Recap: October Dinner with Ed Barsalou and Mike Kelly

Farnsworth toaster quote

It was a bit on the loud side, but had plenty of geek jokes, maker opportunities, and, oddly enough, socks. And so our October Dinner on the Internet of Things came to pass at McCabe’s.

Ed and Mike kicked things off by defining… what is a “thing” anyway? Or, perhaps more accurately, a “Thing”. For our purposes, a Thing was anything potentially connected/networked, which wasn’t specifically a computer or a smartphone (i.e. already designed to be connected).

They gave some examples of Things in cinema, going back perhaps further than we realize, e.g. Maximum Overdrive (the movie came out in 1986, based on a Stephen King story originally published in 1973). Or Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, the original series of which debuted in 1978. (“Things” in cinema, like most things in cinema, are open to very creative interpretations…) I was a bit disappointed that Johnny 5 wasn’t mentioned. 🙂

They also pointed out that Things now can be a lot more organic. Literally. A Dutch company called Sparked started using wireless sensors on cattle back in 2008. Each cow was transmitting 200MB of actionable data each year. Things can be network-aware without being aware of the network, one could say.

Then Ed and Mike took us back in time, to some of the early experiments in the Internet of Things. Two of the earliest were a Coke machine and a coffee pot. Basically both were created because developers were lazy and enjoyed convenience. Do not underestimate these motivations in driving innovation.

Early on, Things had limited capabilities, and much of the networking was about monitoring. Control and access were limited, and the audience who might be interested was fairly small and made up of the very technically savvy. Back then, commercial opportunities were limited, but it didn’t stop people from talking about big ideas, like the day when your fridge could re-order groceries for you. (They still talk about that.)

Nowadays, Things have changed, and there are a lot more of them, though our motivations for convenience haven’t changed much. We have TVs that connect to our phones and computers. Thermostats that connect to our phones and emergency services. Cars that connect to our phones and car companies. These networked devices can make life more efficient and convenient, but they also raise questions about what all the data they produce says about us, and who has access to it.

As to where the Internet of Things is going, well, why settle for Things being aware when they can be so much more? As Professor Farnsworth announced, “Good news, everyone! I’ve taught the toaster to feel love.” The commercial opportunities continue to grow, too. Things don’t necessarily have to be practical to be successful. Furbies supposedly have more computer power than early lunar modules.

What makes these fun and frivolous (or just potentially ubiquitous) applications of the Internet of Things possible? Well, aside from lazy developers, falling prices, availability of useful components, miniaturization, and the reach of the Internet into people’s homes have all greatly contributed.

Internet access itself is no longer something you turn on and off and dial into when needed. It’s pretty much always on nowadays, whether you’re at home, on the go, or halfway around the world. The one change that will likely continue to develop is the move even further away from a client-server model where our Things have to phone home, so to speak. When every Thing could become its own server, sharing with other Things seamlessly.

The Internet of Things has expanded widely beyond the boundaries of recreation and commercial applications as well. It’s been integrated into art projects and remote scientific research, like weather stations and telescopes. (Though it should be noted that a big driver of networking big telescopes was how cold and remote observatories tend to be. Again, laziness and convenience.) Nowadays you can take pictures of the universe from the comfort of your living room.

However, there’s another threshold we’re only just coming to. Being online and talking to us is one thing. But what happens when the things bypass us and can freely interact with each other? (The aforementioned abandonment of the client-server model.)

Nest thermostats not only control a home’s temperatures. They collect data, which they share and use to create stats and analyze patterns. They learn and adapt via residents’ activities. They compare our “performance” to others in our areas and encourage greater efficiencies. Nest fire alarms even automatically alert the homeowner and can call emergency services.

However, we should note that autonomous communication isn’t sentience, and we’re nowhere near Things becoming independent or intentionally acting against our wishes. (Except in Maximum Overdrive…) However, it’s possible for the fridge to order more milk, or for your car to alert your house that you’re nearing home, and to turn on the lights and open the garage door. Connecting hardware and software makes Things more powerful and useful, but also generates more and more data and creates more potential points of failure.

Machines don’t program themselves. They are built and programmed by people, and people make mistakes. Some vulnerabilities have lain more or less invisible for decades before being uncovered. And beyond potential flaws on the development side, there are weak links on the consumer side. There is the potential for many, many different versions, hacks, and levels of vigilance in software maintenance, upgrades, and security.

