Recently, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Munich, Germany during a trip to visit with family and discovered that just north of town is the city of Ingolstadt, which is home to the Audi factory. Being somewhat of a gear-head and very much an Audi fan, I decided to take the factory tour and check out the museum (I essentially got a private tour as I took the English version and it was only my wife and I on it - HIGHLY recommend it!).
The factory is awe-inspiring. The precision, engineering skill, and capability, and just the sheer magnitude of what happens there is difficult to convey in words (and they won’t allow you to take pictures or I would have). As we walked amongst the fully automated parts delivery, welding and assembly robots, and the amazing tooling and stamping lines, I was struck, as was my wife, by the sheer digital power on display. The interconnection of CPU "brains" in these devices that is required to achieve such incredible efficiency and deliver a completed car from blank steel within 34 hours is staggering. I said, as we passed between buildings, that we were witnessing a great example of the Internet of Things (IoT) in action, but I think actually that IoUT would have been a more appropriate term to use.
The IoUT vs. The IoST
The IoUT is the Internet of Useful Things - a term I have begun using to describe things that are using the collection, sharing, and analysis of data and networking to enable something really good and beneficial. The IoST is its evil twin and is occupied by things like toothbrushes, networked light bulbs, and tampons (seriously, just when I think we are at peak stupid, we outdo ourselves again…). I call it The Internet of Stupid Things and it is the prime example of the saying, "just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should". There is obviously an inherent value judgment that I am making with this statement, and in some respects, it is designed to be inciting. I want people to think about data; the way it's used, the way it's managed, and most importantly the way it gets created. As I have said before, data for the sake of data is not necessarily "good" data. The Big Data fallacy is that we have to have lots of data of every possible type in order to create real value, and the IoST is the byproduct of that fallacy.
The fact is that the IoT is here to stay, and as our capability to incorporate digital mechanisms and interfaces into the common and everyday objects of our lives increases the IoT will increase along with it. However, this is the heart of the issue with the IoT, and indeed "Big" Data, and many other things that happen; should we really network “all the things” just because we can?
I believe that the resounding answer is NO. There is no conceivable reason that my toaster needs an app. I do not want one app for my light bulbs, one for my switches, and one for my home-awareness system. Unfortunately, in the absence of standards and a common focus, that's exactly what is occurring, and it is the genesis of the IoST. The types of things that could really benefit from being digitized and connected like cars, traffic sensors and cameras, airplanes, and mass transit systems, take a backseat to toothbrushes and thermostats (although I want my fridge to count calories and order groceries for me, and my stove to alert me when something is done cooking - seriously, I do).
How the IoT Will Continue to Shape the World
The IoUT is slower to build and develop and the way it impacts us is not as "gee whiz" as the connected hair-dryer which has a marketable, shiny, and most importantly, consumer-driven "use". It impacts us in subtle ways that may not feel measurable - like changes in traffic patterns and the measure of rainfall and the reduction of flight delays. The most obvious example of IoT technology that is useful and who's time is long-since been needed to come is the connected, self-driving automobile. Audi, BMW, Tesla, the "Big 3" and many others are all working on some form of self-drive and frankly, it is about damn time. Unfortunately, we are the weak link in the chain because humans have a real problem with control and more importantly with letting go of it. Until we as a collective species get over this irrational fear of something doing things better than we can, then the types of advancement we need will continue to lag behind the kinds we definitely don't.
IoT is a critical technology that will continue to shape and drive the world around us for decades to come. I for one hope that shape is built around the IoUT and not the IoST. Now I need to find my phone so I can turn on the power strip and watch TV.