Interview with Kevin Ashton – inventor of IoT: Is driven by the users

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Interview with Kevin Ashton – inventor of IoT: Is driven by the users

Kevin Ashton is sometimes called the “Inventor of IoT” since the first used the term in 1999 to describe a system where the Internet is connected to the physical world via ubiquitous sensors. He is a serial entrepreneur and co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT.

by Tim Cole

You coined the term the “Internet of Things” in 1999, but what did it mean then and is the definition still valid?

It meant using the Internet to empower computers to sense the world for themselves. It still does. Did you believe then that IoT would actually change the world? It wasn’t hard to believe that to enable computers to sense the world would change the world. It was a little harder to believe it might be possible.

It is difficult to imagine today, but there was a lot of skepticism back then, and plenty of “experts” were eager to explain why it was an impossible idea. Some of those objections seem especially hilarious today. People thought all that data would crash the Internet; that the laws of physics meant the type of radio communication we needed was impossible; that silicon chips could never cost less than a dollar; that the internet was a fad; that there was not enough silicon in the world; that we already had all the data we needed. And when I say “people” I mean serious people, like academic specialists with tenure. Many of my early presentations were met with open hostility. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were so few people who believed in this idea that we all knew each other personally and could get lunch together. They helped me to keep believing – when a lot of people think you’re crazy, you often wonder if they’re right.
Kevin Ashton - Inventor of IoT

Is IoT just another buzzword?

Yes and no. Buzzword means something people say frequently but don’t understand. There are a lot of people doing that with the Internet of Things, and many of them work for those big IT companies who didn’t understand the Internet of Things in the beginning. Their customers are talking about it, so they are talking about it – even though they don’t know what it is. That’s how you get all this crap, like the “Internet of Everything,” the “Industrial Internet,” and so on.

When a lot of people think you’re crazy, you often wonder if they are right

People get “IoT” added to their job title and are assigned the task of selling old products to new customers – not actually Internet of Things products, just cloud services, reporting systems, routers, or whatever, that now have an IoT sticker on the box. In all those cases, IoT is a buzzword, devoid of any real meaning, not adding any real value. But that is not a problem with the concept, it’s a problem with the people and companies that are desperately trying to hop onto the bandwagon without bothering to understand the paradigm shift going on all around them. That’s always going to happen when something is successful.

So what is it?

The actual concept of the Internet of Things is real, powerful, and not a buzzword at all. And the people and companies that understand it fully do amazing things. A lot of those companies don’t use the term IoT very much at all, by the way. Uber, Nest, Tesla, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Samsung, for example, all use the Internet of Things in various ways, but they don’t mention it any more than they mention, say, being an Internet company or a computer business. They focus instead on the benefits using the Internet of Things brings to their customers – and that’s the way it should be.

How can companies win with IoT?

The first thing to know is that it was not the IT industry that drove the early development of the Internet of Things, but end users. In the late 1990s, the IT industry was preoccupied with the World Wide Web and did not understand the Internet of Things at all. They didn’t even pay lip service to it back then.

But big companies like Procter & Gamble (where I worked), Gillette (now part of Procter & Gamble, but still a separate company back then), Wal‑Mart, Tesco, Canon, Coca‑Cola, and government organizations like the Department of Defense and the United States Postal Service, had all figured out that their supply chains could reap massive benefits from the Internet of Things. They all started to invest in our research, and eventually some of the IT companies, like Sun Microsystems and Accenture, followed. That’s important, because the Internet of Things is not a solution looking for a problem: it’s a solution to a big, real problem – the problem of knowing everything you need to know about the physical world. That could be where things are, or where customers are, or whether things need maintenance, or something else.

What big things will build on the Internet of Things? One is “messy automation” – systems that can cope with the randomness and complexity of the real world

The way to win is to figure out what you need to know about the physical world to make your business the best it can possibly be for your customer, then figure out how to get and use that information. This is not as easy as it sounds: most businesses have be‑ come so used to the information they have that they can’t see the information they don’t have – and how much their ignorance is hurting them.

Any good examples?

Here’s an easy one: why didn’t any taxicab services, anywhere in the world, think to create an app that matched passenger GPS information to driver GPS information to make getting a ride more efficient? Why did it take new entrants like Uber and Lyft to do that? With hindsight, it’s an obvious improvement to calling for a taxi, or standing on a street corner, sticking your hand out and hoping. But it was not obvious at all, because incumbent taxi businesses were so accustomed to not knowing where passengers and drivers were, that they didn‘t see the opportunity. There’s an information gap like that in every business. Finding it and filling it is the way companies win with IoT.

What’s the next big thing after IoT?

It‘s convenient and useful to divide technological progress into parts like chapters in a book, but, just like chapters, what comes next builds on what’s gone before, making technology a continuous story, not a series of discrete episodes. The Internet of Things builds on the Internet, which builds on computing, and so on. There’s no hard edge where one thing stops, and another starts, so “before” and “after” is very subjective.

What big things will build on the Internet of Things? One is “messy automation” – systems that can cope with the randomness and complexity of the real world. We are starting to see that now with the emergence of self‑ driving cars and robots that can sew clothes. Previously, automated systems needed everything to be precisely controlled and repeated, within very small tolerances and with little margin for error. Think of robotic arms painting cars on production lines. Those robots were just repeating the same movements again and again, very precisely, with very little sensory input or ability to understand the world around them.
As IoT becomes more sophisticated, robotic systems will get better at interpreting the world around them and making good choices in unexpected, non‑deterministic situations. That will remove a fundamental constraint on automation, and opens a whole new world of applications to explore – for example washing machines that don’t just clean your clothes, but sorts them from the laundry basket, folds them, and puts them back in your closet once they are clean; or robots that can perform surgery without human operators; or machines that sort trash and remove high‑quality materials for recycling and reuse; or vehicles that can rescue people from dangerous environments like fires and floods.
Bookcover: IoT Inventor Kevin Ashton - How to fly a horse

To create is human: In his book How to Fly a Horse (Penguin, 2015), Kevin Ashton draws on examples from Mozart to the Muppets to reveal the hidden secrets of human creativity


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