Bengaluru: In 1999, British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton coined the term ‘Internet of Things’ while he was working at Procter & Gamble. Around that time, he made a presentation on putting sensors in everyday objects that would be powered by the Internet. Shortly afterwards, he co-founded a research centre in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the Auto-ID Centre.
Since then, Ashton founded three more companies in IoT. In an interview on the sidelines of the Nasscom Engineering Summit on Wednesday on IoT’s evolution and challenges. On a lighter note, when asked about the US presidential elections, Ashton said emphatically, “Trump won’t win. He doesn’t stand a chance.” Edited excerpts:
It’s been 17 years since you coined the term ‘Internet of Things.’ However, overall results in terms of scaling up have been mixed. Is IoT facing a mid-life crisis of sorts?
I think I am! (laughs) No—the very interesting thing that you see about the Internet of Things is…when it works, it’s kind of invisible. Like all good technology. Just as a simple example, if you look at the rise of the smartphone, one of the funny things about smartphone is that it’s got the word ‘phone’ in it today — because it’s not what it is. It’s not a phone.
Phone is an app that sometimes you use — so, what is a smartphone? Some say it’s a pocket-sized computer. But that’s not really it either. At least not how I look at it because a typical smartphone today has as many as 10 network sensors. That’s twice as many as a human being. So it’s a very sentient platform—and the obvious sensors are for example, cameras, microphones, etc.
But your smartphone knows where it is even when you don’t. It measures things like barometric pressure—many of them can detect your heartbeat or fingerprint or your moving. The vision of the Internet of Things is network sensors.
And the smartphone is just a visible example of a network sensor platform—the irony is that just because it’s called a phone nobody seems to realise it. My view is that we’re 15 years into a 100-year roll-out. So, I think if there’s any sort of crisis to IoT, it’ll be a teenage sort of crisis… we’re still in a very early growth phase—I don’t think we’ve grown up yet.
IoT deployments are moving at a much slower pace than was originally hoped. In many organisations, it’s still at a proof of concept stage. Why is the IoT facing challenges in scaling up?
It’s a software challenge that you have right now. We got very good at gathering sensor data. Sensors have become very cheap, networking has become very cheap—the new challenge is how to automatically process that data. In the 20th century, you got some data and you put it on a spreadsheet and everybody looked at the spreadsheet.
In the 21st century, the machine looks at the data and figures out what’s important and what to do with the data. There’s some complexity there—technological machine learning is getting better all the time, but that’s the limit right now.
What are the futuristic applications of IoT that seem like science fiction now?
The technology points to what you call autonomous automation. So, we think of automation right now, we think of giving machine a task, it executes a task, it stops. What will happen in the Internet of Things age is that’s the back-loop that’ll keep turning. The machine will change something in the world somehow, they will then sense that change and then figure out what to do next with that change.
Any examples that you can think of?
The easy one is self-driving cars. That’s coming very quickly everywhere... So this sort of continuous autonomous automation which will start with self-driving cars, I think that technology will start applying itself in the home where you’ll see things like more sophisticated vacuum cleaners, things like laundering which today is barely automatic—that’s the kind of stuff that you’re going to see. Continuous autonomous automation.
How does India compare with the tech boom that you saw in the US?
The first time I came to India I came as a student and I got a tourist railway pass. I was in Bombay and then I travelled around the country kind of in a clockwise direction. I always told my Indian friends that I’ve seen more of India than they have. Because of the direction of travel, Bangalore was one of the last places I came to and the contrast between Bangalore and what was Calcutta back then and Delhi and Bombay was very striking. And so, it’s always amazing to come back here and remember what it was like.
And that’s representative of the changes around the world. Which is the age of United States as a world technology leader is really over—which is very surprising to Americans because they talk about Facebook or Google. But if you look at what’s been going on in the market, US tech exports is sort of flat to declining and then you have Asian nations particularly China, Korea, Singapore and India that are on the rise.
And what’s fuelling that is very interesting to think about when you’re in Bangalore — which is what drove America to technological excellence in the 20th century was the establishment of some major technology universities between 1900 and 1950 and then significant government investment in science and research and development between 1950 and 1970.
And those investments laid the foundation for, take for example, all the tech companies of the dotcom boom, and we’re seeing the end of that tail now with Google and Facebook. Now if you look at what’s happened in Asia, you basically see the same path only a little later.
There’s an investment in education in technology, followed by government investment in pure science and R&D which is inevitably followed by an expansive technology sector that is supposed to be disruptive to more mature tech economies.
If you think of India with that pattern in mind, you have IITs everywhere, which in the 20th century exported its undergraduates to places like MIT but now they are coming back….What you see in India is also an amazing space program right here in Bangalore, increasing investment in defence and development. And what that is inevitably leading to is India becoming not just an offshore-outsource subsidiary centre of technology, but also a leading exporter of high technology and leading user of high technology.
I expect that we really are at the beginning of the Indian technology revolution…They’re going to form amazing technology companies and they’ll do it in areas like the Internet of Things which is new and disruptive…It’s great to come here and talk about the Internet of Things because my expectation is that 5-10 years from now, India will be one of the top three IoT tech exporters in the world. You’ll be competing with China and possibly South Korea.