How to Collaborate with the Internet of ThingsThis is not an article about SkyNet and Terminators that come back in time to save the future. It is not about the rise of the machines, and it is about the rise of the machines … but not in the way you might think.

The Internet of Things (IoT) was originally proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999. He felt that

computers and the Internet were dependent on people for information. But people have limited time attention and accuracy, and so are not the best in collecting data about our environment… If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things (data gathered directly) we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.”

Another way the IoT is described is “where the digital world meets the intellectual world and the physical world as a complex system of systems … It is like our planet developing a Central Nervous System.” IBM did a nice video explaining the IoT a bit more visually.

Personally, the idea of a computer knowing everything about something is frightening to me, but that is the way things are going. Today we have about three connected devices for everyone in the world (Figure 1). How can that happen when many people don’t have a cell phone? You have people like me with two TVs, two cellphones, two netbooks, one Mac and one PC. Eight connected devices to help move up the average.

According to the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, the IoT was born when the number of connected devices exceeded the world population, which places its birthday somewhere between 2008 and 2009.

connected devices.png

Figure 1 - Today we have about three connected devices for every person in the world
Source: Cisco IBSG: April 2011

But the IoT is not really about my collection of connected devices, it is more about our ability to put sensors in everything, and make them (more) intelligent or “smart” devices. Is this necessarily a good idea? If this sounds like futuristic science fiction realize that the IoT already exists and can be affecting you personally on a daily basis.

Every parent’s worst nightmares were recently realized when a hacker took control of a Houston couple’s home baby monitor and spewed obscenities at their daughter. Unfortunately, for many people this outrage was their introduction to the Internet of Things (IoT), and it left many wondering whether the IoT will impose unacceptable privacy and security worries on people and businesses. I would take that a step further, and look at a future where there are nano-sensors in almost everything: our roads, our clothes, even us. What havoc could a hacker wreak then?

The Upside

The big upside to the IoT -- it could be used by doctors to monitor patients, even if the patient isn't present in the hospital and also used in analysis of big data to create new cures. Stores could capture customer behavior (much like Google or Amazon does today online) and alert them when the item they are looking at goes on sale. Road sensors could send alerts about bad traffic and give governing agencies a way to optimize traffic flow to get you where you are going faster.

Collaboration as an Emergent Property

I have been part of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Class) lately on Complexity Theory put on by the Santa Fe Institute. We discussed everything from chaos theory to systems dynamics in this class. One of the ideas we looked at is that 1+1 = 3, or that complex systems have emergent properties that cannot always be forecast. Collaboration is an emergent property of complex social interactions and dynamics (both on- and off-line). Without going deeper into theory, let’s just say that I think that collaboration will be one of the emergent properties of the IoT.

What would collaboration on the IoT look like? There seem to be four types of objects that can be connected: places, people, things and Information. Many years ago I defined collaboration “as a series of ongoing interactions between two or more people for a specific purpose or goal.” But the IoT is not made of people but things, and how can things collaborate? In the past I have talked about the first, second and third order effects of collaboration.

First, it was mostly publishing (Web pages) on the Internet where someone could read and comment. That does not strictly fit my definition of collaboration, nevertheless that is what happened in the mid-late ‘90s. The second order effect (foretold by Tim Berners-Lee) was that the Internet was for people, and so about a decade later we started to see the rise of on-line communities and social networks. Is the third order effect the ability to collaborate with things? And if so what does that mean?

Let’s look at an early example like the smart home. In this example every device, appliance, etc. is “smart” and has a link to the Internet. Because each of the devices hooked to the power grid (electric heater, dishwasher, burglar alarm) is now connected to each other they know not to run all at the same time (high electric bill), and that the burglar alarm is on at night, but the electric heater is not, so it is OK to run the dishwasher. Take this a step further and rather than one home, a whole city.

Songdo, South Korea, the first of its kind fully equipped and wired ubiquitous, or smart city is near completion. Nearly everything in this digital metropolis of smart homes is planned to be wired, connected and turned into a constant stream of data that would be monitored and analyzed by an array of computers with little, or no human intervention. Thus, Internet of Things, or embedded intelligence in things, with 'smart systems that are able to take over complex human perceptive and cognitive functions and frequently act unnoticeably in the background' is a close reality." Wikipedia

Imagine nano-sensors (today we use RFID or QR codes) in everything. They would give us a much more granular view of reality and could enable: mass-customization and personalization, small-area weather forecasting and real-time response because we sense our environment more quickly. Through this ability of time compression we could warn people about tornados and tidal waves much earlier. A third emergent property would be collaboration. Because the IoT is so huge, it would have to be self organizing, and groups of things in the IoT will organize around a common goal.

Will those self-organized, goal seeking things be able to communicate with you? If so, what would they say and what would you do? What would be required for this to happen? More addressable space for one thing; with the huge influx of data from all of these sensors such as IPv6 (a new version of the Internet), we would be able to connect to and identify any object.

Interactions which make up collaboration will now happen more frequently between machines (M2M -- machine-to-machine) communicating, but I am more interested in what the M2P (machine-to-people) communications will look like? Would I keep getting more messages in my already overwhelmed inbox? An email from my toaster telling me my toast is ready? Would the IoT introduce a new cacophony of messages from now “smart” machines I have to deal with, or additional sensor readings? How would I collaborate with a “smart” appliance? I wrote a blog a few years ago after attending SXSW on my refrigerator talking to me.

Talking to a Machine

The IoT is already here, and there are some new “smart” devices that can talk to your smart phone, tablet, and more. I will talk more about the devices, programs and platforms in a follow up article. Today we need to learn how to interact with these smart devices, and if these devices can collaborate with each other, why shouldn't we be able to collaborate with them?

Title image courtesy of Ociacia (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of David's thoughts on collaboration in Does Collaboration Bring Productivity?