Recently we have had unexpected opportunities to meet with executives at an Internet of Things (IoT) company and visit with executives from a venerable established company trying to remake itself by trying to start a new IoT division. What about IoT has established it as a new stand-alone category spawn so many IPO-chasing start ups and corporate makeovers?
Heart: Turns out, in many ways, it isn’t. Partially buried in the basement-level storage area of an older retail building in a newly gentrified Silicon Valley city, the company reminded me a little of Churchill’s hastily construed war rooms set up in London’s underground tunnels and bunkers during WW2. Daylight-deprived people scurrying around with armfuls of papers and laptops and precariously balanced coffee mugs.
What impressed me the most during the encounter, however, was not the fascinating layers of software and signals and micro devices required to make the IoT work. Or the academic brilliance and mental acumen of the engineers diligently pulling all this voodoo together. Rather, what I couldn’t help noticing again and again was the uselessness of much of the IoT’s actual application.
Worse than uselessness—the arrogant futility that begged some pretty fundamental questions about how we as an intelligent, mostly civilized planetary society evolve our technology!
For instance, how can we invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in smart washing machines that tell you they need soap, when children in other parts of the world are dying because they lack access to clean water?
How can we design sophisticated home automation systems that turn on lights to greet you, when thousands of people in war-torn regions have only decimated shells to live in?
And the most mind-boggling question that still lingers–why design a smart air-freshener that balances different fragrances at different times of the day, when the air quality in some countries is so bad that people have to wear masks?
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I know that the answers to these questions are complex and multifaceted, and I’m smart enough to understand that many of the world’s challenges are created by thorny geo-political, historical and cultural forces way outside the purview of technology.
And I also know that the IoT itself is still largely in utero, slowly developing until unpredictable forces give it true cultural value and meaning. Yet in my heart, I simply couldn’t reconcile the potential with the reality and feel excited about its future. Can you, Cog?
Cog – to me IoT is an extension of democratizing transparency of all things. Air pollution in many countries is a result of rampant government media censor ship and poor regard for human rights. Lack of shelter, food, water, similarly have similar underpinnings. Indeed satellites and the Internet are increasingly shedding light on contemporary human civilization totalitarians, environment destruction, and the effects of increases CO2 due to human behavior on planet weather.
I recently spoke to someone who talked about how their Apple Watch vibrated in a way that allow them to walk to their destination without having to look at the smartphone, which from what I understand is helpful as many global communities are painting strips on the sidewalk for pedestrian so they are less likely to stumble into one another.
The convergence of the planetary awareness and personal awareness brought on by increasing connected everything is leading a revolution in human civilization.
I will say that I find the IoT term a dismiss-ably faddish term. In my mind it simple means the cost of adding WiFi or 4G transceivers to affordable setup boxes, front door locks, refrigerators, fish tank filters, security cameras, … has arrived. All sorts of things can now provide data. We recently had solar panels installed (SolarCity), a nice webpage /smart phone app shows current power and past. Another outfit OhmConnect tells us when a power plant is about to go online to meet growing spike in power demand, asking if I and my neighbors can turn off some things to forestall need for a plant to come online. What is interesting is OhmConnect sometimes shows my negative power use could have been more (since solar panels mean house is a net generator of power, and sometimes it could be generating more net power if we simple would not leave the lights on in the kitchen when we head out for the day).
Ultimately I think IoT could ultimately lead to better water distribution and better energy use monitoring for non-combustion energy needs, ultimately leading to less need for carbon based fuels, and a cooler more verdant planet. For those who aspire to run totalitarian inhuman settlements in remote are of the world, well they can go colonize Mars or the moon or some far off asteroid, because ‘IoT’ is becoming a new world Internet God here on Earth, and I see no reason why that is a bad thing. Does it mean the world may suffer from a wave of Internet enabled Pet Rocks, trashy Hold The Button smart phones applications and such as the more noble use for IoT establish themselves, probably.