And, fundamentally, many things and potential Things were just never designed to be online. We can kludge the functionality together, but weaknesses are almost guaranteed, and good security coverage and a focus on things like privacy are often secondary, if provided for at all. Just wanting to get a product on the market doesn’t guarantee that a company will sell a good one. (Per Mike, the Heatmiser WiFi thermostat is NOT recommended.)

Having your website hacked is one thing. What about your car? While you’re driving it? What if criminals could know exactly when you were home or away, and tell your house to let them in? Your toaster might learn to love you, but it’s not savvy enough to resist being turned against you.

And what happens to all that data these devices are churning out? Is it ours, or does it belong to the companies that made the Things? Is our permission being asked before it’s used in analysis, even in anonymous aggregate? How many people even check?

The Nest thermostat is a good example. They were a small, up-and-coming company, and then they were acquired by Google. Our preferences and concerns about our data being accessible by a small company is one thing. Our preferences and concerns about our data being accessible by Google (which, let’s face it, already likely knows more about us than most) is quite another.

Even Jim Farley, an executive at Ford, has pointed out how much they know, right down to where we are, when, to whether we’re speeding, etc. They claim not to give the data to anyone, but do you trust them? Might they in the future? And, in the mean time, what are they doing with it?

It’s an interesting parallel with other, even more personal technology. For example, the ability to analyze our DNA and potentially find traits and health issues that we don’t know about yet. Sure, that information, in aggregate, could eventually help save lives. But it could also lead to people being discriminated against because of the makeup of their genes. How much do you think you’d pay for car insurance if the insurance company knew all of your driving patterns and bad habits in advance?

We also have the challenge of where all of these Things will “live”. Every connected Thing needs its own address, and we’re running out of the current supply of IP addresses, based on the IPv4 protocol. In total there is fewer than one address per person — how many Internet-enabled gadgets do you already have? Moving to IPv6, however, creates the potential for enough IP addresses for every snowflake that’s ever fallen on earth. (Or something about a really, really big Twinkie.)

So what kinds of things will we be developing to use up these addresses?

  • Toys, presumably, which will not only be able to sing and dance, but play with each other. Time to take your AIBO to the robot dog park?
  • Household appliances, taking us back to the beginning. Starting up the coffee pot and warming up the shower from your phone as you get out of bed? Yes, please.
  • Utilities – water, power, and gas, making our lives more efficient and comfortable and saving money and resources.
  • Wearables, keeping us fit and healthy, as well as stylish.
  • Gardening and agriculture – the cows have been networked for years, and perhaps soon the corn will report a pest invasion or the need for water.
  • Pet tracking – FitBit for dogs is already here. Personally, I can’t wait for my dog to alert me verbally to the presence of squirrels, like Dug from Up.
  • Supply chains, including packaging and transportation. There is a lot of money in industries like pharmaceuticals, and a lot of value in companies not only knowing their shipments got to stores safely, but also when product was bought and opened.
  • Drones and probes – we can use them for everything from busting crime to exploring other worlds.

So if one wanted to create or play with Things, how to do so? Well, there are plenty of off-the-shelf options, like the aforementioned Nest, the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant, or Philips Hue lights.

There are do-it-yourself kits, like those available from Sparkfun or Adafruit. Or you can start from scratch and build up your own, with parts from sources like Arduino, Teensy, BASIC Stamp, Propeller, Raspberry Pi, or BeagleBone.)

You can get ideas and learn how to build with your fancy new toys online at places like Adafruit, Hack-a-day, or SparkFun. Or you can make friends and meet mentors in person at public maker spaces, like KwartzLab in Kitchener, Diyode in Guelph, even at the Kitchener or Waterloo Public Libraries. (Did you know KPL even has a 3D printer now? Check out our Girl Geek Dinner recap from there.)

The Internet of Things is still in its clumsy infancy. We are still in the curious “what if?” stage, and there will be both brilliant ideas and bad stumbles. We are doing this, though. We’re building and connecting our world, and soon much of what we enjoy as science fiction will be, at its most outrageous, merely speculative. And more likely much of it will fade into the background of our lives.

Not only can we enjoy these Things to make our lives more convenient, efficient, and fun, but we can create them, exploring our own ideas and learning enough to create Things that are smart, safe, and as private as we want them to be.

And with that, we came to the end of our evening, and many folks stuck around to chat or have a look at some of the gadgets and items that Ed and Mike brought. And somehow the conversation turned to the Internet of… Socks?

Stay tuned for our November Dinner announcement, coming up shortly. We’ll be kickin’ it startup style again, so all you entrepreneurial types get ready.


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