On Saturday our friends at co-working community XinDanWei Shanghai invited us to a talk by Rob Van Kranenberg, founder of ‘Council’, a thinktank on the Internet of Things (IOT) and a global policy big-wig who sits on the Expert Group on IOT for the European Commission.
Rob, an articulate and affable Dutchman, has been dedicated to understanding The Internet of Things for over 15 years and is looked to as a thought leader on this exciting, mystifying and – depending on your POV – menacing phenomenon. Now an evangelist for IOT, he spent his first 5 years ‘paralyzed with fear’ before coming to embrace and shape policy on the topic.
WHAT IS THE INTERNET OF THINGS?
The Internet of Things takes various names (Ubiqutous Technology, Ambient Technology, Sensor Network…the list goes on) and can be a fuzzy and philosophical idea there’s no doubt (‘The Internet of Things’ as a moniker seems to stick since it references two ideas people know and can grasp – the Internet, and things).
Put most simply, IOT is a network of connected objects.
Vehicles, machine components, domestic consumable durables like your toothbrush and the clothes on your back – all hooked up to a network with a speed ‘most of us have yet to comprehend’. “The IOT imagines a world where everything can be both analogue and digitally approached – reformulating our relationship with objects, as well as the objects themselves”.
While it can be hard to imagine what IOT ‘looks like’, it’s perhaps the biggest socio-technological idea out there and one that’s increasingly re-shaping businesses, and our lives.
At the moment there are two broad ways of thinking about IOT. The first sees IOT as a ‘data layer’ over existing objects and infrastructure (this is something we can ‘get’ relatively easily). The second, no less real aspect, is seeing the IOT as a disruptive convergence ‘un-manageable with current tools’ that creates entirely new entities and models. This is the aspect that Rob advises you handle with caution when explaining IOT to your boss, or anyone with an interest in business as usual.
Why? Because IOT is pulling the rug from under businesses everywhere. Say you work in personal Insurance – an industry fundamentally built around objects being ‘invisible’ at some point in their life-cycle. With IOT you have the prospect of full traceability – and a stream of data – on those same objects. Work in traditional transport rental? ZipCar is one of the best known early examples of IOT in action – and after only a few years is valued at $1.2Billion.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
IOT is already operating on familiar everyday pathways – through RFID tags, via bar-codes on everything you buy (little changed since the 1970’s) and Near field Communication chips like those in your smartphone. Industry application in particular has been steady – especially in areas like food traceability and logistics. Data from sensors inside food trucks already records temperature fluctuations – determining the likelihood of spoiling and therefore the quality – and price – of fruit and vegetables before they even arrive at your supermarket. Heineken exports never stop as they’re exported; palettes send data to border agencies before they arrive, limiting hold-ups at customs.
This flowing network of ‘smart objects’ is nascent, but will soon be ‘everywhere’, facilitated by new frameworks. When early Internet protocol was created it allowed for 4-Billion IP addresses. At the time this was imagined to be plenty for the number of computers that would access the Internet. Designers didn’t anticipate smartphones, never mind the prospect of your toothbrush having its own IP address. IPV6 – the latest Internet protocol allows for almost infinite IPs and paves the way for what the Chinese Government call a ‘Sensing Planet’.
Rob breaks down IOT into four networks to explain its applications. Forgoing the technical acronyms, these are essentially Body, Local (home), Wide (neighborhood) and Very wide (city) networks.
For the body network, Philips are developing T-shirts with smart fabric that measures environmental data (e.g. pollution) and personal health information (e.g. respiratory health).
Siemens are working on ambient hearing aids (integrated into your headphones) that allow you to hear risks/dangers (sirens, alarms, natural disaster warnings) before you’d naturally sense them. [Both of these would be quite useful if you live in Shanghai].
Potential applications in the Body network alone are huge (see graphic). Nail cutters that measure the quality of your nails and prescribe vitamins? Or how about chairs that plot your posture and broadcast data about your spine?
For the ‘wide’ network Rob and his IOT colleagues are currently piloting residential communities in San Sebastian, Shanghai and Taipei amongst others that are flooded with sensors.
Imagine a scenario where bed sensors tell you if other people had sleepless nights – ‘maybe it’s not just me, but the kids partying on our block?’ Or perhaps energy meter sensors recording when your neighborhood’s peak energy periods are, allowing you to collectively negotiate with service providers.
(Interestingly, in China the majority of urban dwellers live in a ‘gated community’ of some kind; whether low rent managed properties or more exclusive private neighborhoods – making this market especially attractive for community orientated IOT).
WHO IS DOING IT?
The global view of IOT is amusing for its adherence to regional stereotypes.
Europe is ‘inclusive but incredibly slow’, favoring policy formation over activation. The U.S. has ‘no real national level strategy’, but rather hosts a series of city states defining their own approach, accompanied by massive corporate investment from the likes of Google and Apple (the stories of Google engineers leaving the company for Silicon valley IOT start-ups continue).
China, in Rob’s view, is set to lead IOT innovation – aided by the fact that many of the country’s top politicians are engineers. China recently published an IOT white paper with the involvement of 17 Government ministries and is well positioned to implement IOT software, hardware and services.
While European, U.S. and Chinese Governments currently represent the 3 main ‘blocks’ of IOT activation. The 4th block – End Users (ie. you) – is arguably the most important.
Already there are fears that powerful players will look to establish closed IOT networks – ones in which data is un-available to end-users. The typical corporate approach to date has been to isolate and own parts of the IOT flow without facilitating data sharing across networks and individuals.
Rob is an ardent ambassador of a strong End-User block, and of open networks – to prevent misappropriation of IOT, but also to allow it to reach its full potential. It’s only when smart objects in your clothes, car and home (for example) can be available for others to innovate against, and linked to neighborhood or city data (for example) that we’ll reap IOT’s full benefits.
There are currently 15 or 16 end-user innovation platforms focused on IOT innovation – and the number will hopefully grow. Social product development sites like Quirky - and projects like Air Quality Egg which creates crowd-sourced air quality maps through a network of home sensors, are signs of emergent user-empowered IOT. And are very cool.
WHAT’S THE CULTURAL IMPACT?
When asked what IOT will ‘feel like’, Rob has a simple answer. ‘IOT will ultimately make the ‘real world’ more like the browser experience’.
With a reported 45% of the current generation of teens ‘sometimes happier online than in their real lives’ the next generation is laying a cultural foundation for IOT. In Rob’s words, ‘once the current generation close their computers, they look around and find the world messy, confusing and unsatisfying’.
Whether a world of ‘intelligent, connected objects’ will be any less confusing remains to be seen – but the idea appeals, especially when we consider browser-like experiences such as the integration of social network graphs.
Against the demographic drivers of IOT adoption, we also see a strong popular culture of fear and paranoia, which in some quarters is being commercially exploited.
‘Robopocalypse’, the brilliantly titled novel by Daniel Wilson, is being adapted to the screen by Steven Spielberg and will be released in 2014 – further fueling the debate about the dangers of technology in our lives.
Marketed under the by-line “They are in your house. They are in your car. They are in the skies…Now they’re coming for you” Robopocalpyse tells of a “A childlike but massively powerful artificial intelligence…that comes online and assumes control over the global network of machines that regulate everything from transportation to utilities, defense and communication.” Sensational yes, but such visions come close enough to IOT scenarios that Rob and his colleagues expect they’ll soon have (even more) explaining to do.
For now though, we advise you continue to use your toothbrush.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
A useful 2011 paper on IOT, published by Accenture and Bankiter, can be downloaded here.
The Council think tank website is here.
Article by Sam Hornsby