ILTA has published many of the Audio recordings and Slide Presentations from the 2013 Conference here. They are available for ILTA Members free of charge. If you are not a member, I highly recommend you become one, or make friends with a member so you can get access to this wonderful resource. I spoke on Monday afternoon in an experimental session with 3 other terrific speakers. We each took 12 minutes and presented on a stand-alone topic in the style of a short TED talk. I spoke third, but I’ve chopped my own presentation out of the others and embedded it here. If you find this at all interesting, please go to the ILTA page and listen to some more.
The complete talk is about 12 minutes long. I presented without slides and with a single prop.
See also my short story, The Granny Bug, which was inspired by my research into the Internet of Things.
BONUS: This also doubles as the first ever 3 Geeks Drinking Game! Grab your favorite beverage and drink every time I say the word THINGS. Although I’ll warn you, you probably won’t make it through the first 3 minutes.
I’ve cleaned up some of the wording to make it more clear in writing. I think I got my points across in person, but maybe I was just rambling.
So, I’m going to change gears quite abruptly. [adjusting microphone] And I want to talk about something that came up a little bit this morning in the Keynote.
Sometime between 2005 and 2008 the number of things on the Internet surpassed the number of people on the planet. It’s estimated that by 2020 there will be more than 50 Billion things online. Now things, in this context, are Internet connected devices with uniquely identifiable IP addresses.
These things are the things that we use to connect to the Internet. Mostly they’re computers, and tablets, and smartphones. You could call them things on the Internet of People. However, most of the things coming online recently are not on the Internet of People. They are things that connect to other things. They are what we call, for lack of a better name – or any imagination, things on the Internet of Things.
If you Google “Internet of Things” you are going to find an entire Jetson’s future fantasy world of automated devices that promise to make your life easier. You’re going to find the Nest Thermostat, which is probably the most famous thing on the Internet of Things. It’s a thermostat that learns your preferences and over time it starts to adjust itself automatically. But it also has sensors that can detect when there are people around and it knows when no one is home so it can turn itself down. And it also is connected to the network so it can communicate with your power provider and it can find out what the [power] demands are expected to be for the day, and it can adjust itself.
You will also find things like the Ambient Umbrella. This is a Wi-fi umbrella that has LED lights in it’s base that light up when it’s expected to rain. It communicates with the weather service.
You’ll find something that I think is my favorite thing online, the EggMinder from GE. This is a little plastic egg carton that sits in your fridge and it has a Wi-Fi connection. It syncs with an app on your phone so that anywhere in the world, at any time, you will always know exactly how many eggs you have in your fridge.
Now, all of this stuff is really cool, and a lot of fun, and exciting. But there are some outstanding issues that are preventing these things from becoming mainstream. Preventing the Internet of Things from becoming mainstream.
All of these devices are stand-alone technologies. They all communicate very well within their own platforms and their own ecosystems, but they don’t communicate very well between each other. The Internet of Things, at this point, is in a very similar state to where the Internet of People was prior to the development of the World Wide Web. There are a lot of little networks that work fine on their own, but trying to get between them is difficult. There are companies that are working on a Web of Things concept. There are several of them [competing to provide this type of easier communication]. And I have no doubt that one of them, in the very near future, is going to step out from the pack and everyone will get on board, and we will get that Jetson’s future that we’re all hoping for.
But as I was thinking about this talk and as I was researching it. I kept wondering one thing. One thing was stuck in the back of my mind. And that is, “Is that all?” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want a Wi-Fi toaster because it’s cool, but really? Is this what we’re hoping to get from this Internet of Things concept? So I started trying to forget all of this consumer device hype. [And I wondered] what is the Internet of Things at it’s base?
