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To reach its full potential, the internet of things needs to understand how our brains work


If we want to create a ‘smart society’ teeming with devices connected to the internet of things, it should be one which allows us to improve efficiency, reduce costs and make better use of our resources. These can sound rather cold and impersonal aims but they can  truly enhance our lives. A smart society can streamline or even remove the tasks which stop us from fully engaging with the world around us. Individuals can then spend more time living life and less time locking windows, fiddling with thermostats and trawling through data. But to achieve that goal, the developers of the internet of things need to understand how our brains work and how that will affect how we interact with new products.

Brain games

Faced with a challenge in daily life, the human brain makes a split second decision on how to proceed. If the task is deemed sufficiently routine, it can be passed to the subconscious to process in the background. This leaves the conscious brain to focus on more important concerns. As an example, no mental effort is spent orienting to a sudden sound; it’s a subconscious reaction. On the other hand, if the task is more challenging, it can be raised to the conscious brain as an urgent concern, making use of the higher processing power available.

(The challenge of too many stimuli)

In a similar way, if we introduce thousands of new stimuli into our lives, in the form of internet enabled devices, they will need to become an extension of our subconscious brain, otherwise we will simply be overloaded. What our brains need are devices that take care of simple tasks and decisions, and only require attention from us when further input is truly necessary. 

Analysis paralysis; running out of resources.

Another characteristic of the conscious tasks our brains undertake is that we often find it awkward or unmanageable to complete more than one of them at the same time. Attempting to solve a complex mathematics puzzle whilst riding a bicycle through a busy street, for example, starts to get pretty taxing (and dangerous!). The problem is that when the effort required for these multiple conscious tasks is added together it makes it harder for us to engage the full range of our thinking capacity on each one.

If an internet of things enabled device asks too much of its users, it will encroach on their capability to process what they are doing, asking them to do two conscious things at once. We don’t cope well with being put in that position so we will be put off if a device is constantly asking for input from us. We can see some evidence of this in the relatively limited uptake of smart fitness bands where the barrage of updates and tips requiring users to respond may well be driving people to turn them off.

Undirected machines; grinding to a halt.

What is needed is a way to help people focus on what is important without being distracted by other more mundane tasks. There is a famous experiment called the ‘invisible gorilla' where participants watching a basketball game are asked to count the number of passes and then fail to spot a man in a gorilla suit crossing the court. 

The invisible gorilla experiment underlines the need for devices to limit consultation with the user to reduce the possibility of missing important events. Just as the subconscious brain serves as ‘ambient intelligence’, the internet of things should be doing the same, supplementing and informing our daily life but only directly engaging us when it is necessary. The ‘Nest’ heating system excels here, learning from users’ habits and acting accordingly .

A truly smart society

It is relatively easy to design and manufacture a smart product – there are already thousands of applications waiting for manufacture. However, they will only be successful if they recognise that the human brain struggles to differentiate between tasks which require conscious effort and those that can be left to the subconscious. That makes it critical that any new products get the right balance between engaging users and just getting on with task. In that way we will be able to create a truly smart society that makes our lives better.

Could your team benefit from the presence of an ethnographer, decision scientist or psychologist to bring about some brain-centric development?

Comment below if you wish to know further about IoT or how PA can help you use the IoT to transform your business.

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