Imagine the milk is running low—or, if you live in a home similar to mine, one of your kids drank the last of it and put the empty container back in the refrigerator as a decoy—but rather than reaching for that near-empty (or completely empty) container the next morning, your refrigerator already updated a grocery list on your phone the day before and your phone instructed you to stop at the grocery store on the way home and purchase more milk. Or, even better, your phone alerted a grocery delivery service like AmazonFresh and the milk was automatically delivered to your doorstep.
In a totally interconnected world, your milk container has a sensor in it. Your “smart” refrigerator is a computer that can track the status of the contents of your refrigerator and send data to your phone.
In an interconnected world of sensors and data, your lawn is no longer watered based on a timer; rather, there are sensors in the ground that measure and report moisture levels back to the watering system. The watering system is connected to the Internet and pulls the latest weather forecast data for your area. It knows that it’s going to rain tomorrow and, even though the moisture level data from the sensors has dipped below the threshold that would normally trigger watering of the grass, the system takes the weather data into account and holds off on watering and conserves water while Mother Nature does her work.
This is the “Internet of Things”, a world in which sensors are everywhere and on everything. Data flows in and out of systems, algorithms are run, decisions are made—and all without human intervention. It’s the next “big thing” and it’s already happening and you are increasingly living in an interconnected world where the Internet of Things are running 24/7/365.
Sometime in the near future, you will go to the grocery store to get that milk as well as other things your smart refrigerator and cabinets have updated your phone about. While at the grocery store, the prices of products are in-flux because they too are data-driven based on current market prices of the various ingredients in the product you are purchasing. You grab the items you need and put them in your cart. Your smart cart senses that the items are there and crosses them off the shopping list on your phone in real-time.
You no longer have to wander around the store or ask a clerk where a particular item is located in the store because everything is geo-tagged and your phone can guide you right to it because it automatically pulled the layout of the store and the location of all items the moment you entered the store.
There are no cash registers in a world of the Internet of Things. As you leave the store, you auto-pay for the items in your cart. If you do not have sufficient funds to pay for these items, you are notified to return immediately to the store. If you do not, your vehicle is remotely impounded and disabled from starting until you return items to the store or transfer sufficient funds into your account to pay for the items.
If this data-driven, mostly automated world of the Internet of Things scares you a bit, that’s okay. You really should be a bit scared and skeptical. Fear and skepticism are what keep us from launching headlong into a creating a dystopian world that, on the surface, promises to be a utopia. You can begin by asking how a world of the Internet of Things is somehow a fundamentally better world.
Wen Jiabao, the former premier of China, had an interesting way of viewing the Internet of Things a few years ago when he gave a speech that kicked of a mutli-million dollar Chinese project to help fund the manufacturing of “smart” products.
“Internet + Internet of Things = Wisdom of the Earth,” Mr. Jiabao proposed in his speech.
To me, that sounds more like something the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu would have said in the Tao Te Ching.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu refers to manifestations in the physical world as the “ten thousand things”. Lao Tsu says, “The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease.”
It’s estimated that by 2025 there will be 1 trillion networked devices worldwide. Call them the “one trillion things” if you like. They will continue to rise without cease, but they are not, in and of themselves, the things of wisdom.
Whether or not the development of the the Internet of Things will result in the “Wisdom of the Earth” remains to be seen. I’m skeptical. It has been my experience here on Earth that wisdom does not flow from technology or data or algorithms. Wisdom is ancient and flows from people.
“Empty yourself of everything,” Lao Tsu instructs. “Let the mind become still. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the self watches their return. They grow and flourish and then return to the source.”
So this morning, when I went to grab the milk from the refrigerator only to discover it was nearly empty, I smiled at the emptiness and imperfection in the world. For sure the era of the Internet of Things is upon us, but it is not the source. We are.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.