Does the IoT have a heart?

Eve_wall•e_clipped_rev_1Recently 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.

Steering wheel-less bot car

johnnycabGeez, everyone is gushing about self driving cars.  There even is a four point scale (PDF) to rate self driving car features now.

  1. Automatic braking, skid control
  2. Adaptive cruise control, automatic lane changing
  3. Driver is only active for when driving conditions deteriorate, passive otherwise
  4. Driver is passive under all driving conditions, steering wheel optional

thNews about this is all over the place.  Ford is praising Tesla’s innovation, something unheard of from the legacy auto industry, and suggesting car pods without steering wheels may be appearing on roads soon.  Social ride sharing company’s like Uber are poaching robotists from major Universities.  Auto parking Volvo’s are careening into pedestrians, while Virginia is opening several freeways to self driving cars.

Okay, let’s say Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Google, Tesla, Ford, or some other new start-up launches a robot car transportation service tomorrow.  Let’s assume except for minor fender benders, they have a 100% safety track record.  Would you be okay being in a robot car on a road that also had manual drivers as well, or would you feel more comfortable if you traveled only on roads that were in exclusive robot driving mode?  What concerns would you have about getting into a driver-less Level 4+ robot car?

Heart: The self-driving car industry certainly seems determined to accelerate innovation in this space, but when it comes to safety and comfort behind the wheel, I’m hearing the honk of too many driverless horns – and too little unproven technology – to hop on an embryonic four-point bandwagon just yet.

The one part of the conversation I’m not hearing anything about, however, is how robot cars will change the culture of driving, and what we the drivers will miss out on, once we leave the wheel and join the main cabin.

For instance, many people enjoy driving and find it an effective way to deal with travel sickness.  Others use it as a way to focus on the road ahead and tune out their passengers.  More than once, I’ve used it as an excuse to leave early—bad traffic, feeling a bit tired, weather looking a bit iffy—and remove myself or members of my entourage from a rapidly deteriorating social situation.  

I also enjoy driving, and the feeling it gives me that at least there’s one thing in my life that I can control.  Even though I know statistically it’s one of the least safe modes of transport, and I regularly pass accidents and witness reckless maneuvers.  

But as a parent, one of the most important benefits of offering behind-the-wheel transportation for my kids was the ability to eavesdrop on conversations while seemingly shrouded in a cloak of invisibility.  Driving my teenagers and their friends to and from school, soccer games, playdates and mall trips gave me the opportunity to gain valuable insight into their world.  

I overheard the excitement from when they’d illicitly watched their first PG13 movie (at age 11), and at whose house.  I learned which one of them was bombing math and needed extra tuition.  I discovered which of their friends was beginning to experiment with alcohol.  And the more I silently drove and listened, the more I learned.  

So while I can definitely see the safety advantages and possible comfort gains of self-driving cars, for me, the experience of driving is both a skill and a reward that I cherish.

Cog: I see, transporting children is sort of special case.  So would you be okay relegating transport of your kids to a robot car after a certain age?  Maybe some sort of ‘in transit’ mobile app is needed to track your loved ones when you no longer drive them, maybe with video chat feature while they are being transported.  I must say there are unique conversations that occur when my son is in the back seat that would be different if I wasn’t driving.  Another approach is ‘driver’ remains in the front ‘command’ seat, kids still in back, robot drives.  Yes the kids will know you are not actively driving, but expect they gossip no less.

What I envision, is you could still have all those social cues to excuse yourself for transport reasons, the robot car isn’t immune to traffic or weather – indeed it potentially makes travel safer as it won’t be speeding, tail gating, or weaving obsessively trough traffic.  Excusing yourself to go to the bathroom is a time honored get away phrase, no vehicle required.

