The Internet of Things Revolution

It’s About Much More Than Your Smart Toaster

The year is 2028.  A brand-new indigo blue Infiniti coupe is parked in your garage like a s leek metal panther.  While the all-electric car is charging with power from your internet connected solar system, you are thinking about how this particular model was manufactured.  Nissan, the maker of the Infiniti brand, was able to use Industry 4.0 solutions to cut time and cost  of production while simultaneously improving quality with a zero-down-time predictive maintenance assembly line packed with thousands of IoT sensors.

Once off the manufacturing floor these cars were shipped to dealerships across the country using a fleet of electric semi-autonomous trucks. 

Asset loss and damage due to weather and accidents were avoided completely, and transportation delays were kept to a minimum due the trucking company’s advanced IoT fleet management solution.

Your phone chimes to let you know the charge is complete, and it provides a snapshot of precisely how much juice you pulled from your solar array.  You’re ready to take your new ride for a spin down the highway.  This is not yet a fully autonomous vehicle—those are a few years away yet.  But it does have some advanced self-driving features.  After powering the vehicle Alexa asks for your destination.  The new Costco, of course!

Your route follows a stretch of highway that is authorized for autonomous driving, so you switch to auto-pilot.  While your car “takes the wheel’ you are able to finish that article you were reading in Wired Magazine about 6G wireless networks.  After a few minutes your seat starts to vibrate and Alexa politely requests that you re-take control as you exit the highway.

At Costco you pull into the autonomous parking drop-off lane and tell Alexa to park the car as you hop out. Your car slowly drives on, hunting for a good place to park. 

Entering Costco, you wave your smart pinky ring over the entrance scanner and the glass sliding door swishes open.  Inside you realize that you were so excited to drive your new car that you may have left the front door of your house unlocked.  You check your phone and it shows that you did lock the front door, but you left the garage door open.  Shaking your head, you tap the button on your phone to close the garage door, and while you’re at it you check the security cameras.  All seems fine.

There are no checkout lanes in this Costco.  The cameras in the store have already scanned all the items you put in your cart and will automatically charge them to your credit card account when you leave.  Of course, since this is Costco after all, there are still free samples!  You notice that one of the sample stations is run by a robot.  You watch as the robot calmly prepares and cooks its bite-sized snacks.  It sees you watching, creepily smiles at you,and asks if you would like to try one.  Not quite ready to be served by a robot, you say “no.”

You are aware that your short interaction with this robot has created a data transmission that will be part of a machine learning algorithm.  You just helped this robot get a little bit smarter.

Before leaving the store you whisper into your smart ring to summon your car.  As you walk out of the store, you see your car coming slowly from the distant nether regions of Costco’s enormous parking lot.  It pulls up to you and automatically opens the trunk because it sees that you have a cart full of groceries.

In 2028 the cars on the road are a mix of various stages of autonomy.  Traffic deaths and injuries have begun to fall dramatically in the last two or three years, but American highways will remain dangerous for another decade.  For you, that’s unfortunate, because a distracted driver in an old dumb 2010 SUV blows a red light just as you enter the intersection.  Your car’s accident evasion system cannot avoid the collision entirely, but it is able to orient the impact to your advantage which may have saved your life.  Still, you’ve been in a serious accident.  You’re injured and unconscious.

Your car’s onboard accident assessment system alerts emergency responders and provides them with your exact location and a real-time feed of useful data.  Within seconds the first responders are informed that your car is not flipped, nor it is on fire,but there was a severe impact to the right front corner of the vehicle.  They also know that you were the only occupant.  They even know some basics about your condition:  Bleeding and unconscious, but breathing.

While the emergency responders are on their way, your town’s new smart-city intelligent traffic management system has automatically re-synchronized the traffic lights in the area to clear the way for emergency responding vehicles.

Finally, your car’s onboard system will produce an accident re-creation report.  It will provide the police and your insurance company with data such as your speed and direction on impact, whether the brakes were engaged, whether your car was on auto-pilot at the time of impact, and whether your car took evasive maneuvers and what exactly those were.

Lastly, the diagnostics are sent to Nissan for feedback into their big data algorithms being used to refine autonomous driving capabilities for over-the-air software updates and future vehicles.

