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Networking With Ghosts in the Machine . . . and Speaking Kettles

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Smarter iKettle 2.0

The researchers' interview subjects included the Smarter iKettle 2.0, which is controlled with an Internet connection.

If your stovetop kettle could speak, what would it say? More importantly, what would you ask it?

Researchers at Lancaster University have done just that, conducting several 'talking head' interviews with household objects as part of an experiment to understand more about users' relationship with networked technologies known as the Internet of Things (IoT).

The drive behind the experiment is to uncover new ways of thinking and to create a range of practical tools for people to make more sense of the IoT.

The researchers describe their work in "Networking with Ghosts in the Machine. Speaking to the Internet of Things," published in The Design Journal. and includes an in-depth interview with a speaking kettle.

"This might be useful, for example, to product designers, lecturers or even policy-makers" says Joseph Lindley, a member of the research team which also includes Professor Paul Coulton and Ph.D. candidate Hayley Alter.

"Providing a more informed view, which really digs beneath the surface of these connected devices, could really change the dynamics empowering people with a more insightful perspective," Lindley says.

In the interview, the smart kettle says she feels at home in the kitchen where it's mainly "just me, the app, and the meter." She loves the tap but hated it when she moved to a new house and her owners transported their cutlery inside her because it made her feel "sort of jangly."

While a bit of fun, the research is actually part of a much bigger speculative experiment by the research team who developed the approach in several public workshops.

The interviewer's probing questions provide a bold and novel leap into a new world examining theories, design, and the world of networked technologies including, most importantly, the ethics around data.

The title of the paper refers to philosopher Gilbert Ryle's famous phrase "the Ghost in the Machine," which refers to the "ghostly" connection between a person's mind and body.

The research team says there is a similarly spooky connection between the physical and digital elements of IoT objects like the kettle and ask if these ghosts exist, what might they look like?

Lindley, who will discuss the paper on a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival 2019, explains: "The IoT is really complicated and we are trying to figure out ways of making sense of it.

"There is some sort of magic in these things and it gives rise to something much bigger and more profound. We are exploring this by imagining these objects can talk and conversing with them," he says.

Workshop participants were tasked with asking the smart kettle questions. Initially they were very keen to find out who was the kettle's favorite artist, and how it felt about the future, but eventually moved beyond these human concerns and started to consider the experience of the kettle itself.

"The practical aspects of this research are experimental, the theoretical approaches challenging, and the domain of interest highly dynamic," Lindley says. "Hence this endeavor needed to be adaptive and react to insights as they emerged.

"The interview with the kettle represents the most significant step the research takes towards a method or approach that could contribute towards developing simple tools that anyone can use to explain and understand IoT devices," Lindley says.

"We wanted to apprehend these 'ghosts'—to find them, capture them, and learn to better understand and manipulate them. We hope future ghost-busting work will create accessible and novel design heuristics. We live in a future-shocked world punctuated and defined by networked technologies, learning machines, and the IoT. It's a different type of world and we need new ways to look at it."

The research team's next project will be a whodunnit starring digital personal assistants, some smart-lights, and a toy robot.


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