The Internet of Things and Automatic Restroom Faucets

Here’s what worries me about the Internet of Things: the automatic hand sensors in public restrooms. You wave your hands frantically under the faucet and get … nothing. You pull your hands out and the water goes on. You put your hands back under the faucet and it turns off. You move to the next sink in the line, and the last sink turns on while your new sink sheds not a drop. Sound familiar?

When NASA builds a rocket, the cost per software and hardware component is much, much higher than anything that you might build in your own shop. Why? Because everything HAS to work or bad things happen. Each system has backups and most of those backups have their own backups. Every component undergoes a rigorous set of tests and the software that runs everything is also thoroughly tested. That’s why planes and rockets and satellites cost millions (or even billions) of dollars. Vendors and subcontractors work to a very specific set of negotiated standards and the communications layers between systems are well-defined and predictable.
They have to be or your average person would not step foot onto a plane. And the safety record of airlines and rockets bears witness to the rigorous standards that are employed in their construction.

Nobody is going to die if the automatic sink faucet doesn’t turn on.
We are standing at the very vanguard of the Internet of Things. There is high-speed networking available basically everywhere. Cheap computing power and storage awaits you in the cloud from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Rackspace. The advent of the iPhone and its Android kin have ushered in an era of high-functioning chips at a low price and with a low footprint. Everything is in place to add sensors and chips into everything from your running shoes to your toaster.

But guess what folks, many of these sensors are not going to be built to the same rigorous standards of an airplane or a rocket. They don’t have to be, because nobody is going to die if they don’t work. It would not be cost effective to hold the sensors in your toaster to the same standards as a similar component on a rocket. Which means that they are going to be as reliable as the hand sensors in a public restroom.

Now I will grant you that there is a range of reliability with rockets on one end and your toaster on the other. In between these two extremes there are very reliable sensors and systems in everything from a tractor to an automobile to the smoke detectors in your house. My point is that changes in technology are making it much, much easier for small vendors to offer sensors and software at a reasonable price. The problem is that we are going to have a wild, wild west of standards, interoperability and reliability as the market shakes itself out. Count on it.
Years from now I would expect every appliance in your kitchen to be equipped with sensors and standardized software for cross-communication. The sensors in these appliances will be reliable and accurate. You’ll be able to manage your entire kitchen from your iPhone 12. I’m just warning you that we are all going to experience a few bumps along the way. As a technologist I don’t mind fiddling with things to make them work, but your average customer is not going to feel the same way. They will be frustrated by unreliable components, and by systems that don’t work together.

So tread cautiously into the Internet of Things, and carry hand sanitizer.