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A city that sees you, a city that remembers you

An interview with the executive director of Russian Research Center on the Internet of Things Vadim Chekletsov

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An interview with Vadim Chekletsov

An interview by Varvara Nazarova

Internet of Things is a name for a network of technologies, physical objects and software. Russian researcher of this trend discovers what’s going on in the field now and when we should expect city environment to come to life.

Vadim Chekletsov is the executive director of Russian Research Center on the Internet of Things, and author of the book 'Sense of the planet. The Internet of Things and next technological revolution'.
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What exactly is the Internet of Things nowadays?

Nothing. There is no Internet of Things. I want to point it out. At the moment there is no global network, only local ones with different protocols and languages. A united Internet of things does not exist yet. 

Is there any will to construct it? Was there any attempt to make it?

Definitely. Now there is a war of formats and protocols, so the big players have to come to an agreement and that is not easy.

There are a lot of technical questions in this area, our partners published the first book in Russian about it: Internet of Things by Alexander Roslyakov. It describes all participants and consortiums, despite the fact that the field is fluctuating and is complicated to analyze.


Mind map of mobile technologies. Photo: Dmje /​Flickr​.com

Does it mean that in the nearest time there will be a new format to conquer them all?

We expect this in five or maximum seven years. All principles and services already exist on a local scale and there is not much time left for a great explosion. The only struggle is to come to an agreement.

When Internet of Things becomes unified, what changes in society should be expected?

Basically, this is an endless topic. Let’s start from a big city scale. Internet of Things will affect practically all spheres of city technology, e.g. smart-​rows, electrical supply networks, hydropower engineering. Energy supply is a significant separate field, where power engineers work together with IT engineers.

There is no Internet of Things

Talking about urban life, first of all you should consider sensors. There are many types of wireless sensor networks which monitor data and changes of everything, including light, soil, noise, temperature, air etc. They are becoming cheaper at the moment. Actually, everyone can set up a wireless sensor network in an area where they live. Some time ago Google bought Nest, it is obviously a start-​up of Internet of Things. They sell thermostats which are a new source of information about people. Google also traces what data users are typing, geolocation, some minimal data from smartphone sensors, and there are a lot of sensors one can wear. That provides vast supervision facilities.

If we talk about society, it is better to start from the conscience. It can also be monitored, transmitted to various interfaces, and read, the same as geolocation data. Different interfaces provide abilities to communicate to oneself and to others at a non-​verbal, emotional level. In the field of Internet of Things there is communicative classification: one to oneself, one to the other, one to machines, machine to machine.

Talking about local communities, we vote for open communities! If people understand how to control data, they can remotely affect an environment. In those circumstances opportunities for local self-​administration grow significantly. For example, sensors can be used by social activists. Now there is a big demand for air analyzing equipment for two reasons, firstly, it’s cheap, secondly, people do not trust the government. Personally, I also wouldn’t trust the government, and examining the air pollution is a good idea, especially if you live next to an industry. So when people have access to data and can control it, they have more freedom from external control.

In that way Internet of Things seems to be a basis for democracy.

On the one hand, it is a basis for democracy, and on the other hand it provides opportunities for control. All technologies work both ways. In general, our data doesn’t belong to us but to the government, corporations or someone else. To anyone but the people. It can have a big impact, so we should fight for this information.

Everything invented by science fiction writers already exists

Which scenario is more likely to happen in Russia in twenty years?

I think it will be very different and depend on location. It also depends on people. Of course we have a great chance for total control, similar to China. We are already being monitored: smart-​cards, IP-​phones, I think this situation of freedom and non-​freedom exists now and it is very important.

What else can follow this rise of local communities?

Besides sensors there are two more interesting issues in the Internet of Things. Objects now can have memory and can be interactive. A book by Bruce Sterling, ‘Shaping Things’, describes this. It has poetic examples about objects as portals or objects as entries. Thus, Internet of Things provides us with sensors, remote actions, memory of objects and interactivity. Using all of this you can have vivid and unusual environment. In my opinion, it moves society back from rational to archaic perception of the reality. This world seems to be magical and poetic: speaking objects, sensitive trees etc.

