The ecology of new technology

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Below is an excerpt about the evolution of the Internet of Things taken from the tech and innovation report “Dubai’s Next Act: Becoming the scholar of smart cities” published by Investvine

No longer a realm reserved for techno-futurists, the Internet of Things, whether perceptible or not, affects our lives every day. In Dubai, the first stage of such machine-to-machine interaction will begin to transform the city’s ecosystem through smart buildings.

 

When Dmitri Mendeleev first arranged the periodic table in 1869, he left blank spaces. Not because he was inaccurate. Not because he was lazy. But rather, with genius prescience, he believed that unknown elements yet to be discovered were undeniably part of our complex universe.

So it is today with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) — a network of “things” that collect and exchange data, also commonly known as machine-to-machine technology. Whether its smart room thermostats that connect with sensors to “learn” cooling and heating patterns of its occupants, or wearable fitness technology that communicates biometric data to your smartphone, our world is already being changed by an overwhelming mass of new data detailing the human condition. And this is just the beginning; we must anticipate more to come at this early stage, just like Mendeleev, even if we remain awkwardly unsure.

In Dubai, the first stage of this information revolution will be experienced through infrastructure, both physical and digital, with the most fundamental building block of urban centers: buildings. “Having smarter buildings will enable customers to manage their energy bills better, as well as air conditioning and facilities management,” Chairman of the Smart Dubai Executive Committee Ahmad bin Byat said at the inaugural Internet of Things Expo IoTX in Dubai in June 2015, The National reported.

Through the first stage of Dubai’s smart development strategy, IoT is emphasised as a key enabler in creating “the world’s smartest city” – necessary to spur innovation in a knowledge-based economy and society by opening up a world of possibilities through torrents of new data collected from objects and people embedded with sensors and Internet connectivity.

 

“Consumers and businesses face an avalanche of innovative new services in the home, at the office and across society at large,” said Trixie LohMirmand, Senior Vice President, Exhibitions and Events Management at Dubai World Trade Center, at the conference. And with IoT, Dubai will experience continuous change, she continued, “as multiple machines, devices and appliances connect to the Internet through increasingly sophisticated networks.”

Moreover, the Dubai Smart Government, as part of its Dubai Smart Government Strategy, has created a strategic programme called “Smart Technology and Infrastructure” with the sole purpose of deploying IoT-related sensors and actuators to enhance its public services. The programme entails substantial innovation in the public sector and identifies use-cases in public services to implement IoT technologies.

This expected increase in sophistication, like Mendeleev’s venture into the atomic universe, will present life-altering benefits, but also its fair share of quandaries and quagmires. Urban centers saturated in trillions of data points will require new standards in how we quantify digital mass and communication, how they are governed, and how we protect them from cyber attacks and other security breaches. This is, in essence, the ushering of “an era of unbounded malignant complexity,” says Mickey McManus, principal of MAYA Design and co-author of Trillions, a breakthrough work that takes a comprehensive look at the evolution of IoT.

For McManus, the IoT is most efficiently analysed through the
lens of a technologist who has the environmental understanding of an ecologist, with all its inter-connected complexities. In an ideal smart city we will begin viewing the IoT not as individual things, or species, if you will, but as the pattern of interactions that connect them.

 

“It’s about designing the ecosystem, not designing a thing. And the ecosystem should be designed for loss of control because ecosystems, like economies, live on the edge of chaos, at least healthy ones,” McManus explains. “They all allow for independent actors to exploit underused resources — that’s entrepreneurship, but in nature it can also be seen as “your waste is someone else’s food.” My advice for the designers of smart cities would be bio-mimicry— start looking at how nature solved it.”

This metaphor, McManus expounds, is also applicable to how the IoT can be scaled. Natural ecosystems thrive because of a “common currency,” defined in nature as the carbon cycle. But the IoT has not evolved
far enough yet to quantify itself, lacking liquidity and thus the ability to efficiently exploit its assets.

“We have a bit; we have a byte; and we have a packet – the fundamental currencies of the Internet. But then we have nothing all the way up to a database. We’re missing everything in between,” McManus explains, adding: “But if we just moved one level up, that would allow for liquidity and an information carbon cycle that would flow between atoms and bits.”

This “common currency” – which technologists have hypothesised could be called a “little box” – would allow for clearer perception of the patterns that technological devices use when consuming and shedding waves of IoT data. It would be like having a kind of Bitcoin blockchain everywhere.

