Internet of Things 20 Years Before

True story: Twenty years ago, my university dorm neighbour invented stock market robot trading. Arguably crude compared to today’s nano-second trades, but ingenious all the same. We were on the top floor of our building and had gotten our hands on a key to the maintenance hatch so we had roof access (don’t ask…). My neighbour put a satellite dish up there picking up the signal from Reuters satellite with continuously updated share prices. The signal cable from the dish ran down the length of the hall to his dorm room, where it plugged into a 386 desktop PC. It had tailor-made software programmed to indicate when certain a stock price rose above or fell under pre-defined levels. If this was the case, the modem would dial my friend’s beeper and send a combination of numbers telling him what had happened – so he could run out of class to the pay phone where he would call his stock broker with instructions to sell or buy! Not sure he ever made it big as a day trader, but the set-up had the same basic functions as the state-of-the-art systems the big broker firms use today.

The current discussion on “Internet of things” – connected devices – brings back my dorm room memory. This is often brought up as a great opportunity, for example in this story from Wired Magazine which takes US suburban homes as an example of how smart sensors can create a programmable world (I will restrain myself from making any jokes about this choice of examples, let’s just say it’s safe to use what’s familiar when explaining something unfamiliar). But there is a dark side to the Internet of things, as Peter Warren and Michael Streeter pointed out in a Netopia column the other week. We like to think of internet users as people with identities, free will and responsibility (at least to some extent), but what about privacy and free speech if most users are machines? This is a topic that Netopia will revisit in different ways in the next few months. Watch this space!