As I drove recently for Lyft and experienced first hand how it worked, I got the feeling that the fare passenger was like a puppeteer, essentially controlling my car, and that I was just the meat handling the steering wheel, brakes, signaling, and micro navigation.  It did provide some amazing conversation with very diverse people occasionally, but I wonder if a driverless car would somehow be even more compelling for an emerging ride sharing economy.  The bloody commute across Bay Area freeways during rush hour in a ride share or robot car seems to me somehow equivalent.  For most travelers, efficient vehicle management is becoming a priority, and whether it’s with a rented human driver or using servos, sensors, and a routing algorithm seems a diminishing distinction.

Yours truly, H&C

Swept off your feet by text message?

cell-phone-kids_1In this online era of photo chats and constant texting, is it still possible to get truly swept off your feet by a new date?

Heart: I was left pondering this question the other morning, after eavesdropping on the conversation of two young women in line for coffee. One of the women was recounting the story of how she’d met a guy at her gym, cute, buff, seemingly interested, and they’d swapped numbers. The “romance” then proceeded to unfold and evaporate solely by text message. At first, she explained, they exchanged flirty, breathy texts anticipating a next encounter, sharing silly thoughts, and teasing out boundaries. Then he went silent. What seemed to be a pause continued into nothing for a while. Finally, she said, she texted him a half hopeful, “hey, how’s it going?” only to receive a friendly but cold response, unworthy of follow up. Clearly the sparkle had inexplicably burned out till all that remained was a slightly chilled disinterest. I thought back to my early dating years, and recalled the thrill of being swept off my feet—sometimes literally—by a real person, real arms, real breath close to mine. Even the endings were real. Real disappointment. Real  heartbreak. But still very real, very rich life experiences that I wouldn’t change for the world. Feelings that even now bring a happy smile to my face. I was never more alive than when I was being swept off my feet. But now, text messaging seems to have introduced a whole new, unanticipated layer of prescreening and I wondered if those young women will ever experience the thrill of being swept off their feet in quite the same way. Or perhaps it’s just a different thrill ….. Cog, what do you think?

Cog: 8-/  Hi Heart, that was supposed to be an emoticon for rolling my eyes.  Texting offers a false sense of intimacy.  The man is keen to be with you (the interested female), but the women just keeps sending cute texts.  Essentially, the dude above became emotionally exhausted after the first round of texts.  My suggestion then would be to keep texting light and to the point, focus on interesting ways to meet up with friends or plan a couple event.  Once a few dates are behind you, text flirting can escalate a bit, as long as it doesn’t overshadow actually being together.  Oh and don’t try and switch to faux bromance texting (“Hey, did you see the Warriors game, defense sucked …”) to get his attention, you’ll be relegated to just friend, not interested in dating, and maybe he’ll send totally dude humor at you that will feel just weird.

Yours truly, H&C

Shower, Drought, Gardening

watering_cansCalifornia is facing mandatory water rationing lately.  Many households have legacy natural gas fired water heaters that take a minute or so to deliver hot water to point of use.  Discuss.

Cog: Hey, I know, get a wide mouth flexible hose, hook it to the tub spout or shower head and siphon it into a watering can below until output is hot, then remove and start your shower.  Sort of a low tech, legacy grey water solution.  Curious, maybe more geek fun than practical.  Heart what do you think?

Heart: My bathroom is a sacred space.  A sanctuary of cleanliness and tranquility where I can rinse away the hubbub of the day, and relax in the quiet calm of soothing silence.  I’m talking bubbles.  Lots of bubbles.  Floating candles.  Gentle music.  Essential oils.  In short, when I’m ready to expunge the nitty gritty from my body, the last thing I want to do is wrestle with a tangle of hoses, blow or suck on rubber tubes and trip over dirty buckets.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m extremely conscious of the drought conditions right now.  My favorite duck couple is having to teach their ducklings to swim in street puddles from errant sprinklers because the creek is dry.  But I don’t think the answer is in creating DIY laboratory facilities at every sink!  Rather, let’s innovate around easy-to-deploy, marketable solutions that reuse grey waste and help ensure no drop is wasted!

Yours truly, H&C