"When we talk about the Internet of Things, it's not just putting RFID tags on some dumb thing so we smart people know where that dumb thing is. It's about embedding intelligence so things become smarter and do more than they were proposed to do", said Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman Emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and founder of the One Laptop per Child Association.
But have we really embedded intelligence into these dumb devices? Most 'intelligent' devices today, are nothing more than sensors. They don’t do much computation by themselves and in effect just provide data to services that are in the cloud and let these cloud based services do the heavy lifting. The 'brains' of the Internet of Things or IoT are not in the device, but in the Internet, or more precisely, in the cloud and these everyday things are gaining super-sensory capabilities.
In a reality where, according to a HuffPost article, “predictions point towards a future where devices will become our digital shadows", would cloud-based intelligent ecosystems become synonymous with the oft-mentioned singularity? The article continues to say, “Interestingly, the fabled concept of singularity is coming to life right before our eyes. ‘Singularity’ or more precisely, ‘technological singularity,’ speaks to the possibility of man merging with machines in a future where tech progress becomes so rapid that devices will become ‘super-intelligent,’ even beyond the imagination and predictive capabilities of human beings".
Before we go any further, let’s look at the vastness of the IoT space for a moment. The global Internet of Things market will grow to $1.7 trillion in 2020 from $655.8 billion in 2014. According to Gartner, 8.4 billion connected 'things' will be in use in 2017, up 31% from the prior year. Total spending on endpoints and services are said to reach almost $2 trillion in 2017. The consumer segment is the largest user of connected things with 5.2 billion units in 2017, and represents 63% of the overall number of applications in use. A Parks Associates white paper puts an average of 5.4 smart devices in US households in 2017. And businesses are on pace to employ 3.1 billion connected things in 2017. When it comes to the nature of devices being spent on, consumers will indulge in automotive systems and home-based applications like smart TVs, digital set-top boxes, and appliances while businesses will use more smart electric meters and commercial security cameras.
From Sensory to ‘Smart’ Devices
These numbers make it very obvious that we are in the midst of a very real IoT r/evolution. And what’s interesting to note is that right alongside the growth of dumb or sensory devices, there is the growth of brainy or thinking devices or Smart Internet Devices (SIDs). With the advent of low power and in-memory computing, we will see much more computation happening inside an (IoT) SID. And several SIDs will begin operating autonomously rather than rely on an internet service. That said, the sophistication in this direction could be slower due to the high cost of end-point upgrades and potential inflexibility (restricting rapid change of systems). SIDs like the HiMirror or the Ray Super Remote, because of their innate computational abilities, resemble small, yet full-fledged computational ecosystems.
The possibility of localized nano ecosystems of SIDs (NEoSIDs) will drive a shift in consumption. A localized NEoSID looks something like Nest Labs’ self-learning thermostat that is designed to exchange information with other products, such as Kevo’s smart lock. When a homeowner enters the house, the lock communicates with Nest, that adjusts the temperature to the homeowner's preference. We will see a growth of such ecosystems that will use a variety of platforms like the Amazon Alexa , Apple Homekit, Samsung Smartthings, Google Home and Stringify. There are services like IFTTT that provide more options for everyday things to communicate with other things, other networked devices and services over internet, and with humans. McKinsey has an interesting visualisation of perspectives on the connected consumer at home, otherwise called the world of SIDs.
SmartCap Technologies’ wearables were initially developed to measure the brain’s electrical activity to provide life-saving fatigue alerts to miners, truck drivers and heavy equipment operators. The technology is now expanded to applications for medical professionals. Silent Herdsman works on modernizing dairy farming and uses IoT tech to predict a farm’s yearly milk production. Armed with this data, farmers can better monitor individual livestock and maximize yield for greater efficiency, reduced waste and higher productivity.
More Things, More Security Breaches
These ‘smart’ devices aren’t just collecting data, making sense of data and taking actions based on it, they are also connecting to cloud-based central systems in most cases. This raises obvious concerns around personal and business data security.
Single, immense brains like Amazon or Google have an unfathomable amount of data. By 2020, Gartner predicts there will be over 20 billion IoT devices. According to the ‘Cisco Global Cloud Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2015–2020’, the total amount of data created by devices, driven by IoT, will reach 600 Zettabytes (ZB) per year by 2020, up from 145 ZB per year in 2015. Given the mystifying depths of these data lakes, IoT device manufacturers will not want to risk privacy breaches - a sore spot for IoT manufacturers. We’re not talking about leaked credit card info and email addresses. Thoughtworks Market Technology Principal, Avinash Chugh warns of much more dire scenarios, “An IoT attack could bring down a city’s power supply, tamper with manufacturing, stop a vehicle in the middle of a highway, overflow tanks on an oil rig, shut down ventilators in the ICU, or tamper with a pacemaker". These are all real - and very frightening - possibilities. Avinash goes on to say, “Enterprises need to start securing wearables, sensors, even securing technology we might not foresee today. This requires ever-evolving security practices in a way that enables frictionless collaboration among devices".
And this threat to data security is exactly why NeoSIDs will flourish. They allow greater security through better control. Interactions are local and within a community that has more in common - in terms of data, and meaningful leverage of data for relevant services. Software like Freedombox, which provides encrypted voice and text communication, anonymous publishing, social networking, media sharing, and (micro)blogging, is an extension of the control that is more amenable to nano ecosystems.
I envision a future filled with devices of both kinds, the simple sensory things that collect data and the brainy SIDs that compute within themselves and take actions. And while the former works to the advantage of behemoths like Apple, Google and Amazon, the latter are alternates that will rise in rebellion to these data giants.
In the next article, we are working on a futuristic, fictitious 'case study' that will showcase local NeoSIDs overthrowing the data Gods.
This story first appeared as a print story in Mint.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.