The Connected Future of Humanity
Tangible progress in the Internet of Things technology is offering mankind a better future, transforming our experiences and lives on the way. However, this next big thing is not a low-hanging fruit and will require intensive effort to reach.
Since 1990, when John Romkey came up with the first-ever Internet connected device – a toaster that could be switched on and switched off through the World Wide Web – the Internet of Things (IoT) has gained strong traction. It is now regarded as the next big thing in the global economy, as there are expected to be roughly 40 billion ‘smart’ devices around the world by 2020. This rise of the machines that we are seeing today will have a profound impact on the way we live and behave as social human beings.
It is interesting that if we look for the word IoT on the Internet today, we receive responses from probably billions of sites. If we look at many crowd-funding sites, we see that there are tons of projects that are trying to add new products to the IoT space. Unfortunately, many of these projects, especially the ones for consumer IoT, are not so useful. Connected products like Tripper, which tracks whether windows or doors are open or closed; Egg Minder, which tracks number of eggs you have in your fridge; and Musical Shower Head are among those that did not manage to gain traction in the market. The reason is very simple: Often, these products are designed beautifully with playful attributes, but they rarely addresses a pain point of our everyday life.
One of the most successful consumer IoT devices, for example, is the Nest Thermostat. This is a learning thermostat that enters your home with a promise to cut energy cost by half, and it does it very well. It just tries to understand and monitor your behavior at home to make sure that you have the most comfortable climate in your house. And it does it automatically, so the user does not need to make any adjustments. The key point here to remember is that Nest solves a practical problem; those of us who have ever programmed a thermostat will agree that Nest saves us some effort by automating climate control in the home intelligently, while saving money and giving us back time, the most precious resource we have in our life.
Make people healthier and happier
Time and money are, of course, essential, but being healthy and happy is the most important aspect of our life. Naturally, we are observing phenomenal growth in the consumer wearable market. These life-monitoring devices essentially aim to capture various facets of our physical and mental health to offer quantified feedback so that we are more aware of ourselves and make more informed decisions respecting our health and lifestyles. For example, most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are stressed; it is caused by various things we encounter every day – work, travel, relationships, et cetera. Simple breathing exercises can often help us release stress, but timing is the key. If a wearable can capture and assess our stress level and trigger breathing or other simple interventions, that would dramatically impact out health and life in general.
This means that if technology can help people live healthier and safer lives, it will increase their happiness. So, can we come up with a technology that is capable of making you feel happier? This is a fundamental question that companies and research labs should ask and keep in mind while designing new consumer IoT technology for humans.
As an example, consider remote awareness experiences enabled by IoT. Imagine businessmen or professionals who travel frequently or have regular business engagements abroad. What if there was a technology that could actually let them keep tabs on their families remotely. This could be achieved easily using a connected camera in their home that is able to understand what is happening with their parents, kids, families, and friends, and can provide a humanlike explanation of the situation in the home as it sees through its lens.
Take another example: kids suffering from autism, which is a widespread issue nowadays. As medical science suggests, the earlier we can detect the problem, the better controlled it can be. But how can we capture that? How can we find that the kid is actually demonstrating the distinct signs? Think about a technology that could capture how many face-to-face interactions he or she is having in school or in kindergarten, or contact with other kids. This simple interaction tracking technology can help modeling behavioral traits of kids, which could detect, for instance, early signs of autism, and basically provide this feedback to parents to take timely action.
Sensing the world around you
All the above examples basically share the same objective, i.e., to offer useful services that solve a problem of everyday life, and in the process, these products become commercially successful. Interestingly, all these IoT technologies share a fundamental aspect: They all try to sense and understand people, as well as sense and understand the surrounding word.
Now, sensing the world in a traditional way demands a lot of sensors to be deployed in the environment. However, despite the phenomenal progress in the silicon sensor industry, we still do not have a planet-scale sensory infrastructure. Just to make a point, I can guarantee that almost none of us live in a smart home, even though the concept was first inaugurated roughly 35 years ago by Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo.
The primary barrier to a planet-scale sensory infrastructure is an economic one that includes the cost of deployment, management, and extension of the technology.
Now, there is at least one infrastructure around us, the radio infrastructure. Regardless of where you are on the planet today, you are always connected to a radio network, either through cellular or Wi-Fi, as long as you have a mobile or wearable device with you.
However, these networks have been designed as a communication infrastructure, so they are supposed to carry voice and your data from one point to another. But if we actually start using them as a sensor infrastructure, so that they can actually not only carry voice or your data but also carry senses, then we will have a sensor network that is covering almost the entire planet. Practically, it means if we can start using Wi-Fi networks as a sensing infrastructure, then we will immediately have a planet-scale sensing infrastructure. However, learning about humans from a wireless network is not easy, as the signals offered by these networks carry minimal information. However, with intelligent processing, one can sense and learn a lot. For example, if someone is connected to a Wi-Fi network using a mobile device, we can precisely tell his or her location and movements based on variations of wireless signals; applying a variety of models on top of this features, we can actually detect what a person is doing, e.g., working, sitting, sleeping, and so on; then, based on their activities and spatio-temporal trajectories, we can figure out even subjective aspects like happiness or stress. We have built a number of prototype systems at the lab where we use such signal processing techniques to understand human activity, interaction dynamics, and other behavioral traits, based purely on Wi-Fi signals.
One of the systems is called ‘Quantified Enterprise,’ and it captures, models, and quantifies workplace interaction, collaboration, and physical and mental well-being through Wi-Fi sensing, as well as offers personalized feedback to users through a cross-platform mobile application. Imagine you are managing a large team. Common knowledge is that if the team is not feeling well and you are not reacting, you are not doing your job right. But if you are not aware that your team is not feeling well, formally, you have no problem and cannot blame yourself, and necessary changes may remain stalled.
So, the fundamental step of making internal changes or making our life better is to first know that there is a problem that exists in our physical life. And in adding this kind of subtle technology that basically makes people aware of the surrounding world, we can help them make more informed, better decisions.
Another crucial aspect of the technology concerns sensing people, which practically boils down to understanding how we are doing. In fact, there are plenty of variables that we have in our own lives that can be sensed by specialized hardware. This respects such matters as how we feel, what our vital signs are, whether we are stressed or not. Unfortunately, these variables are mostly sensed quite badly today, and this is because of technical problems. Devices we use as monitors, such as Fitbits or smart watches, are very small, and they have very scarce processing capabilities. So, they cannot run complexly and do difficult things, unless personal data is uploaded to the cloud, as Apple Watches do, for example. And we cannot be quite happy about this situation, as it runs the risk of abuse of our privacy. Otherwise, if everything could be done locally on our wrist hardware, then it would actually bring a lot of benefit to the user. And that is purely the matter of technology that is not perfect yet.
This means if we go to the root of the problem of sensing humans, we need new hardware on hand, on body, or somewhere else, which is really very good. In fact, we need to make sure their performances are very high, medical-grade quality to perform really well; they should not release the data to the cloud to keep them private, and their battery must last longer.
There has already been tangible progress in addressing this issue. So, for example, at the Nokia Bell Lab, we are building a technology called the DeepX, which takes cloud-scale, unmodified deep learning models and squeezes them into small hardware with massive gains in accuracy and user privacy.
Summing all this up, I strongly believe the future of this connected world based on IoT technology means that we will have all the necessary capabilities to understand, access, and control everything, which is sizable for all people living on this planet. This could enable us to address not only the low-hanging issues of humanity but really tough problems that can practically make a big impact and create game-changing and transformative experiences in our life. Still, a lot of problems and many challenges must still be addressed. But this kind of future is really worth the effort.