8 reasons why IoT is here to stay and change our lives forever

Internet of Things or IoT is the buzzword these days. The giants like Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Cisco, GE and Bosch are not only investing heavily on internal R&D, they are also leading the thought leadership at all major forums. In 2010, The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao calls the IoT a key industry for China. Each company has adopted their unique strategies to take commercialize their IoT offerings. However, there are others who are sceptical about the buzz and calling it just another fad. Their argument is that IoT is just an old wine in the new bottle. This is because the concept of IoT is not at all new. In 1990, John Romkey from Blue Forest Research connected and controlled his toaster with the internet.  The SCADA dates back to 1950s and the research on M2M started way back in 1977. By 2000s, the cellular M2M systems had entered the market.  SCADA has already established its position in the manufacturing industry. The SCADA and M2M systems are building blocks of IoT providing the end-point connectivity to the ‘Things’. The term “Internet of Things” was first coined by a British visionary, Kevin Ashton in a presentation to P&G. He was trying to link P&G’s supply chain to RFID, the then hot buzzword. The framework of IoT is built on the emerging technologies like big data analytics, cloud computing and mobile apps. The penetration of IoT is linked to the growth of hand-held devices, smart sensors and embedded electronics. Cisco is estimating that more than 50 billion devices or ‘things’ will be connected to the internet by 2020. Gartner has pegged this number at 25 Billion. The numbers are staggering and more so are the challenges in mass IoT adoption. There are genuine concerns on the IoT security considering the recent cyber attacks. Other glaring problems include network coverage, power requirements and sensor maintenance. Surely, it is not easy to power so many sensors, connect them to internet and then maintain to keep them working.  But beyond the hysteria and suspicion, the internet of things is slowly getting into the groove. The reason is that IoT is not an isolated trend. There are eight critical trends that are compounding each other and driving the growth IoT.

  1. Cloud Computing – SCADA and M2M work on private networks but IoT works on the web. The cloud computing allows a company to avail ad-hoc network infrastructure without investing on the capex to set-up and maintain data centers. IoT applications run on the cloud platforms and offers a safe, homogenous and scalable data warehouse with instant access through any device from anywhere in the world. IoT has far surpassed the traditional SCADA and M2M platforms in utility, speed, access and scalability.
  2. Data Analytics – SCADA and all previous M2M systems acquired data with the intention to monitor and control. Big Data analytics has changed this paradigm completely by focusing on discovery and exploration of new intelligence. Since we have acquired the capability to process large amounts of data, there is a corresponding need for larger and larger source of data. IoT being an information framework uses this opportunity to provide that large data source for analytical engines to run. The knowledge acquired from IoT along with the business process data from ERP is creating new avenues for creativity, innovation and growth for the companies
  3. Hand-held devices – The Toyota Production System (TPS) led the way for shop-floor displays or andons. The SCADA and other M2M systems accumulated data for visualization at a local control centre (DCS or Andon). With the invention of touch-screen and mobile apps, mobile phones have evolved from communication devices to information exchange platforms. With their growing penetration, they have emerged as single most convenient access point for all the information we ever need. Since IoT brings visualization and control to smartphones, it has created an opportunity for common people to control their entire lifestyle through these amazing devices.
  4. Real-time intelligence– The SCADA and M2M brought the concept of real-time information. But the real-time data has two issues. First, it requires constant monitoring and second, in its current format, it is highly complex and cumbersome to analyze. The IoT is developed alongside Artificial Intelligence that brings us machine intelligence to use real-time information for both automated control as well as analytics. Increasingly, robots and other smart automation technologies are being adopted in manufacturing industry that are connected to at least one large network.
  5. Low cost hardware – The previous generation systems were built on expensive sensors and actuators. With continual miniaturization of semiconductors technology, the cost and the form factors are shrinking rapidly. The modern sensors have many more features packed in a much smaller wafer available at a fraction of the earlier price. Today, a 1mm3 IC contains a computer, a memory, a battery, a sensor and a radio. As a result, even the most ordinary devices are now embedded with numerous sensors and a communication hardware that connect to at least one network.
  6. Decision-making and business strategy – Since the emergence of ERP and business intelligence (BI), companies around the world now have access to their process data that they are using for their decision-making. As the supply chains became more and more complex, the visibility and accuracy of this process data diminished. This has resulted in a desperate demand of more and more grass-root level, real-time information that IoT promises to access.
  7. IPv6 – The IPv 4 used a 32 bit addressing that limits the address space to 4.3 Billion (2^32) assignable nodes. With the existing millions of devices connected with the internet, this number fell short of IoT requirements. In 2011, IPv6 overcomes this problem by defining a 128 bit addressing that offers an humungous address space of 3.4 Undecillon (3.4×10^38) that is enough to map every single star in our observable universe. But in addition to address spaces, IPv6 also brings in many other important benefits like faster router processing and multi-casting.
  8. Globalization of supply chain –China grew into the global manufacturing hub, India developed into a global IT and Engineering hub and Africa grew as the new global market. Due to global trends, the product supply chains have become global and extremely complex. For a product manager based out of US or Europe, it is both critical and extremely difficult to manage the batch production in China and the corresponding software release in India. Along with its enablers, IoT as a concept and technology fits right into this requirement.