Is there any forecasts that are embodying now? On the level that Internet of Things can provide at the moment?

All forecasts are translated into reality. Basically, everything invented by science fiction writers already exists, it just hasn’t come to the masses. It is also about psychological preparation. The contemporary situation is very similar to the pre-​Internet period of local networks. Mass usage happens when grandparents use services like mail​.ru and there are five – seven years for this with Internet of Things.

Mobile phones and web invaded our daily routine. Will there be any chance to deny technologies after the implementation of Internet of Things ?

It seems that to deny such technologies can be really hard. That’s why we support the idea of ‘media hygiene’. Digital, media, technology addictions already exist and in a society of information there should be a high level of media culture to prevent it. You shouldn’t deny this technology but learn to communicate with it. There is one important aspect of the systems theory. It says that in a process of construction of a more complex system, abilities and skills of the previous level should prolongate. Thus, having an e-​mail service, you have to provide a regular paper post, in a way rudimental but functional. The same works for Internet of Things, you should maintain minimum skills of ‘using a chisel’.

RFID-blocking passport wallet / Adafruit Industries /

RFID-​blocking passport wallet /​Adafruit Industries /​Flickr​.com

Back to the cities and urban planning. The most important technologies there are sensors and cities sensitive to their people. What else can be implemented there?

You should understand sensors in a wide way. They not only measure carbon dioxide, noise, light or heart beat, but they also can track work of any device. With common interfaces and protocols those devices can make contact and exchange information. It is not a simplicity of only sensors but a vast area for fundamental transformation of the world.

The other big issue of the internet of Things is geotargeting and all kinds of identification. It is connected to sensors and can be used everywhere. For example in industry it is called the fourth industrial revolution: 3d printers, parametric design, smart production, dispersed production. Industry always affected cities and now patterns of industrial distribution are changing a lot. In cities RFID-​tags are very popular. They are now used in Moscow metro tickets and contemporary smartphones can be programmed to use them for other purposes.

Data doesn’t belong to us but to the government, to corporations or to someone else. To anyone but the people

Internet of Things for industry is rails, smart-​codes, automatic assemblage and disassembling, marks and sensors for robotics positioning. Recently at INNOPROM industrial fair a loading machine without an operator was presented. It is based on the simplest camera technologies but several factories, warehouses and big clusters are standing in line for it.

Is there a place for people in such industry?

We dispute a lot about this. Companies buy a machine to replace a loader with a salary of 30000 rubles and we don’t know where people will work instead. Company leaders declare their motto: ‘People should not work, people should develop’. Maybe.

Society without loaders?

I don’t like to declare and this is too complicated to calculate beforehand. From the times of post-​graduate studies we called ourselves futurologists, but actually no one knows what will happen and why. It is based on a complexity of a system, and complex stochastic systems tend to generate unpredictable results. We can say something definite for next five – seven years. After this period everything is just fantasies. I’ve written a book with a description of thinking landscapes and body prolonging in space and time, I hope it will happen, but it is more likely to be science fiction than a forecast.

Should there be a lawful basis for digital development?

There are a lot of legal issues. European Union works with it quickly and processes standards for sensors and other things, many times faster than Russia. We are far behind this.

Can you compare Russia to other countries in this field?

Without doubt, the USA rules. They have Google, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel – all giants. China has it’s own story, they definitely understand something. About 80% of its government are engineers and there is a national strategic program for the Internet of Things, this can lead to a big step forward. Also Japan and Korea. Of course, Apple, but they will have their own preset interface and users of iPhones will have no other choice. Russia has nothing comparable to this. We have several cool projects, working prototypes and interfaces (which are the most important) such as GO+. But it is not happening systematically and we don’t have the resources to do it.