This multi-faceted use case demonstrates the powerful potential of IoT in the near future.  Included in this scenario are IoT applications in manufacturing, commercial and personal transportation, energy/utilities, home automation/security, retail shopping, smart city, emergency response systems,law enforcement, health care, and insurance.

How Does it Work?

As this scenario demonstrates IoT is not an industry.  Think of IoT as a technology evolution that will transform ALL industries and sectors in an interconnected way.  IoT should be considered similar to the Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution.

Because IoT is transforming all industries and all societal sectors its use cases are extremely varied. Therefore, its architectural implementations are varied as well.  That variability, however, lies underneath a common technology “stack” consisting of these five elements:

  • Devices
  • Networks and Infrastructure
  • Data Analytics
  • Processes
  • Security

Devices

Devices are the actual connected “things” in the IoT.  These typically are sensors and actuators.  Sensors will “sense” and report on the environment they are in, such as temperature, movement, wind or any number of other measurables depending on their function.  A single complex machine in manufacturing might have hundreds of sensors.  Actuators will“act” in some way.  For example, a temperature regulating system might automatically turn on heating or cooling based on temperature readings from sensors.

Networks and Infrastructure

This layer is essentially all the stuff that allows us to communicate and interact with the devices. We need the devices to provide data, and we may need the devices to do things.  This requires a communications network (most likely wireless) and some sort of data transport and storage architecture. 

Data Analytics

Internet of Things rides on data.  Data analytics turns data into actionable information.  Devices collect and transmit data so that they can be put through some sort of computation and/or analysis.  Again, the nature of this data analysis will vary greatly depending on the specific IoT use case.

We can break down IoT data analytics into four categories:  Descriptive; Diagnostic; Predictive; and Prescriptive.

Descriptive analytics provides the what, when and where.  Diagnostic analytics provides the why.  Predictive analytics says what will happen next.  And prescriptive analytics helps determine what should be done next. Not all IoT solutions will use all four of these categories.  Again, it depends on the use case.

Processes

Ultimately, IoT has zero value unless it leads to some kind of process or action.  This is where the real-world benefits of IoT reside.  For example, a predictive maintenance manufacturing process might be to dynamically switch to a redundant machine to allow time for maintenance without causing down time, thereby cutting plant costs. 

Or,a wearable activity monitor might detect an abnormal movement pattern of its owner and automatically initiate a call to 911 that could save their life. 

These are examples of IoT processes that perform the actual benefits of the IoT solution.  These processes depend on the devices for measurement, the network and technology infrastructure to get the data from the devices to a place of storage and computation, and dynamic data analytics to determine the appropriate process.

Security

Although described here as the fifth layer of the IoT technology stack, security is a little different in that it underlies all of the other four processes.  The technical nature and methods of IoT security are for another article.  However, it’s clear that cyber security is increasingly critical the more our world becomes connected and the more we become dependent on connected processes in our daily lives.  One significant challenge is how to manage security with real-time IoT applications since there may be no time to investigate a security situation.  This scenario may require machine learning solutions to allow the security algorithms to keep pace with potential cyber attacks.

 Who Makes All This Work?

Now that we know the basics of how IoT works, who actually does this stuff?  Well, we can generally break this down into four major players:

Device Makers

Let’s be reminded that we are talking about making “things” connected to the internet, so we are dealing with a massive and ever-growing list of things that will either be IoT devices or will have an IoT sensor designed within them.  So, device makers include a very large number of organizations, from parts manufacturers for engines to health care equipment suppliers, to an explosion of consumer products.

Communication Networks

All that data that the billions of IoT sensors will be collecting and receiving needs to be transported on some kind of communication network.  The type of network used will depend on each individual IoT use case.  The traditional wireless network operators, like Verizon, will certainly carry much of this traffic.  But, other types of networks will be in the mix as well.  This will range from very short-range communication like Bluetooth and ZigBee, to the global range provided by satellite networks and everything in between. 

The need for Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) for many IoT applications is creating a new industry for wireless networks and solutions that forego the unneeded high data speeds and low latency for the benefits of low cost, long range, long battery life sensors. 

Consider a large array of river gauge sensors that monitor water levels, quality and temperatures over hundreds of miles of riverways.  For this you need low-cost sensors with very long battery life and long range communication.  But because the sensors are only sending bursts of basic information there is no need for high data speed or low latency.  Putting this on a 4G or 5Gwireless network is overkill and cost-prohibitive.

