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.

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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.