Kevin Ashton is predominantly known for having coined the term “Internet of Things” in 1999. Two decades on, the innovator continues to challenge businesses to realize the potential of this space, to take note of barriers to its progress, and to gaze into a future where technology sets off a chain of positive cause and effect.
In a smartened, digital world, the IoT – and its sub-segment, the IIoT or Industrial Internet of Things –will help orchestrate everything from factory floors, physical products and workers to enterprise functions and processes. This development is set to unleash enormous value potential. At the moment, however, the pace of IoT adoption has been slow-moving.
Research published by the World Economic Forum in late 2015 revealed that while 72 percent of C-level executives interviewed believed that the IoT would radically change their industries, only 20 percent have thought of a strategy to utilize it. In his book Industry X.O, Eric Schaeffer, Senior Managing Director at Accenture, points out that perhaps business leaders are overwhelmed by these incessantly evolving technologies. “This sort of disorientation might even repel enterprises and their executives to the point of postponing work or even giving up completely on attempting a future-proof digital strategy,” he writes.
According to Kevin Ashton, meanwhile, sometimes the transformational value of IoT deployment is the accumulation of lots of little benefits. He even likens it to playing golf. “People want to get the hole-in-one with an IoT application: They would like profits to go up 50% and costs to go down 100%, for instance. For mature industries, however, it’s not always about the hole-in-one. Sometimes it’s just about playing a slightly better round than the one you played before,” he says. The aggregation of incremental value is something not to be overlooked.
We’ll see tremendous growth in the IoT because there will be a lot of reapplication for technology created for fast-growing markets.
In terms of IoT deployment success stories, Ashton shares that the automotive industry is the easiest one to mention. “It’s transforming in a way that can be profoundly disruptive to less nimble players. We’ll see that most vehicles will be electric within the next 15 years, or that most vehicles will be self-driving within the next 20 years or so,” he explains. “One interesting aspect is that if you have a self-driving electric vehicle, a lot of its capabilities are controlled by software. It’s something Tesla is doing right now. If you’re a Tesla owner, you may wake up in the morning and find you have a better car than the one you had when you went to bed.”
An IoT-enabled automobile is profoundly disruptive to the existing model, and equivalent examples can be found in practically any industry. As far as Ashton is concerned, companies that are complacent are going to find themselves in a competitive disadvantage eventually.
Hurdles to progress
The cross-fertilization that happens in technology—where solutions developed in one area for one thing often then find new purpose in others—is also worth noting. As Ashton notes, once you have a huge growth in one area, that advancement tends to benefit a host of secondary applications. “We’ll see tremendous growth in the IoT because there will be lot of reapplication for technology created for fast growing markets,” he continues.
On the other hand, there are also factors that are holding this progress back. “It refers to a bunch of people who don’t understand—and therefore don’t want to change—and sometimes those people are decision-makers. Ultimately, these individuals get disrupted by someone, but it takes—as in the automotive industry, for example—an Elon Musk type of person to demonstrate that electric cars and self-driving cars are commercially viable. Advances in some areas will drive advances in all areas, but there will be resistance from those who don’t get it. They will drag their feet and slow things down a little bit.”
IoT-related buzzwords to forget
Ashton expresses displeasure that “Internet of Things” has somehow become a buzzword that everyone uses without knowing or understanding what it truly means. “IoT is computers gathering data by themselves for themselves – that’s profoundly important. It can be a hard paradigm shift to understand, but this is very real. It’s not a vapid phrase.” The phrase “Internet of Things” was the title of a presentation he made at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1999. The internet was a red-hot topic then, and Ashton linked it to the idea of RFID (radio frequency identification) in P&G’s supply chain.
As far as IoT-related jargon is concerned, artificial intelligence is a pretty hollow one for him. “It’s counterproductive because it makes people think that it’s something it’s not. What artificial intelligence is, is more sophisticated, probabilistic computation. It’s this move again from deterministic to probabilistic. Computers used to be good at doing things when everything was always the same. Now they’re making it better and dealing with the fuzzy ambiguity of the real world,” he explains, adding that when people talk about artificial intelligence, however, most of the time they’re referring to machine learning or pattern recognition.
Gig economy is another one. “Basically, the term describes a number of economies that are unable to provide meaningful work and sufficient protection for young people. The gig economy is, in a way, the end of trade unions and there are challenges when it comes to that.”
A chain of positive cause and effect
On the other hand, as the next phase of the IoT emerges, what Ashton is most excited about is globalization. He says the widespread use of the internet and equity of smartphones now – at least in urban areas around the world – has brought about a very high level of sophistication. “It has also enabled the spread of information and created opportunity for those once deemed to be on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide.”
The other thing that’s incredibly important to Ashton is the move towards equality. “We want everyone to have the same opportunities and this is somehow enabled by technology. Smartphones and the internet are so important in driving this movement. Those are the things that really excite me because if everybody in the world is able to create, invent and discover things – which is not true today, but if that becomes a reality – then we’re going to have more creation, more invention and more discovery.” When this comes to fruition, Ashton envisions a beautiful feedback loop where we come up with better technology that empowers people to, in turn, design even better solutions and so on.
Text: Gino de la Paz
It was through his work as co-founder and former head of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that Kevin Ashton coined the term “Internet of Things” in 1999. A sought-after speaker, he is the author of "How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery," published 2015.