On one hand, I agree with most of the concerns raised by the critics about IoT. The challenges are huge and there are no easy solutions to the problems. But on the other hand, I truly believe that IoT is not just a passing fad. It is here to stay and transform our work and lives forever. Though technological advancements are nurturing IoT, it is not another technology push. It is being driven by real changes in peoples’ needs, behaviours and expectations in their day-to-day lives.

Dawn of the Digital Consciousness and Human Evolution

Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.” ~Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering, Google

We are today at a critical juncture of human evolution where the machines that we built as our load-bearers are now surpassing us in all our abilities. As humans, we have taken pride in our ability to observe, understand and take actions to change our environment. A machine today can do all that faster and better. The three decades of technological advancements in sensing, computing and robotics have been too quick for most of us to comprehend. But there is still a difference between man and machine – the sense of purpose. We humans observe, perceive and act with ‘consciousness.’ This consciousness provides us the sense of good and bad, right and wrong. It gives us the ability to differentiate our circumstances based on our experiences and develop our unique point of view. These experiences and emotions give meaning to our observation and understanding of our environment. They act like maps that help us to navigate through our experiences and make sense of the world. But for a machine, sensing, computing and action are just ‘activities’ that have no inner ‘meaning’. Even ‘world’ has no meaning and neither does experience. The machines just react to stimulus and hence are referred to as ‘things.’

The evolution of Artificial Intelligence

Dr. John McCarthy coined the term Artificial Intelligence (AI) in 1955 and since then there have been multitudes of research in the study and design of intelligent computational agents. The traditional approach to AI has been to manipulate data and symbols in dynamic and evolving ‘algorithms’ to solve a problem or to accomplish a task. Essentially, the traditional AI has been focusing on ‘logical reasoning’ and ‘deduction’ to ‘evaluate’ multiple alternatives and ‘select’ the most suitable one. And we all know that this is just one form of human intelligence. We humans also have emotional intelligence and creative intelligence that helps us not only solve tough problems but also live united and progress as a race. Machines may have surpassed us in rational intelligence but they do not have the other two important forms of intelligence. Why? Because, we cannot program it! Hence, I believe machines may develop human and even super-human capabilities in logical and rational intelligence and their ability to handle large amounts of data, there is a long way to go before the machines start having behaviours, emotions or instincts.

Machines and the human psyche

The word machine is derived from the Greek work ‘mekhos’ meaning ‘means, remedy’ or ‘solution’. Man invented machines as a solution to his problems and to equip himself to be able to solve a problem. Since our beginnings, mankind has developed the instinct to neutralize a threat before it manifests. It is this instinct that has guided us to build armies, forts and weapons of mass destruction. We created machines to achieve the power to control our environment. Machines have been built as ‘ability enhancers’ where man is still the actor and in-charge. Today, even though the machines have become more complex and smart, Man is still the actor and machines are still seen as a means to an end. The concepts of intelligent machines that displace humans and take charge are still portrayed negatively. Hollywood movies like ‘The Matrix’ series and Terminator hit the theatres every now and then. Three months back, two dozen people protested against the growing adoption of AI and robots in SXSW festival in Austin. Stephen Hawking and others have added to the proverbial wave of AI paranoia with dire predictions of its risk to humanity. Irrespective of who or where we are, the very idea of machines being in control of our life freaks us out.