But, other IoT solutions, like those related to virtual/augmented reality or autonomous transportation, absolutely require ultra-high-speed data and low latency.

IoT Platforms

IoT platforms are offered by software companies to implement and manage the IoT solution and infrastructure.  The function of platforms varies greatly, again, depending on the specific IoT use case.  But, typically, they will be involved in connectivity management, device life cycle management, data management and analytics, and application development.

Data Management Providers

 platform provider may provide the logistics of data management and analytics,many IoT use cases will require the assistance of specialized big data analytics providers who can turn massive data inputs into meaningful learnings and processes.

Remember the Wilderness

IoT solutions are already beginning to bring significant benefits to numerous segments of society.  In many ways, IoT will enrich our lives.  A very large percentage of IoT solutions will be in health care and they have the potential to simultaneously bring down costs, improve the quality and accuracy of care, and save many lives.  The role of IoT in autonomous transportation also has the potential for enormous societal benefit over the next couple of decades.  Tens of thousands of Americans die every year on our highways. Autonomous transportation has the potential to eventually bring this number to nearly zero.

Still, there is a trade-off.  IoT drastically increases our dependence on connected technology.  And,the further we separate ourselves from nature, the farther and harder we will fall should things come apart at the seams. 

It will be increasingly vital that we make sure to keep one foot in nature.  Disconnect from all the connected “things” and get out into the trees. Smell the flowers.  Walk in that clear stream.  Touch the rocks.  Climb the mountains.  Understand that, as relentless as our drive for technological advancement is, we will always ultimately depend on nature and natural things for our mental and physical well-being, and for our long-term survival.

You Are Transhuman Already

In 1945 an American military airplane crashed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea.  Three of the passengers, including one woman, survived the crash.  Deep in the jungle, the three Americans soon came into contact with a native tribe.  The savages, as they called them, moved naked through the forest in packs and yipped like wild dogs.  Bones pierced their noses.  These were stone-age humans, previously unknown and uncontacted by the modern world.

The tribal people reacted to the Americans as if they were supernatural creatures, not because of the color of their complexion or the texture of their hair, but because of their bizarre “removable skin.”  It was their clothes. 

These naked tribal people had no concept, nothing relatable in their imagination, for these types of materials.  To the natives, the Americans seemed unhuman, maybe gods, or maybe ghosts, depending on their own mythology.

On the morning of March 1st, 2011, I was just an ordinary young man when I walked into an ordinary two-story office building in a Denver suburb.  The waiting room was a calm and comforting place.  An electric water fountain created the soothing sound of trickling water.  Framed images of natural serenity adorned the walls.

The receptionist was also very calm and comforting.  She welcomed me with a soft and reassuring voice and a very pleasant hand shake.  Then she gave me a magic pill, a valium, to calm my mind and make me even more comfortable before leading me into a small dark room with a very comfortable reclining chair.

I sank into that chair while a machine descended from above and sliced off a piece of each of my eyeballs. 

In a matter of minutes, not only was my near-sightedness and astigmatism corrected, I ended up with “better than perfect” 20/15 vision.  I could now see slightly better than is naturally possible in a human being.  Through laser eye surgery I had become a transhuman.  I was bio-technologically improved.

But, was this really my first “biological enhancement?” Perhaps I had already become a transhuman years earlier when I received my first tooth filling.   Or, maybe it was earlier still, as a newborn baby, when a doctor injected magic serums into my body and thereby protected me from polio.  And measles.

Of course, I don’t think of myself as some sort of cyborg or transhuman.  Neither did those American soldiers trapped in the jungle in 1945.  But, from the perspective of an original “savage” human, we would indeed seem to be something else.  We would seem human-like, but human-enhanced.

The idea of transhumanism is all the buzz among today’s futurists.  I recently wrote an article about how to prepare our kids for their transhuman future, as if there will be a single point in time, maybe a few decades from now, when all humans become cyborgs overnight.

As we look to our technological future it’s easy to forget that, as a species, we embarked on our transhuman journey a very long time ago.  And, indeed, we are already quite far into this adventure.