And it got me thinking about physics. I wish it had gotten me thinking about chemistry because then I could do a really great Catalyst metaphor [ed. the theme for this year’s ILTA conference was “IT – The Catalyst”], but instead it got me thinking about physics. And specifically Quantum Mechanics. And there’s a concept in Quantum Mechanics called entanglement. The idea is you take two particles and you bring them together and their quantum fields begin to entangle. (What ever that means.) When you spin one of these particles the other is going to spin too. But the crazy thing is you can then separate them, and you can send one of those entangled particles across the street, or across the country, or to the other side of the universe and when you spin the one you still have, [the other] one is going to spin too.
Now, no less a visionary than Albert Einstein derided this concept. He called it “Spooky Action at a Distance.” It has since been proven. But spooky action at a distance is really good description of the Internet of Things, because at it’s core, it’s a sensor that senses the world around it and then communicates that to an actuator that can actually do something about it.
That’s a concept we’re all familiar with within our devices. If you’ve got your iPhone and you put it up to your ear, the proximity sensor turns off your touchscreen so you don’t accidentally hang up with your cheek. The Internet of Things does the same thing, except it allows you to spread out and separate the sensors from the actuators in much the same way that our two particles that are entangled can be separated. Whereas the particles can be anywhere in the universe, the sensor and the actuator can be anywhere on the network.
So if you start thinking about the Internet of Things in those terms, rather than thinking about it in terms of these consumer devices like the EggMinder. You start to realize that actually, THIS is the coolest thing on the Internet.
This is called a Twine. It’s a little box and it’s got a battery, a Wi-Fi antenna, and three sensors. It senses temperature, orientation, and vibration. So I can log into it and set rules, that when one of these sensors is triggered it sends a communication across the network. I can set up a rule and I can leave this on my dryer, and when my dryer stops vibrating, it will text me that my laundry is done. I can leave this in a window on a hot day, and I can have it set so that it will warn me when my house plants are getting to hot. With a little bit of ingenuity I can tie this into If This Then That, which is an online site that allows you connect various internet services together. By doing that I can actually make my Twine tweet, or put up a Facebook post. Or I’ve got the Wi-Fi lightbulbs from Phillips, I can have my Twine turn my lights on and off.
Now, you’re going to laugh, but this device, I think, will change the world.
That sounds a little ridiculous, but I want you to think about it this way. Sixty-Five years ago I could hold a few transistors in the palm of my hand. Today I could hold billions. Now, I don’t expect Internet connected sensors to shrink at the rate of Moore’s Law, but if you can imagine that maybe they could shrink at a quarter of that rate, then sixty-five years from now, I could hold more than ten thousand of these in my hand. At that point they’d all be about the size of a grain of sand.
Now, if that happens, these won’t be in boxes like this, and we won’t weld them to our devices. They’ll be everywhere. We’ll put them in our clothing, in the carpet, on the walls, and in our furniture. At a certain point, that changes the way we interact with the network. In fact, the physical world can become the user interface to the network. The physical world can be something that allows spooky action at a distance. And I don’t know exactly how that will work, or what that will look like, but I can imagine, by way of analogy, how it might feel.
If I asked you today, “What computers have you used recently?” We’re all techies, you can probably list a dozen. But if I asked the average person, even they could tell me, “This is the computer I own, this is what I like about it, this is what I don’t.” Computing is at the forefront of our minds, it’s an active technology. Something we’re conscious of doing. We use computers as tools to accomplish certain things.
But there are other technologies that are no longer conscious, but they’re still there, and we use them all the time. If I were to ask you, “What motors do you use?” You’ll probably think of your car, but as you think about it more, you’ll realize, “Well, there’s the garage door opener, and the lawnmower…” and on and on and on. You’ve got motors everywhere, but you’re not aware of them. You’re not conscious of them.
I think that the real promise of the Internet of Things is that it holds the potential to eventually make computers and computing a background technology, so that you are not aware of it in the same way. So that in seventy five or a hundred years from now, if I asked you “What computers do you use?” You’ll have to think about it. And when you come up with an answer it might be, “Well, there’s my toothbrush, and my shoes, and you know, of course the walls.” But you might answer, “You know, I don’t think I really use computers, but I’m always on the Internet of Things.”