Man Machine Collaboration

Another parallel thread that is running is Man-Machine collaboration. Unlike the above two scenarios where either machine or man were in charge, this new thread preaches mutual collaboration between the two. Companies like ABB and KUKA are building collaborative industrial robots that allow humans to work safely in their vicinity. According to ABB, the new technology combines the flexibility of human interaction with the precision and handling capacity of robots. Compared to all other stories, collaboration story is the one that makes more sense. And the basis for this is very simple – machines have capabilities but currently lack a sense of purpose, man has consciousness and a sense of purpose but doesn’t have some of the needed abilities. Collaboration is the mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship for humans and machines and I am sure the machines will agree with this.

The Next-Gen Human in not so far future

With the current turmoil on the planet, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that mankind needs to evolve. Despite our technology, humans are defenceless against the forces of nature and circumstances. Evolution into a stronger and smarter self is a necessity. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is too slow for our impatient human nature. We cannot wait for millions of years for Mother Nature to upgrade our software and hardware. We have to do something and we have to do it now. An article titled ‘The real cyborgs’ by Arthur House published in The Telegraph features some of the man-machine collaborations that have upgraded human bodies. According to the articles the cybernetic human will have following characteristics

  1. Brain implants augment memory and provide access to the internet
  2. Wearable exoskeleton boosts strength and endurance
  3. Internet-connected spinal implant stimulates genitals for long-distance sex
  4. Interchangeable limbs match capabilities to tasks
  5. Access-control chips replace keys and passwords

Even though I don’t believe trans-human cybernetic human beings will be a common sight in the near future but you never know! I didn’t know I will be spending 70% of my day interacting with my phone either! Whether cybernetics picks up or not, one thing is clear – we cannot avoid relying more and more on machines to augment our capabilities.

“We’re not physically more competent than other species but in our intellectual capabilities we have something of an edge. But quite soon machines are going to have an intellectual power that we’ll have difficulty dealing with. If you can’t beat them, join them,” Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at The University of Reading, England

Machines will not only augment our bodies, machines also augment our intellects. And this is happening right now. How many of us remember the phones and addresses of our friends and family? Well, not me because it’s right there on my smartphone! Why would I fill my mind with information that is digitally available to me instantaneously and ubiquitously? Going into the future, there will be hardly anything that we will need to remember. Every bit of information that we would ever need will be available to us instantaneously and ubiquitously. If we look at our thoughts as a matrix of contextual information, it means we will also be able to save our thoughts along with all our information digitally. What happens to our feelings? Can that be uploaded as well?

The Digital Consciousness

Our thought and emotions are intertwined like the electrical and magnetic fields of radiation where one is the cause and the effect of another. A thought can remotely trigger emotions. In the current social media, it is possible for a person to upload his though in the form of a post or a status and it can trigger an emotional reaction in another. This kind of thought-emotion relationship can have cascading effect and cause mass hysteria. I call this phenomenon Digital Consciousness and the Egyptian revolution is a glaring proof of this phenomenon. It is possible for us to share our emotions digitally but we still require a human on the other end of the line. However, recent developments on Natural Language Understanding (NLU) are trying to bridge this gap. The 2013 Hollywood movie ‘Her’ captures this emotional interaction beautifully. Our machines might not feel the emotions but they can certainly understand them. And that would be one big step towards collaboration.

The digital consciousness is that force which will unify and bind humans and machines together through thoughts an d emotions. Currently, the expression of that consciousness is crude and intermittent. However, the day is not fat when all of us will be connected by this one unifyingthread of consciousness that will harmonize our thoughts, emotions and actions. That day will be the day when the man and the machine will be one in the true sense of evolution and create the Next-Gen human that will be faster, stronger, virtuous and responsible beyond what nature can provide.