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One day, you’ll remember when your house didn’t know you so well

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An odd pattern reoccurs with new technologies that creep into our lives: We forget we ever managed without them. Think about life before Google, or before that smartphone found a permanent place in your pocket, or you welcomed a digital assistant into your house. We adopt, adapt, then forget—and that’s a good thing. If escalators, cars or even computers still seemed endlessly surprising and amazing, we’d never make it through the day.

The real wonder of cognitive systems will come when we begin to learn from them

Similarly, buildings and structures with cognitive abilities—a home, office, a stadium or a massive factory—will initially seem like a wormhole into the future. The first time your apartment building recognizes a dinner guest after a quick glance at her face and the data in your calendar, then sends the elevator down to get her might be momentous. It might even send you dancing to the door. When a factory stops an accident before it happens because it “heard” a piece of heavy equipment running outside of safe parameters, we’ll stop and marvel at the magic that occurred. And then we’ll take it for granted.

Cognitive systems will continually improve

But what is different about this new era of cognitive computing—and different from the cultural impact of mobile phones or computers—is that these cognitive systems will continue to learn, will continually get better at what they do, without our intervention.

Your house will get more energy efficient, safer and precisely attuned to how you live your life. Your car will avoid traffic and accidents with greater precision, and then it will drive itself. Your workplace will adapt to how you and your colleagues work, continuously reconfiguring space and resources in a combination that offers the most bang for the buck. All those systems will begin to overlap and learn from each other. Then comes the real wonder of it all: We will begin to learn from them.

Constructing buildings that reflect the way we shop

The inherent promise of cognitive systems at Wal-Mart, for instance, will be to help the world’s largest retailer rethink the way it constructs its buildings, explains John Smart, IoT and Smarter Workplace Strategist at IBM: “They’ll know how people shop, the best way to configure a store and even what to stock it with.”

That will happen because the building won’t just be aware of the rudiments of retail—knowing what the shelves are stocked with—but how many people are in the store, what’s been sold in the last hour or the last day, and by the way, the weather report says there’s going to be a heat spell this weekend during the big game, so better fill up shelves with hats sporting the home team’s logo.

When the cognitive computing concept takes hold at Heathrow Airport, it will create a new experience—safer, faster, more pleasant—because the terminals will be “listening” not just to the flow of passengers and airport employees, but to the traffic to and from the airport, the air traffic in the sky and taking into account a foul-up at another airport across the globe. One can start to see how data streams overlapping and combining become very powerful predictors for all kinds of behavior, and present new opportunities across ecosystems.

Extending from individual structures to cities

That combinatory power is key to the IoT having a broad impact as it extends from structures to streets and into entire cities. One can guide cars to a single parking spot in a “smart” garage in Madrid with digital maps and some sensors. But what if you want to improve traffic flow across the entire metropolis?

“You can’t look at these things in isolation,” says Darren Anderson, head of consulting and asset management at Spanish infrastructure and municipal services company Ferrovial, for whom Madrid is a working project. “We need to pull data together in six or seven different environments—across buildings, streets, cars and other transportation—you name it. Once we connect things, it becomes sustainable from a business perspective, and we can start to offer new services to people.”

That’s the crux of it. As cognitive systems spread from building to building, take up residence in our homes, in our offices and factories, we get more out of everything around us. We people get more, thanks to the machines parsing and passing data from all quarters.

Putting sensors to work from one house onward

We’re at the beginning stages of putting sensors to work across every part of our lives. Initially, they will crop up in isolation from place to place, but soon it will be a part of everything—and eventually, we will never remember it any other way.

“I think that the individual may not know what’s happening, these cognitive systems will ooze into our lives,” says John Cohn, IBM Fellow for the Internet of Things. “So how will we know cognitive systems have truly arrived? The moment that a teenager gets into a car, opens his or her homework and starts doing it while the car drives them to school, and they don’t think that’s bizarre, that’s when it’s here.”

Find out more about IoT and buildings.

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