Prematurely right…

2

Part of our reading for the discussion of the Internet of Things this last week was a selection from the National Academies study Embedded Everywhere. I was part of the study group, which published the book back in 2001 (after a couple years of the study). It’s interesting to look back at something like this– we got so much of the big picture right that I’m surprised, especially since we got almost all of the details wrong.

What we got right was how ubiquitous networked sensors were going to be. We saw them being used to help with traffic congestion, agriculture, climate science, seismology, and a host of other things. All of which is being done.

What we got wrong was how all this would happen. We talked about “smart dust,” a notion that the miniaturized sensors, with low-power networking and long-lasting batteries, would be sprinkled around the environment so that the data they collected could be fed back to banks of servers. There was even a project at UC Berkeley that produced what they called motes that were seen to be a first step along this path. Somewhere in my office I think I still have one or two of these hanging around. But it turned out that these were never as small as we had hoped. Batteries didn’t get better as fast as we thought they might. And calibration of large numbers of sensors turns out to be an amazing difficult problem to solve unless you have some way to get a human to deal with the individual sensors.

Instead, all this happened through cell phones. There were cell phones back when we wrote the study, but they were used as, well, phones. They didn’t have GPS embedded. They didn’t include accelerometers, or other forms of sensing. The networks they connected to were cell networks, optimized for voice and pretty bad (and limited) when transferring data. They were interesting and useful devices, but they weren’t the kinds of sensor platforms we were envisioning.

Like the early users of the ARPAnet and the Internet, we didn’t see what Moore’s Law and the acceleration of network technology was going to do to our little phones. Within a short number of years Apple introduced the iPhone, which was really a small networked computer with enough sensors to make things interesting. Restrictions on the accuracy of civilian GPS were lifted just before the study was published, but we had no idea the size of the impact that would have. As sensors, cameras, and microphones became smaller and better, they got pushed into the phones. The networks for the cell phone system got better and better, both in bandwidth and reliability. Calibration ceased to be a problem, since all of the sensors were paired with a person who could help with the calibration. Soon all of the data we had hypothesized being sent to clusters of servers was being gathered and sent. Just by a different set of technologies than we had been able to imagine.

The connection of people to the networked sensors caused other good things to happen, as well. People could get involved in the projects that we originally thought would be machine-only. There were community government projects to allow people to report pot-holes (automatically, based on bumps that their cars encountered), damaged sidewalks (where pedestrians could take a picture of the sidewalk, with a GPS tag, and send it to the local government), and the monitoring of air pollution or how well transit systems were keeping to their published schedules (which have given way to real-time schedules that tell you where the busses or trains are, not where they are expected to be).

It’s another reminder to all of us technologists. We tend to think of what the technology can do on its own. But the most valuable uses of the technology pairs the technology with people who use it, sometimes in unexpected ways. We think of how we can use machines to replace us, rather than how we will use machines to enhance what we do. But the valuable uses of technology are in enhancing the human enterprise, and that’s how we end up using the technology, even when it wasn’t designed for that. A lesson that we need to keep in mind, since we seem to constantly forget it.

 

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2 Comments »

  1. Mike Smith

    October 6, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    1

    Great post, Jim! A powerful retrospective and a clear-eyed statement of what’s important. Bravo!

  2. Yasmin Luthra

    October 12, 2017 @ 11:15 am

    2

    I really enjoyed your post, Professor Waldo! When I was reading Embedded Everywhere, I had to keep reminding myself that it was written over a decade ago because of how prescient it was in the big picture. Your note of caution not to overlook the ways in which technology can enhance the human experience rather than replace us is so important.

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