Real value vs. buzzword bingo
Technology advances are making hardware smaller, less power hungry yet more powerful. Machine Learning and Cloud Computing are gaining noticeable traction at affordable costs. General expectations for a Connected World are at an all-time high.
However, since IoT became a buzzword have we really seen that breakthrough in smartness that we've dreamed of? Have we seen real problems solved, with real value added, or have gimmicks been the norm?
The Infancy: Blinking LEDs and tweeting plants
Some of the companies that have done good business since the early days of IoT are suppliers of easy to use products targeted at those of us who are would-be-engineers and hackers. Arduino, for instance, quickly saw the opportunity to provide the world's tech hungry populations with open sourced building blocks, and relying on royalties to generate revenue. Another successful company in that space is Raspberry Pi who today celebrated reaching 10 million mini PCs sold.
And while some engineers and companies have made good money on these components and designs, we're mostly seeing “useless but fun“ stuff: Putting a water sensor in the soil of your favorite plant and having it tweet you whenever it gets thirsty isn't going to change the world, though it may yield you some killer habaneros. Creating a piano staircase for the office is super fun (at least the first week), but can hardly be said to be changing the world for the better.
Teenage years: Let there be lights, let there be locks
One relatively obvious arena where connectivity could be a game changer is smart homes. This definitely hasn’t yet taken off as much as expected, but there are many solutions out there with much potential; Apple now has HomeKit, while there are plenty of independent entrepreneurs who are competing to make your home as smart and automated as possible; We use Philips HUE at home which lets me control the lights from my phone and watch, and Verisure allows me to toggle alarms, unlock doors and check on temperature and humidity.
The market, however, has yet to mature to the point where smart homes are entirely trustworthy while simultaneously truly simplifying your life.
[…] it's disconcerting that we were able to compromise our smart lock with a laptop and some coding help. CNET August 25th 2016, http://www.cnet.com/news/august-smart-lock-hacked/
Off to college: Enter machine learning and life saving cars
One thing that we will expect from interconnected devices and services is that they not only enrich our lives by being smart but also non-obtrusive. This poses some interesting technical challenges since computing power and connectivity require physical space and adequate amounts of energy. Technological advances have gotten us part of the way, with increase in storage and processing power paired with decreased energy consumption, but one cannot avoid thinking that we're still not quite there yet.
Wearables are definitely becoming a thing, with Android Wear and Apple Watch both adding a level of connectivity and smartness to our wrists. Apple’s ResearchKit has opened up for health and research institutions to gather data on hundreds of thousands patients all over the world, without the need for costly and slow going research groups. For now though, most uses beyond fitness tracking on a watch are still cumbersome and low on further added value.
Don’t get me wrong; I use my smart watch every day! But checking notifications and tracking my gym sessions is hardly something I couldn’t be without.
Recently, Machine Learning has finally started to gain traction, which will grant our connected devices the capacity to crunch ever more complex scenarios - processing way beyond the capacity of any human brain. Tesla’s autopilot for instance, based on complex ML continuously learning from every Tesla out there, likely saved a man’s life when he put it into autopilot mode and told it to take him to the nearest hospital after suffering a heart attack. In fact we’re already seeing self-driving cars rolled out, and actors like Uber already have pilot runs in select cities.
Ready-spaghetti: More meaning, less buzz
This is just the beginning. We're finally seeing the outlines of what in the very near future is going to change the world for the better. Soon everything from convenience in our everyday lives down to our safety will be a result of as of yet undreamed of levels of data and processing power brought to bear in a network of billions (if not trillions) of connected devices.
An article by RTI, a provider of platforms for the Industrial Internet of Things, argues that smart interconnected medical equipment could save 50’000 lives in the USA every year (10x that world wide), by reducing complicated scenarios ripe with possible human errors:
Hospital error today is a critical healthcare problem. Fortunately, the industry is on the verge of a completely new connected implementation. Smart, connected systems can analyze patient conditions from many different perspectives. They can aid intelligent clinical decisions, in real time. These innovations will save lives.
GE and Schindler now use machine learning and connected elevators and guarantee that they will come fix elevators before problems arise, effectively keeping 100% operation time. Soon this might apply to anything we own (or at least services we pay for) coming with a guarantee that, before it breaks, they will already have been fixed.
So what will the future bring?
Will we soon depend too much on technology to the point where evolution will fail us, or will we ultimately see a society free of disease, free of accidents, free of poverty? Will Skynet gain self-awareness and make humankind extinct, or will the Connected World grow to aid us to the point where anything is possible? Either way, we couldn’t be more excited about finding out!