Speaker Vivek Wadhwa on the Internet of Things

When Your Scale Talks to Your Refrigerator

From Vivek Wadhwa’s award winning book, The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

Your refrigerator will talk to your toothbrush, your gym shoes, your car, and your bathroom scale. They will all have a direct line to your smartphone and tell your digital doctor whether you have been eating right, exercising, brushing your teeth, or driving too fast. I have no idea what they will think of us or gossip about; but I know that many more of our electronic devices will soon be sharing information about us— with each other and with the companies that make or support them.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, our vehicles, our homes, our offices, and our public places. Those sensors will be connected to each other via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or mobile-phone technology. Using wireless chips that are getting smaller and cheaper, the sensors and tiny co-located computers will upload collected data via the Internet to central storage facilities managed by technology companies. Their software will warn you if your front door is open, if you haven’t eaten enough vegetables this week, or if you have been brushing your teeth too hard on the left side of your mouth.

The IoT will be everywhere, from heart-rate monitors in your watches to breathing monitors stitched into your child’s pajamas. It will help us learn from our behaviors, manage our environment, and live a richer life.

Nest Thermostat, discussed by Vivek WadhwaThe smash-hit Nest home thermostat may surprise you. What could be more boring and mundane than a thermostat, right? Yet the Nest is a beautiful glowing dial on your wall that is extremely easy to understand and adjust.

Americans waste huge amounts of money running their heaters and air conditioners when they aren’t at home. Some people remember to turn these systems on and off when they are coming or going, but few are conscious of the seasonal adjustments they make to heating and cooling usage in their homes, or how they behave differently on weekends. That adds up to billions of dollars each year in wasted energy spending. It’s an enormous market, one that is hard to address without building a truly intelligent and connected device.

The Nest set a new standard for smart devices. With motion sensors, the Nest monitors a user’s daily movements. In the first few weeks after installation, it studies your behavior to learn your preferred home temperature. It also studies your coming and goings. You need to actively adjust the Nest during that period, but like a good soft A.I., it learns your habits and then starts to work all by itself.

By a certain point, the Nest becomes nearly 100 percent autonomous and optimizes the temperature in your home with no prompting. It reduces energy bills, perhaps by as much as 10 percent, and makes your home more comfortable.

The Nest also ties into utility programs that ask users to cut back on power usage at times when energy consumption is at a peak, to relieve pressure on the electrical grid. Nest users who live where such programs are in place can save 5 percent or more on power bills by participating. That’s an early but effective instance of the smart grid, a sub-sector of the Internet of Things focusing on energy and our giant, antiquated, and inefficient power generation and transmission system.

You can install the Nest application on your phone and control your home environment remotely. So, say, if you want to start cooling down your house fifteen minutes before you arrive home, you can send a message to the Nest. That’s handy if you are coming home earlier than planned on a hot summer day in Phoenix, for example.

Since designing its thermostat, Nest, which operates as an autonomous unit inside Google, has released a smoke detector and a video camera to monitor for intruders or behavior of pets (and perhaps children or teenagers?). It will probably release many new products, all controllable from the Nest application.

Technology companies say they will use the Internet of Things in the same way: to reduce our energy usage, improve our health, make us more secure, and nudge us toward better lifestyles. Of course, the IoT, they say, will save us money too. The ability to collect such data will have a profound effect on the economy. The McKinsey Global Institute, in a report titled The Internet of Things: Mapping the Value beyond the Hype, says that the economic impact of the Internet of Things could be $3.9 to $11.1 trillion per year by 2025: up to 11 percent of the global economy.

Futurist Vivek Wadhwa on IOTMuch of the value of the IoT is hard for us to comprehend, because it will be machines talking to other machines to enable different A.I. systems to work together and make better decisions. By monitoring machines on the factory floor, the progress of ships at sea, and traffic patterns in cities, the IoT will reach far beyond our homes and create value through productivity improvements, time savings, and improvements in asset utilization. The 200-mile-per-hour ride in a Google car will be controlled by a transportation subset of the Internet of Things, a web of sensors on the roadways and embedded in the vehicles that will allow them to speak the same language.

The McKinsey report also assigns value to the IoT by including the economic impact of reductions in disease, accidents, and deaths. Those are real economic benefits even if they are hard to calculate today, with few of those systems in place. McKinsey believes that the IoT will monitor and help manage a huge swath of activity on Earth: the natural world, people, and animals.

The Internet of Things should not only change our interactions with devices and improve their efficiencies but also create entirely new ways of understanding the global economic engine. Turning electronic products into software-controlled machines enables continuous improvements both to the machines and to the business models for using them. The constant improvement in features that we see in our smartphones will become common on our other devices.

Everything will be connected, including cars, street lighting, jet engines, medical scanners, and household appliances. Rather than throw appliances away when a new model comes out, we will just download new features. That is how Tesla is enhancing the self-driving features in its cars: learning and then sending software updates every few weeks. Through the software of the Internet of Things, everything will drive itself, upgrade itself, turn itself on and off at the right time, and know when it is about to break down.