I just attended the IoT (Internet of Things) Tech Expo in Santa Clara, California. I’m going to attempt to pull together a few different threads so bear with me.
The Internet of Things is about taking all our everyday objects and connecting them without human intermediaries, then having the machines learn from each other and automatically extract value from the data flows. This is already with us, but the number of connected devices is expanding exponentially and the amount of data that’s coming on line is about to get huge. The equipment is getting much smaller. The instruments are operating across longer distances while consuming less power. They’re becoming incredibly cheap. And the algorithms that absorb, collate, and find meaning in all the random information are becoming incredibly powerful. Tiny wireless self powered mini chips are now as inexpensive and easy to use as Legos.
The people at the Expo are in the process of creating the world we’ll all be inhabiting soon so it’s worth paying attention to what they have on offer. I imagine there was a similar convention twenty five years ago where a group of techies were presenting their visions of electronic commerce where customers could buy airline tickets and books from home computers. The mom and pop travel agencies and book stores in Omaha and Indianapolis had no idea their lives were about to change forever. “Grandpa. What were video rental stores? Did you really have to drive to a physical place and put a cartridge into a big machine to watch movies?”
A representative from Clearblade explained their work with Stanley Tools. Every tool, every stick of lumber, every electrical wire, every pipe, every vehicle, and every employee on a job site can now be tagged. Safety, efficiency, and cost controls are all manageable in real time via remote sensors. A chip can be inserted into wet concrete and the chip will send a signal when the concrete has cured. That one tiny inexpensive device all by itself assures code compliance and can shave three weeks off every construction project in the country.
Other instruments are easily installed on existing equipment to monitor industrial processes. Each aspect of a chemical plant, assembly line, power station, water supply system, or fuel pipeline can now be managed remotely.
Embedded devices are already integrated in many objects. RFID tags are getting so small that thin fibers are being woven in to packaging and clothing everywhere. Manufacturers want to track products through initial fabrication, across the supply chain, and ultimately to the end consumer. Every jug of laundry detergent and bra is either now – or is about to be – connected to multiple networks and permanently trackable in real time from factory to landfill. This comes with certain obvious advantages for efficiency and cost savings. But there are also unexamined trade offs that will make themselves known over time.
Surveillance is now ubiquitous and the trend is toward ever more detailed coverage. Images aren’t being recorded on an old VCR in a back office somewhere to be taped over by episodes of Friends later in the week. Now the data is sent to the cloud where any number of interested parties get to sift through it for their own purposes. This will undoubtedly make many of us safer in some ways. But it will also make us more vulnerable.
On the last day of the Tech Expo multiple Internet sites including Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix had come to a crawl. An army of ordinary items like cameras and DVRs were hijacked and used to disrupt the functioning of the Internet. Next time it could be the electrical grid or something more critical to society than Reddit and Spotify.
Then there’s all the talk of the Smart City. Multiple government and industry spokespeople extolled the virtues of information management and IoT to solve all sorts of problems from traffic congestion, to pollution, to energy and water conservation. Technology will enable efficiencies and economies of scale that will allow government to achieve higher performance metrics of all kinds at lower costs. During the Q &A session I pointed out that there are multiple publicly owned surface parking lots across the street that are each large enough to swallow renaissance Florence. They exist to serve the new football stadium. How much technological efficiency is required for Santa Clara to compensate for the opportunity cost of the underutilized real estate under the parking lots as well as the long term obligations associated with the new stadium?
A vendor was promoting his 3D pizza printer. He described a process where pizza could be ordered and paid for from a smart phone and it would be produced in four minutes.
Why do we need machines that automatically print pizzas? To save money on labor. That’s what autonomous vehicles are all about. Everything that can possibly be automated will eventually be turned over to a computer guided machine.
Think your job is safe because you do something far more skilled than working at a pizza joint? The most expensive labor is the biggest target for automation since that’s where the most savings can be realized. Computer guided interconnected equipment is getting smart enough that far less educated people can fill positions usually held by highly trained professionals. More than a few speakers made it clear that economic pressure will continue to squeeze labor out of every possible business model. This is the kind of problem that will cause major social troubles and no one I’ve ever spoken to has any idea how it will be addressed.
Technology can be transformational. Or it can allow us to add layers of expensive complexity on top of an already overly complex and expensive set of arrangements. We’re in for an interesting transition. Buckle up.