That way, IoT technology is collecting more than data; it’s collecting natural resources. Google’s Nest, a “learning thermostat,” which the tech giant acquired for $3.2 billion in 2014, is today a common example of an IoT “oil well” – it siphons off data pouring out of the environment it is installed. In Nest’s case, it’s the space between your kitchen and your living room. The “oil” being drilled for by Nest, however, is refined in the form of rich data, and not just temperatures – optimised humidity levels, and sleeping and eating patterns are also gathered. The scholar of all smart cities would, ideally, install “oil wells” like this across an urban landscape, offsetting economic deadweight losses in the process and reselling its findings to the world.

 

At its core, the future of IoT is about “collaboration, the government and its people,” states Ahmad bin Byat. But such interconnectivity can and will reach beyond Dubai.

As a pioneering smart city, the emirate is among the best positioned to begin harvesting and trading data created in their own ecosystem with those of partner cities, establishing the first global marketplace of machine-to- machine data. These markets would be valued like economies, relevant to the ecosystem they encompass and the commerce they are inherently connected to. This could very well be part of Dubai’s near future.

A one-on-one interview: Collecting Data Everywhere

Investvine talks with Mickey McManus, principal of MAYA Design and co-author of Trillions, a breakthrough work on the evolution of the Internet of Things.

Being that the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming such a buzzword, I fear that people are glazing over the complexities
of it. Can you briefly explain IoT through your eyes?

The so-called IoT – and I say “so-called” because the reality
is that what’s coming is much bigger – misstates the opportunity quite dramatically. A lot of things that aren’t things at all, such as people and places, are probably going to be a part of the IoT.

There are a lot of people, places and things to connect, don’t you think?

We now have eight billion supercomputers in our pockets in the form of smartphones. Today, there are already more computers than people. In 2010, ten billion microprocessors were produced in one year alone. And since then, every year more transistors were produced than grains of rice. That’s the context of what’s coming.

 

Is this the degree of complexity you wrote about in Trillions?

A trillion is a really big number. I, frankly, would actually like to see us stop talking about computing so much and let that fade into the background. In the future, we will be swimming through seas of information, based on trillions of things, not just computers.

What can smart cities do to ensure such complex systems even make sense?

I think history books are going to call the next information age “an era of unbounded malignant complexity.” If you are trying to build a city at such a level of complexity and connectivity, you are going to have to change your perspective and stop thinking of the IoT. You need to look at patterns that we can use to solve such a big system, as observable in ecosystems.

Are you suggesting technologists begin to start thinking like ecologists?

Nature is an ultra-complex system that has been running experiments for three billion years. My advice would be bio-mimicry for cities and information systems. We need to start looking at how nature solved such systems, at least as a metaphor.

Understanding the malignant powers that could harm these systems, how do you propose to future-proof our ecosystems?

I think that we need to define the system — where are the flows, sinks and organisms? And how does it turn things on and off? It’s almost like an ecosystem. We also need to get a good map that allows us to create future-proof solutions. We should at least invest 5 per cent of creative power in information architecture.

You have spoken about the IoT lacking a “common currency,” like the carbon cycle in the natural world. So, what is it running on today?

We are in what we call a barter economy. And that doesn’t scale. Isaac Newton once was Master of the Mint at the Royal Bank of England and he introduced the gold standard to allow for liquidity and fluidity. What followed was the emergence of a worldwide currency market over the course of a few hundred years. I think that same thing has to happen for the IoT.

When do you think we will reach a point where IoT will include the human body?

With wearables, we can create something like an owner’s manual for the human body. This is something we never had before. We could literally create this manual for the human body in less than five years if we handle the IoT correctly.

 

You really believe such maps of biological data are feasible in less than five years?

I’ll give you an example: There are many body signals we normally do not pay attention to. If you lower your breathing down to six breaths per minute, your blood pressure will drop by twenty points. But we don’t know why. Probably yogis figured that out 1,000 years ago and we forgot it. If we actually started harvesting all this data, fused it and analysed it, then we would discover all sorts of amazing things.

So, what is holding us back?

I don’t think we take it seriously enough. When I say complexity, people glaze over. I don’t think anyone is designing more than an Internet of five things – and at Samsung it’s the Internet of their things.

To sum up, what would Dubai look like if it ideally implemented an IoT system?

Dubai had previously benefited from natural resources in the ground. But there are natural resources in every citizen of a city in the form of exhaust data, and information is power. Data is pouring off of a person’s body every day; it is pouring down from the sun on top of every building; it is pouring through the intersections between cars and people and streets. What if we started collecting everything?

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