Tsunamis, Volcanoes, Cellphones and Wireless Broadband – Disruptive Elements
Natural disruptions change the environment, and although a new equilibrium is achieved nothing is quite the same. In recent history, the advent of the cellphone changed most of humanity, allowing a level of communication and cohesion that was never before possible. Following on that is the ever-increasing availability of sufficient wireless bandwidth to enable powerful distributed computing. We must not lose sight of the fact that with smartphones, we all walk around now with mobile computers that happen to also make phone calls… And for comparison, an Apple iPhone6 is 120 million times more capable (in terms of total memory and cpu clock speed) than the computers that send man to the moon less than 50 years ago.
The long-term disruptive effect of IoT in the next decade will eclipse any other technological revolution in history. Period. To be more precise, the combination of technologies that will encompass IoT will form the juggernaut that will propel this massive disruption. These include IoT itself (the devices and directly interconnecting network fabric), AI (Artificial Intelligence), VR/AR (Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality) and DCT (Distributed Cloud Technology). Each of these technologies are rapidly maturing on their own, but are more or less interdependent, and will collectively construct a layer of intelligence, awareness and responsiveness that will forever change how humans interact with the physical world and each other.
The number of electronic devices that are all interconnected is expected to outnumber the total population of the planet within a year, and to exceed the number of people by over 10:1 within 7 years. In mysticism and philosophy we used to think the term Akashic Records (the complete record of all human thought and emotion, recorded on an astral plane of some sort) was science fiction or the result of the ingestion of controlled substances… now we know this as Google… With virtually every moment of our lives recorded on Instagram, Facebook, etc. and the capacity of both storage and processing making possible the search and derivation of new data from all these memories, a new form of life is developing. Terminology such as avatars, virtual presence, CAL (Computer Aided Living), etc. are fast becoming part of our normal lexicon.
One of the most enduring tests of when a certain technology has thoroughly disrupted an existing paradigm is that of expectation. An example: if a person is blindfolded and taken to an unknown location, and then put in a dark room and the blindfold removed, what happens? That person will almost immediately start feeling on the wall about 1.5 meters off the floor for a small protrusion, and when finding it will push or flick it, with the complete expectation that light will result. The expectation of electricity, infrastructure, light switches, lamps, etc. has become so ingrained that this action will occur for a person of any language or culture, unless living in one of the very few isolated communities left off the grid.
IoT as the Most Powerful Disruptor
Cellphones, now available to 97% of humanity, along with wireless broadband connectivity (46% of the world has such connectivity today) are two of the most recent major disruptive elements in technology. All businesses have had to adapt, and entirely new processes and economies have resulted. The changes that have resulted from just these two things will pale in comparison to what the IoT ecosystem will cause. There are multiple reasons for this:
- The passive nature of IoT may be the single largest formative factor in large scale disruption. All previous technologies have required active choice on the part of the user: pick up your phone, type on your computer, turn on your stereo, press a light switch, etc. With IoT just your presence, or the interaction of inanimate objects (such as freight, plants, buildings, etc.) will generate data and create new information objects that can be searched, acted upon, etc.
- The ubiquitous nature of IoT will be such that virtually every person and thing that exists will interact in some way with at least a small portion of the IoT ecosphere. In a highly connected urban center, the penetration of IoT will be so dense that all activity of people and things will reverberate in the IoT universe as well. To take a quick sample of what will be very likely within one year, in a city such as Johannesburg, Berlin or New York: a density approaching 50 devices per square meter.
- The almost ‘perfect storm’ of a number of collaborative technologies, including IoT itself, that all build on each other and will exponentially increase the collective capability of each technology individually. The proliferation of low-latency, high bandwidth network fabric; the availability of HPC (High Performance Computing) on a massive and economical scale (as provided by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc.); the development of truly spectacular applications in AI, VR, AR; and the diffusion of compute power into the network itself (DCT – Distributed Cloud Technology) all build almost a chain-reaction of performance.