At first the going was slow.  The official starting line is debatable, but let’s assume it began with the invention of agriculture somewhere between 10,000 and 23,000 BC depending on who you ask.  Now, this was a monumental leap in transhuman destiny.  This is when we first acquired a god-like capability.  We became the deliberate creators of mutant life forms, shaping and guiding the evolution of plant and animal species to meet our own needs and desires.

My dog, Codee the Corgi, looks nothing like anything in the wild.  He is a human-engineered mutant specimen, bred to be both functional as a cattle herder and adorable as a pet.  The Queen of England loves him.

Codee, my adorable mutant pet

The delicious yellow banana looks nothing like its tough, bitter-tasting, and shriveled ancestor.  Humans created the banana we know and love today, using simply the raw materials of nature to create something better to enhance our health, nutrition, culinary satisfaction, and mass production potential.

A few thousand years after the beginning of agriculture and animal breeding, some true geniuses figured out how to turn their thoughts into little symbols scratched into rock.  These were the first coders and they had invented the written language.

The vaporware of thought could now be visually represented, saved, replicated, and transported across not only territory (space) but time. 

Other humans in other locations and future times could then read and understand the thoughts of the original author—a person they need not have ever met.  They could then build on the original author’s ideas.

Written language was a quantum leap on our transhuman journey.  We had set forth the beginning of a continuous acceleration in the accumulation and sharing of knowledge.  This transformed human thought into an exponential trajectory of technological progress, each generation building on the knowledge of the last through the use and continued accumulation of the written record.

As time went on, we began to understand the stars.  We started to solve the mysteries of the human body.  And, eventually, we began to create machines.  The ocean-going vessel.  The printing press.  The steam engine.  We manipulated matter in all sorts of ways to take on new shapes, textures, and functions.  Totally new human-made substances, like plastic, infiltrated our world.  Things were rapidly accelerating, and humans became increasingly dependent on their own inventions like mechanized personal transportation, the harnessing of electricity, and the channeling of radio waves.  We created the Turing Machine.  And, then the Internet.  This trajectory continues to accelerate exponentially.

All of this stuff has already created a human-shaped world in which magic is commonplace.

Imagine if the stone-age people in Papua New Guinea suddenly found themselves in the middle of New York City in 2018.  Never mind the really magical stuff around them for now.  Just start with cement.  Here is a man-made material that gives us the ability to create and shape the very rock of Earth.  It is a material that we no longer even wonder about—so primitive and low-tech—and, yet, it would be so totally otherworldly to stone-age man.

Then show the tribe a lightbulb.  Like a mini-sun, the lightbulb turns night into day practically whenever and wherever we want.  Put stone-age man into an automobile and let him be transported through the world at frightening speed, seemingly floating within a strange enclosure made of materials he’s never seen nor fathomed.  Play a radio and turn on a television set and let him hear voices out of thin air and see moving images dance across a glossy flat rock.  Try to explain the internet to him.  Impossible.

One of the fears of our continued trajectory further into a state of transhumanism is that we will lose our humanity.  What does it mean to be human in a transhuman world?  But, all of those examples above from our past and present represent some level of human technological augmentation that has become integral to every day modern life.  And, yet few would seriously argue that we have lost our humanity, that we are somehow no longer human.

We forget how far we have already separated ourselves from a savage existence and how much we already depend on the manipulation of both nature and ourselves.  Have we maintained our humanity thus far?

Do we still feel love and pain and joy?  Do we still exercise free will?  Do we still smell the flowers and drink the water?  Do we still wonder about the mystery when we look out over the ocean and up to the stars?

Yes, we do.  Perhaps, this can give us some solace as we continue on our journey further into a technological world.  Perhaps, somehow, all along that path, our humanity will persist as we relentlessly find ways to transform our world and ourselves through technology.  Our humanity will persist as we 3D-print replacement organs and bones.  As we augment human thought with machine intelligence.  As we possibly extend human lifespan through the reversal of aging.

Let’s assume that humanity can continue its current technological trajectory for another 200 years (some would say that’s a very bold assumption).  If we were to be transported to the year 2218, what would it be like?  It would be at least as bizarre and unfathomable to us as our present world would be to a stone-age human.  But, it would be completely normal to the 2218 human.  I believe the technologically augmented humans of 2218, like us today, will still be human.  They will still drink the water and gaze upon the blue ocean with wonder.