, we justify our existence by our ability to make hard decisions well. And yet we secretly fear that we are not as good as we used to be.

First, the hard truth: We are not.

Now here's why.

Beyond subject matter expertise and the ability to assimilate new information judiciously, we all know that our environment impacts our decision-making ability... a lot. And our environments have changed radically in the last decade. We went from a relatively quiet work environment to an incredibly noisy one. Thanks to our smartphones, wearables, even smart appliances, we are inundated by a ridiculous number of alerts stemming from senseless sensors, sensors that demand we make sense of them.

[Does your washer really need to talk to your grill? Read Internet Of Household Things: Convince Me.]

Today, we live under the tyranny of the beep. And it is high time we make the problem explicit rather than felt. These senseless alerts are directly impairing our ability to think strategically, because they are insidiously fueling a well studied phenomenon known as "decision fatigue."

Decision fatigue is real and pervasive. The nutshell version is that cognition is like a muscle. Certain repetitive exercises, such as making choices, are costly and directly hurt our ability to make thoughtful, clear-headed decisions.

Yes, this is obvious. What is not obvious is that each beep represents a choice. Should I pay attention or not? And choice, particularly effortful choice (should I stop what I am doing and attend to this right now?) is costly. A significant amount of scholarly research has reached the same conclusion: Self-regulation, our ability to stay on task and perform well, is directly harmed by too much choice.

Now here's the really bad news: It's going to get worse before it gets better. With the convergence of wearables, connected cars, and other manifestations of the Internet of Things (IoT), we stand on the verge of an explosion in senseless computing.

To make sense of these all these stupid sensors, we need a new paradigm in computing. We need to transcend today's state of indiscriminate senselessness and reach a state of hypersense -- the ability to intuit patterns and meaning from interconnected, dynamic sensors, and use that meaning to optimize individual productivity.

To get there, our future software will need to take implicit and passive cues from our activities and adjust what it asks us accordingly. Imagine, for example, your wearable picks up that you are running a high fever during the night and reschedules all your day's meetings before you wake up. The result will be like a magic mind-reading system that is always several steps ahead of us -- gently nudging us toward better decisions. The shift moves us from explicit, rules-based programming to implicit, intuitive, adaptive learning systems.

Yes, I want a system that can read my mind and know how to protect my productive time, and I want it now. Sadly, this ideal surpasses our current state of the art even in the emergent discipline of anticipatory computing. (To get a sense of what is happening now in this area, it's worth checking out Expect Labs' MindMeld application or GoogleNow.)

To cross the divide separating creepy from genuinely helpful, anticipatory computing has to address privacy in entirely new ways. Ultimately, we will need to trust these apps more than we trust ourselves. And therein lies the adoption drag factor.

For now, we are left to hack together our best options -- a combination of task-oriented apps, scheduling rules, and personal health priorities (eat well, get enough sleep). In short, it's all up to us, and we better get ready for it to get worse. Now, where are those donuts?

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About the Author(s)

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons

Co-founder, HarQen

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons is a well-known serial entrepreneur who has founded, led, and sold several technology startups. Currently, she is the co-founder and director of HarQen, named one of Gartner’s 2013 Cool Vendors in Unified Communications and Network Systems and Services, and co-founder of the Hypervoice Consortium. In 2011, she was awarded the Silvertip PwC Entrepreneurship Award honoring the fastest-growing company within the Angel Capital Association portfolio. In 2013, Speech Technology magazine honored her with the Luminary Award. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester and holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. 

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