- Hyperconnectivity – the aspect of massively interconnected data stores, compute farms, sensor fabrics, etc. The re-use of data will explode and will most likely become a commodity – perhaps becoming a new economic entity where large blocks of particular types of data are traded much the same as wheat futures are today on a commodity exchange. An example: a large array of temperature, humidity and soil water tension sensors are installed by a farming collective in order to better manage their irrigation process. That data, as well as being used locally, is uploaded to the farming corporation’s data center to be processed as part of their larger business activity. Very likely, that data, perhaps anonomized to some degree, will be ‘sold’ to any other data consumer that wants weather and soil data for that area. The number of times this data will be repackaged and reused will multiply to the point that it will impossible to track with absolute precision.
- Adding to the notion of ‘passive engagement’ discussed above is the ingredient of ‘implied consent’ that will add millions of data points every hour to the collective ‘infosphere’ that is abstracted from the actual device layer of IoT. For instance, when you enter your car soon, autonomous or human-driven, the vehicle will automatically connect to the traffic management network in your region. This will not be optional, it will be a requirement just like having a license to drive, or that the car has working safety features such as airbags and brakes. Your location, speed, etc will become part of the collective data fabric of the transport sector. Your electricity usage will be monitored by the smart meter that links your home to the grid, and your consumption, on a moment to moment basis, will be transmitted to the electric utility… and to whomever is buying that data onward from the utility.
- The privacy and security aspects of this massively shared amount of data have been discussed previously, but should be understood here to add to the disruptive nature of this technology. Whatever fragments of perception of privacy one had to date must be retired along with kerosene lanterns, horse-drawn buggies and steam engines. Perhaps someday we will go to ‘privacy museums’ which will depict situations and tableaus of times past where one could move, speak and interact with no one else knowing…
The Results and Beneficiaries of the IoT Disruption
As with each technological sea change before it, the world will adapt. The earth won’t stop turning on its axis, and the masses won’t storm the castles (well, not unless their tech stops working once they expect it to..). Ten years from now, as we have come to appreciate, expect and benefit from the reduced friction of living in a truly connected and hyperaware universe, we will wonder how we got along in the prehistoric age. Even now, as phone booths have almost completely disappeared from the urban landscape in so many cities, we can hardly imagine life before cellphones.
Yes, the introductory phase, as with many earlier technologies, will be plagued with frustrations, disappointments, failures and other speed bumps on the way to a robust deployment. As this technology, in its largest sense, will have the most profound effect on humanity in general, we must expect a long implementation timeframe. Many moral, ethical, legal and regulatory issues must be confronted, and this always takes much, much longer than the underlying technology itself to resolve. Due to the implications of privacy, data ownership, etc. – on such a massive scale – entirely new constructs of both law and economics will be born.
In terms of economic benefit, the good news is this technology is far too diffuse and varied for any small group of firms to control, patent or otherwise exercise significant ‘walled garden’ control. While there is much posturing right now from large industrial firms that will likely manufacture IoT devices, and the Big Four of IT (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook); none of these will be able to put a wall around IoT. Partially due to the very international manner of IoT, the ubiquity and breadth of sensor/actuator types, and the highly diffuse use and reuse of data IoT will rapidly become a commodity.
We will certainly need standards, regulations and other constructs in order for the myriad of players to effectively communicate and interact without undue friction, but this has been true of railroads, telephones, highways, shipping, etc. for centuries. Therefore the beneficiaries will be spread out massively over time. All humans will benefit in some manner, as will most businesses of almost any type. Ten years on, many small businesses may not ever directly make a specific investment in IoT, but this technology will be embedded in everything they do; from ordering stock, transport, sales, etc.
Like other major innovations before it IoT will ultimately become just part of the fabric of life for humanity. The challenge is right now, during the formative years, to attempt to match the physical technology with concomitant economic, legal and ethical guidelines so that this technology is implemented in the best possible way for all.
The final section of this post “A Snapshot of an IoT-connected World in 2021” may be found here.