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No, IoT will not change the world

Sorry for the clickbait opening! What I mean is that IoT is just a tiny fraction, and possibly the most obvious evolution of the tools we need to remake humanities interaction with our world; how we consume, preserve and sustain our societies.

Computation and communications are cheap. Our things measure the world around us and tell us about their “lives.” They act as an extension of ourselves, feeling, tasting, sensing pressure, vibration, color, heat and a lot more. Modern internet and other communications technology allow us to transmit this data across the street or across the galaxy! Data science and applied mathematics techniques give us a way of learning about the relationships in this data. Big data technologies let us store and perform computations on this raw data, turning it from data to information and finally to knowledge. The internet of things is allowing us to discover the Universe through these things we’ve built.

Indulge me a bit.

Thousands of years ago, we solved everything empirically, but we had precious little data and only rudimentary interpretation techniques. The fire burned our hand, we stopped putting our hand in the fire … a Homo erectus genius is born.

A few centuries ago, we’d developed complex symbolic manipulation (algebra, the Calculus, etc.) that allowed us to develop analytical solutions; formulas that described often relatively simple phenomena … we plug in the inputs and we get the result. Sometimes innovation itself was the process of deriving formulas from trivial observations (e.g., coming up with Pythagoras’ Theorem relating the lengths of sides in a triangle). And before anyone defends the poor and maligned Pythagoras, by “trivial” I meant “simple” observations, not “unimportant” ones.

But we were still dealing with small data and phenomena that were relatively simple. Not so in today’s world. Between McKinsey, Gartner and others, you can get a sense for just how real is the big data deluge. IoT has created oceans of data (forgive the relapse into the water metaphor, I’ll spare you the data lake even), and there’s been a positive feedback cycle whereby our species has developed incredible numerical techniques (as opposed to the symbolic ones of the previous paragraph) for describing the world around us, further justifying capturing more data, accelerating the advancement of the applied mathematics and … well, you get the point.

When I say numerical techniques, I mean that we aren’t using formulas to derive new formulas or algebra to derive new laws. Now we use the relationships hidden in IoT data to work backwards, in a sense. We start with the big data, and we may not even use that to develop a theoretical understanding of the world … we may simply assume a “black box;” the world turns, the sensors of our IoT capture the details, and we derive what’s going to happen next without understanding why (e.g., artificial neural networks in the field of AI). Lacking the fundamental why isn’t acceptable for a PhD dissertation — it’s no way to do pure research, but in the commercial world we can get by without knowing the why. In fact, freeing ourselves from the why question can permit all manner of business innovation even if it won’t win anyone a Nobel Prize. Think about this as being able to say when a particular component in a factory is going to fail, but not having a complete understanding of how this comes about.

For those of you interested in the philosophy, you might even say that the symbolic techniques of academia are simply inadequate to the tasks of understanding the complex world, regardless of how far we advance (see Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems).

So why is this important? Why is it exciting? Why does it matter? For the first time in the history of our species, we have a cost-effective way of learning about the “private lives” of our things, picking apart not how they’re supposed to work, but how they actually work. Not how they’re intended to be used, but how they’re actually used. Our things can learn and improve. They can work more effectively, efficiently, live longer and at a lower cost. Society gets more for less, and we all live better for it. Seen this way, IoT is transformative … now that’s exciting!

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