Internet of Things with Kevin Ashton

You know that Internet of Things that everyone is talking about these days? Kevin Ashton is that one that started it all. I had a chance to catch up with Kevin earlier this month and we discussed why IoT is taking off now, the rends, the challenges and what excites him about IoT.

To begin with Kevin talked about how IoT is really things that aren’t computers or smartphones that are connected to the network and communicating. It is your home communicating its temperature or your car tire communicating that it needs air or the warehouse communicating its inventory or health monitoring systems connected to person communicating data to a caregiver. Kevin pointed out that the big change we are seeing at the moment is the attention IoT is getting rather than adoption. However, the stage has been set to make IoT adoption happen more quickly now compared to 1999 when Kevin first started talking about it. The electronics we need for sensing things have become cheaper and do not need as much power as before. We have readily available WiFi networks to transmit the data from the sensors to the cloud as consumer WiFi adoption has grown rapidly in the last 5 years. Cloud services themselves cost less and are more advanced. And we now have very high-powered smartphones that allow us to not only interface wirelessly with sensors but also connect to the cloud to view and interact with the data. We have also become more sophisticated at machine learning technologies that help us recognize patterns in big data. Another enabling trend is that it has become easier than ever for smart people to make things in their garage. Kickstarter exists because there are very smart people with very good ideas and they can execute at least till the prototype stage with very little money. All these things combined create an environment where you can start thinking about creating low cost distributed sensor networks. So while the spotlight may move away, the work will continue and we are on the verge of something very special. And startups are the ones that will lead the way. Every technology revolution creates a few new huge companies and disrupts old huge companies. The revolution is driven by some people who have the ability to understand things and persuade other people to make changes. So it comes down to which company has the talent and that’s where exciting things really start to happen.

Who can benefit from IoT? Any industry that has anything physical can benefit from it, which is pretty much every industry. Kevin asserts that this is a revolution that will either benefit you or your competition if you ignore it and then hurt you. One may argue that abstract industries like finance may not benefit from IoT, but even the finance industry has equipment and people. However, industries that are more likely to adopt it first are the ones that have the most physical assets and information about these assets is hard to come by right now e.g. manufacturing, retail, health care, transportation, building management, construction, energy, water, natural gas
A trend that Kevin sees in this space is the move towards low powered wireless communications. A not so popular belief that he holds based on his experience with the WeMo line of products that he manages is that WiFi and not Zigbee or Z-Wave will be the network of choice, primarily because of its ubiquity. Technologies that improve battery life or technologies that harvest power from another source e.g. vibrations is another area of research. But beyond technology, he sees a trend towards modularity, open API, open interfaces, where everything works with everything else and users are not locked into anything. Apart from avoiding lock-in ad hoc modularity is the only way we are going to build a system with the scale needed for IoT.

An area that Kevin finds exciting is connected LED lighting. Every light bulb will be a networked LED light bulb and you will be able to control your lighting from something other than a switch on the wall. You could control lighting through the phone, turn lights on and off without getting out of bed or have lights in your home turned on when you are nearing home from work. Since a light bulb is now a networked it can also communicate information about the home and forms a stepping-stone for a low powered network that can sense things like temperature, ambient light and motion. A light bulb is certainly a good location to start building a distributed sensor network! Energy consumption and water consumption are other areas of interest to Kevin. Homes in California are streaming information about their water and electricity consumption in real time, but not just how much water or electricity they are consuming. These homes track fine-grained consumption e.g. how much water is used in the shower or how much electricity is used by the refrigerator. Leaks can be identified and devices using a lot of power can be turned off when not in use. This kind of tracking can not only help people use less of these precious resources but can also help us learn more about human behavior. In fact Alex Laskey of Opower showed that psychology of saving energy is driven by social pressure rather than cost savings or the need to do the right thing

IoT does face some challenges. Kevin believes that some standardization needs to happen but we must be careful about relying too heavily on new standards to emerge. The new generation of engineers already has all the standards it needs – TCP/IP, 802.11, REST, SOAP, XML etc. The area where we need the most innovation right now is power budget for devices because things are neither going to be plugged in nor can we expect people to change batteries often. Another area where are facing a challenge right now is skills shortage in machine learning. Data has no value unless an automated system can get information that is hiding in the data, make connections that are meaningful and share them with an automated system or with a human being. That kind of analytics is not trivial. So if you have kids studying computer science, encourage them to explore machine learning and analytics.

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