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The smart home is stupid compared to what it could be.

In order for the Internet of Things (IoT) to live up to its massive global potential, the smart home needs one key thing: consciousness. Rather than optimizing the “things” — the devices that are facilitating the IoT — IoT providers should understand that the real value of IoT will come from the services enabled by the data from connected devices, a 24/7 consciousness that captures and learns from data, not the devices themselves.

We’re currently experiencing a shift in computing, fueled by bots and ambient computing, that is poised to accelerate innovation in IoT. Bots leverage the intelligence of ambient computing to transform idle data into value-added services and give the smart home consciousness. Predictive analytics help to understand a person’s lifestyle, detect patterns, and anticipate problems. This provides developers with a massive opportunity to design services that aren’t possible with a mobile phone or desktop computer. The future of innovation in IoT today resides in the hands of developers.

What makes bot development different

With history as our compass, it’s clear that we are on the cusp of a huge new economy and a paradigm shift in computing — something that happens about every 10 years. You may recall that mainframe computing was the norm in the 1970s until desktop computing changed everything in the 1980s. The 1990s delivered a more powerful personal computer and increased mobility until the next decade, which brought inventive capabilities in mobile and remote computing. We’re witnessing another shift in computing in the 2010s. This change is not just about cloud computing, but the acceleration of the IoT through bots.

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So, what is the key factor that signals these shifts? Developers drove them all. The emergence of Apple’s mobile supercomputer — the iPhone — gave developers an opportunity for supercharged innovation by allowing them to create apps for smartphones.

Today, though, most developers would agree that app development has hit a wall and that momentum is shifting toward bots. Bots are now exploding faster than apps did. According to Citi Research, comparing early market smartphone app development to bot development in its first year, we see three times more bot developers and solutions than we did with apps. The number of bot developers in the past six months, 36,000, is triple that of the first year of app developers.

Companies like Facebook are accelerating this by making it very easy to develop and deploy bots. Bot development is comparatively easy, and it’s designed to deliver recurring revenue streams. With apps, people pay a one-time fee of 99 cents, whereas with bots, developers can make 99 cents as a recurring fee every month. Bots are a promising way for developers to begin making money again by enabling services that don’t require a phone screen like apps do.

So, what’s a bot?

A bot enables micro-services that incorporate deep learning algorithms and the benefits of artificial intelligence while operating in the background of your life. Think of a bot as a small computer program that’s listening to the real-time data from your devices. It’s trying to figure out what to do with that data. It can learn, react, and communicate with you.

While bots became a part of our vernacular this year because of the likes of Facebook Messenger bots, here we’re talking about much more. Messaging bots won’t be what drives big revenue. The bots with huge potential are those that are going to deliver services that get deeper into people’s lives than simple screen interaction. In fact, the next wave of consumer solutions will be comprised of products that don’t even have a screen. Intelligence is beginning to surround us in everyday objects, many having no interface at all — except for a voice prompt.

The interface for bots is the spoken conversation. Connected outcomes today are still driven by the screen, but that’s not where the market is going, as proven by the consumer appeal of Siri, Google Home, and Alexa voice services.

Pushing the IoT forward with ambient computing

As discussed above, true innovation in IoT won’t happen until we focus on applying ambient computing to smart devices through bots rather than simply trying to make sense of big data analytics. Without understanding ambient computing, we fail to expand on the purpose and value of smart devices.

Ambient computing and big data are not the same. Think of big data as a placid lake. To get to that data, you need to put on your scuba gear, dive into the lake, and see what kind of treasures you can find. It allows us to retroactively answer questions. In the example of providing health care information, it would give us the ability to answer questions like “What are the key indicators for the onset of dementia?” Analyzing data from thousands of seniors who are beginning to show symptoms of dementia makes it possible to locate the key indicators.

Ambient computing, on the other hand, transforms things into intelligent devices. It proactively learns patterns and influences outcomes for a more focused set of people and devices. It is not about dressing in your scuba gear and jumping into a data lake. This is gold panning in a river of flowing consumer and device data. In the above health care example, rather than looking at collected data to determine indicators, bots use ambient computing to learn the habits of a senior with dementia and automatically adjust their devices and lifestyle security options to meet their needs. Using ambient computing, we can identify seniors who are exhibiting symptoms of dementia in real time and deliver reports to their families or care providers about the observations.

In the same way mobile app developers made your iPhone do things that Apple never imagined, bots enable service capabilities that manufacturers may never have imagined. The magic of ambient computing is driven from pattern and behavior learning. Bots that are specific to connected light bulbs, for example, learn your behaviors each time you turn them on and off. When you leave the house, your home security bot will learn to automatically arm your security system, while another bot can automatically change the lighting to make it look like you’re home. Bots are constantly learning to understand your behavior, which delivers on the potential of ambient computing.

At People Power, we recently created and deployed a bot for a business partner in one week that taught a region of residential thermostats how to react to demand response signals. Demand response is a program that compensates consumers for reducing their electricity use during peak energy demand. In addition to reacting to demand response signals, the bot also delivered competitive challenges to drive participation, along with end user communications to personalize the experience. That’s the kind of service bots can provide, and we built it in just one week. Image what you could do in a month, or a year.

Opportunities for businesses

Bots drive significant customer service opportunities by combining with sensors to help manage customer experience in a variety of ways. If a customer were to call technical support and mention their concern about a specific sensor in the home, the support staff could view the home security network and identify issues like unsteady Wi-Fi signal strength to a garage door sensor at the extremities of the network, followed by potential remedies — including upsell opportunities to more powerful gateways to improve system performance. Beyond battery and signal strength issues, this solution is hugely valuable in identifying quality assurance issues for sensors in the field, making technical problem solving vastly simpler. Automatic hardware fault detection can be followed by a push notification alerting the end customer with a message on how to disengage the sensor from their system by removing the battery, then a note that a new sensor is being shipped to them at once.

There’s an enormous opportunity with bots to deploy many sophisticated machine learning-based services. Take an elder care. If your grandmother is observed going into the kitchen, but she’s not observed leaving the kitchen after a certain period, there may be an emergency. With pattern behavior analysis from deep-learning algorithms that mimic the human brain, the bot will know something may have happened and have the intelligence to act upon it.

Using bots, manufacturers can integrate features into their own products that may not have made it into the manufacturing process. Enabling connectivity of their products into an ecosystem of services from other developers makes their products much more useful than the products on their own. As developers build bot services on top of these manufactured devices, they’ll be able to offer their bots for sale. Attracting more and more developers will build the future market.

The world is changing. The downturn in iPhone and iPad sales is a key indicator that the world is ready for the next wave of computing. Developers are actively looking for the next big opportunity beyond mobile apps, hoping to become unshackled from the constraints of a smartphone screen. Where do they drive technology next? The ambient computing market delivers on the promise of creating and driving services that have never been realized with any previous generation of computing technology. The rate of development is more than 10 times faster than building and launching a mobile app. We are entering a world of technology absent of UIs, where developers make ongoing revenues and where they can upgrade their services instantaneously across the entire user base.

Bots are the next frontier.

David Moss is president, CTO, and cofounder of People Power Company, an IoT firm for safety, wellness, and sustainability.

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