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Let’s talk about IoT: are all smart appliances really smart?

Smartphones, smart watches, smart bands, smart homes, smart grids, smart heat pumps: I’ve probably left a few out. Including, and I’ve never understood why, poor old tablets, notebooks, ultrabooks, and even the now-defunct netbooks, among the few devices that have rarely been lucky enough to be called smart

Therefore, as the inconsistency of what we often read and see defined on the web and the like annoys me, today I’ve decided to more closely examine the concept of “smartness”.    


Do smart girls and guys wear smart devices?

Let’s begin by looking at the definition. On the web, Smart is first and foremost a make of car. We can immediately set aside this definition, mostly because these cars were introduced back in 1996, at a time when very few things were actually connected, and these certainly did not include cars.
A more traditional definition comes from the Oxford Dictionary, “having or showing a quick-witted intelligence”. This in my mind conjures up the image of a young woman or man, around twenty-five years old, who I will call Andrea, with good relational intelligence, demonstrating the ability to make decisions that are out of the norm. The ideal candidate I would hope to meet in a job interview.  

Andrea does not base his actions and decisions on his own background alone. He exploits interpersonal relationships to acquire a much broader vision of the problems he faces, independently coming up with solutions that are often unexpected when compared to what I expect from him as his superior. A person whom I can confidently delegate tasks to1.

In my view, this definition applies very neatly to the world of devices: In fact, the Oxford Dictionary continues by defining smart as “(of a device) programmed so as to be capable of some independent action".

By combining these concepts, I can come up with my own personal definition of a smart device or appliance: it must be connected to other equipment, or to the web, so as to access information that can be used to provide a service or carry out a function, independently of the capabilities of its developer and user.

1 One of the most important postulates of the concept of delegation is: “one must be willing to accept an unexpected result, different from one’s own rules, otherwise it makes no sense to delegate”.


How to be really smart

The annoyance I mentioned just before comes from the countless times that I have heard and seen the term smart used, in my opinion, inappropriately. I am referring here to both the consumer market and the HVAC/R business. Without going into specifics, it is not hard at all to find examples of equipment called “smart” simply because it is efficient, has good performance, is simple to use, can be monitored via the web or can be connected to a smartphone as a user interface.

To clarify the concept, I can cite one example from the consumer market. I owned a smart band, or activity tracker, for a few months before seeing it wrecked in the pool, being only minimally water resistant. The data it produced by monitoring my sleep intrigued me, yet without really giving me any useful and “smart” information. Deep sleep about 1 hour per night, light sleep about 5 hours. Not being an expert on sleep, I accepted what it told me and went on with my life. A couple of years later, I received the same product as a gift, in an updated version. About 1 hour of deep sleep, higher than 37% of users of the same age/sex/weight . Result: this suggested to me that my sleep efficiency was not very high. So I bought a new memory foam pillow and now I sleep better than 75% of users. Like Andrea, the activity tracker used information acquired from being connected to provide a service that was completely unexpected.  


IoT is really smart!

Now, having explained my point of view, it’s time to say goodbye to Andrea and the consumer market, and focus on the HVAC/R market, where the issue is much more complex. For several years now, the European Commission has been examining smart appliances (Ecodesign, Ener Lot 33), which include many residential, commercial and industrial air-conditioning and refrigeration applications. In particular, the Commission expresses no doubt that even smartphones are not really that smart.  

(incidentally, being within the scope of the Ecodesign/Energy Labelling Framework basically means that an appliance consumes electricity)

I should stress immediately how the definition does not mention either connectivity or other technological features, but rather focuses on characteristics: “is able to automatically respond to external stimuli as price information… and change its electricity consumption pattern”.

The various reports issued by the Commission also list a whole series of characteristics relating to this definition. In particular, the adaptability of operating profiles based on the availability, or otherwise, of different energy sources will be fundamental in the near future (for example, outside or inside air, both cold and hot water coming from adjacent processes, electricity from intermittent renewable sources, etc.).

Consequently, a heat pump, however efficient and high-performance it may be, and even connected to the web and the user’s phone, is not a smart appliance. I should also underline that its connectivity, obviously taken for granted as a means (not as an end), does not only relate to the set of other heat pumps for optimisation, maintenance and monitoring. It should also extend to equipment that can provide information on electricity pricing and availability, weather forecasts, current and expected load profiles in the environment where it is installed, and so on.

A network of potentially very different devices that exchange information and, possibly, make intelligent use of such. In other words, an Internet of Things, the IoT we hear so much about.

The IoT also extends from the equipment to the servers needed to collect and share data, but above all can provide massive computational capacity, well beyond that of any microprocessor on the unit itself. These servers then will be the virtual place where artificial intelligence systems or machine learning will provide those amazing solutions to make our future smart. Isn’t that right, Andrea?


Related Posts


IoT: data processing in a world of connected machines

Decarbonisation of Heating is possible with IoT Heat Pumps



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