IT’S LATE at night, and you’re already asleep. Your client, with whom you’re meeting in the morning, just realized he needs to come in a bit earlier to make time for another appointment later in the day. He sends your calendar an email, moving the meeting up by an hour. Your calendar gets this notification and sends a message to your alarm clock at home. The alarm clock does a quick check of the expected weather conditions as well as local traffic and resets your alarm clock so you wake up earlier than originally planned, in plenty of time to get to the office for your meeting.
Because it’s early, it’s nice that your coffee is already made downstairs when you’re getting ready to leave for the office. Your coffeemaker at work is also working to make sure that the revitalizing beverage is hot and waiting there too, for when the meeting starts. Your calendar communicated with your office thermostat as well, to make sure the temperature is comfortable when you and your client arrive.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
What I just described isn’t futuristic or far-fetched; it’s already happening. It’s a part of the “Internet of Things,” which is becoming more and more a part of our lives each year. The term Internet of Things sounds vague and confusing, but simply put it means objects that connect to the Internet. Technology giant Cisco estimates that, as of 2013, 10 billion objects were connected to the Internet, and that’s expected to reach 50 billion by 2020. The number of Internet-connected objects surpassed the number of humans connected to the Internet—and, for that matter, the number of humans on the entire planet—way back in 2008.
What kind of objects are we talking about? One of the earliest examples is the RFID tag attached to the clothing you buy. It helps to keep track of inventory, as well as to protect the clothing from being stolen. Today’s devices are much smarter. They store and communicate large amounts of useful information. One of the more visible examples these days is the fitness tracker. I use a Fitbit (fitbit.com) to monitor my daily activity; several other brands can do the same. My Fitbit automatically connects to the Internet and reports on my daily steps, miles walked, calories burned and even hours slept. I’m also using Fitbit’s scale, which reports my weight along with my physical activity. When combined with other apps that keep track of your daily food and water intake (Lose It! at loseit.com is one example), these devices provide a lot of information on your fitness and health.
INFORMATION FOR EFFICIENT LIVING
These are just a few examples of how the Internet of Things is helping to give us more information—and hopefully making us more efficient and knowledgeable. But as consumers, we are seeing the Internet of Things in many other areas: in thermostats that learn the temperatures most comfortable for us, in devices that connect to our cars and give us information on how we drive and even in medical devices that can provide doctors up-to-date details on our current health.
For most of us, the device that currently makes the Internet of Things most possible is the smartphone. Whether we like it or not, our phones collect a lot of data on us, primarily in relation to our location. When we take our phones in the car, they are able to beam information on our location and speed to companies like Apple and Google, which in turn provide us with useful mapping and traffic information that can help us get to where we are going. Imagine a system that uses your phone as a trigger of sorts. When you enter or exit a certain radius of your office, it can turn your lights on or off, adjust the temperature and even lock the doors. This ability, called “geofencing,” can be provided by your phone now, but even smarter tools will help in the future.
HOW DO LAWYERS FIT IN?
How does the Internet of Things affect lawyers? In two ways, for now. First, many of these tools can be used to automate your law office. Consumer devices like Nest (nest.com) claim to help save energy by learning your heating and cooling habits, and accordingly adjusting the thermostat. The August smart lock (august.com) helps you control who has access to your office, without the need for physical keys. The key is virtual, with employees using an app to unlock the door. And a number of devices can be used to automate turning your lights on and off, or cameras that monitor your office when you are away.
One of the challenges, however, is that so far most of the devices operate on separate platforms. They are built by different vendors, and most don’t do a good job of communicating with each other. This year and 2015 will see increasing cooperation between vendors working toward a common communications platform, to make all of these devices better able to pass information to each other.
The second way the Internet of Things can affect lawyers is actually from the standpoint of representing your clients. All of this data being collected can be useful in litigation, just as useful as email, instant messages or social media postings. For example, what if a party injured in a car crash claimed she was unable to walk as a result of her injury? From viewing information collected from Fitbit, you could learn that she walks at least five miles a day. You could use her phone’s internal data collection to know the speed of her vehicle at the time of the accident, which could be very helpful in determining liability. It’s probably too early to see requests for Fitbit data in litigation, but the day is surely coming when data gleaned from the Internet of Things becomes relevant to a party’s claims or defenses.
One thing is certain: The number of objects connected to the Internet of Things is only going to increase as developers learn to make devices talk to each other in ways that are helpful to us both at work and as everyday consumers. Get ahead of the curve and keep up with how these devices can help your practice run more efficiently.
So, what do you think? Do you use any Internet-connected tools in your practice or personal life? Will these devices continue to become a part of our lives, or are they just a fun fad? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter (@TomMighell) or Google+ (+TomMighell). I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog (lawtechnologytoday.org).