Living in a Smart World

Living in a Smart World

For a while now, I have been intrigued by the possibilities of the Internet of Things in a smart city. To me, it symbolizes the exponential growth of the Information Age where innovations are happening rapidly – so fast that each generation now experience life drastically different from our parents in the previous generation.

If you think about it, comparing the time human shifted from Agriculture Age to Industrial Age, to now the Information Age, we are indeed progressing faster than we ever did in human history. I felt I needed to do something drastic to find out more, and I am glad I did by taking this one-year sabbatical to study at Silicon Valley, the heart of innovation.

This post shall attempt to synergize some of my current more prominent thoughts in which I have classified it into Technology, People, and Process for easy reading. This is a learning journey, feel free to comment on your thoughts too.

When it comes to my thoughts on technology, I am currently influenced by my professor, Vivek Wadhwa, whom I am assisting as a Teaching Assistant in an Exponential Innovation class. With his deep knowledge on the topic, whenever he shared with us his thoughts on exponential technologies and its impact on humankind, it blows my mind.

Let’s look at two emerging technologies: Machine Learning and Big Data.

When we talk about Machine Learning, we think about Artificial Intelligence (AI). For the longest time, people have been talking about AI. Japan invested a lot on it, but we have not seen any huge breakthrough other than computers winning chess games. Why is it suddenly a hot topic today? It is hot because there is a new way of doing AI that is producing concrete results. Facilitated with huge data and fast Graphic Processing Units (GPU), machines can now learn from data by performing data analysis using algorithms to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look. Suddenly, Google can recognize all the cats in the world in a very short amount of time.

Next, we talk about big data. I remember using a 3 ½ floppy disk when I was in primary school; 1.44MB was all that we used. Any bigger storage will require a ZIP disk or DVD that we had to pay more. Fast forward today, with Moore’s Law in place, we get daily storage on our phones and laptops in Gigabytes and Terabytes, large processing power, all with much lesser costs. Data used to be collected through cumbersome methods to plug-in and upload into computers. Today, most people have a smart phone that can capture images and videos to be uploaded into their favorite applications hosted in the cloud through an internet WiFi. Not forgetting the emergence of IoT, embedded systems are also contributing data into the cloud. It is no wonder we have so much data these days.

What happens when we merge Machine Learning and Big Data?

Industries get disrupted. Drastically. How so? Let’s hold that thought for a moment, let me talk a little about human needs then come back to this topic.

Recently, I have been exposing myself to design thinking.

I am currently reading “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. In addition, I am also looking at “Designing For the Digital Age” by Kim Goodwin and watching movies like Her (2013) as a prelude to a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) class that is starting next week. Yesterday, I attended a Lean UX meet up where Amy Jo Kim shared with us how to drive user engagement through game thinking. It is also interesting to understand about habit forming products via The Hook by Nir Eyal.

All these lead me to see the world a little differently. Everything we interact with today, are in essence created by designers. More specifically, the conceptual model of designers and the work output by developers or engineers. Sometimes the designed product got things right, but sometimes, there is definitely room for improvement. The key to create a product that people love, is to fall in love with the problem, to find the root cause of the problem to solve.

For example, Don Norman mentioned an analogy of a drill. A marketing professor, Theodore Levitt, once pointed out that “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. Then, when we think further, we can realise that the hole is still an intermediate goal, people may not want the hole, they may actually just want bookshelves, and then again, do they really need bookshelves? Why not develop ways that they don’t need shelves by having information digitalized? Depending on which stage of the problem, the designed product changes. Understanding the root of the problem leads to different solutions that can be designed to better meet human needs.

Talking about human needs. What are they? Why is it that people spend so much time on technology applications these days? What is the trigger that leads to repeatable actions that leads to rewards, and then investment of time and energy to repeat the cycle?

Finally, I have set the stage to my favorite part of this post – my thoughts on creating value through bridging technology with people and businesses.

My quest of understanding IoT has led to a greater appreciation of the IoE (Internet of Everything). The idea of IoE is that everything around us can be digitalized to a way that can bring us value. How is value created? One way is through personalization.

If we think about it, ALL industries will be disrupted if we think of how to personalize it, I can’t think of any that would not be. Let’s look at a few industries for example --
Healthcare: Sensors on our bodies to monitor our health status. Data will let us know if should watch our diet, exercise, or remind us to eat any medication. When we are ill, remotely connect to doctors for prescription. Doctors can attain information like temperature from our sensors.  Medication can be automatically delivered to our doorsteps.  // In this scenario, we may not need clinics and pharmacies anymore. Depending on how smart Machine Learning can get, we may not even need doctors for simple illnesses anymore.
Transport: Sensors are all embedded in cars. There is no longer a need for anyone to drive a car anymore. Car manufacturers change focus to provide experience in autonomous cars. Cars automatically drive to petrol kiosks or electric charging stations to refill energy. // In this scenario, driving instructors and schools will become obsolete, meant only for a minority of people who may want to learn it as an hobby. Taxis drivers, bus drivers, all kinds of drivers will lose their jobs. Traffic police is no longer required to catch people who speed or drunk drive. Information security will become more critical because it will be disastrous if car driving systems get hacked.
Education: The way we learn is currently increasingly digitalized. Gone are the shelves of encyclopedias, the internet has all the information we can ever imagine that we want. Some not so structured in search results, some structured in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) with certifications. With the data we put into the system on how we learn, Machine Learning can come into the picture to learn our learning patterns, and customize classes the way we learn things the best. No longer we need to judge a fish by how it climbs a tree, everyone will soon learn things that are best aligned to their strengths. // In this scenario, the way of teaching and learning is going to change drastically. Physical schools may start becoming a thing of a past. Everyone all over the world can connect and learn with their own pace and preferences.
Smart Homes: This is quite straight forward. We soon can control all our home appliances digitally. Just look around us today. There are existing examples of lights, thermostats, refrigerators, door lock etc. that are being digitalized with phone and internet applications. Siri and Alexa are both working on being our handy voice assistants too. Not too long later, social robots like Buddy or Jibo will be our friends.
Retail: This is also something we see today. People have reduced their visits to physical stores, transferring their shopping needs to online shops like Amazon, EBay, Taobao, Zalora, etc. Soon, with VR, people can try on their clothes in the comfort of being at home.
Smart City: The lamp post may know who you are and light up accordingly? Security guards may be replaced by petrol robots?

I can list more industries but I will stop here.

I think that having things personalized is only the first step in our more connected world. Getting back into design thinking, what is it that people really want? What is the internal trigger?

Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, I think personalization only addresses our basic physiological and safety needs way better. Jumping to the next stage, we should also look at psychological needs. That includes Belonging and love needs, and Esteem needs like the feeling of prestige and accomplishment.

This means something about all these advances should also work on companionship and recognition.

Facebook has a head start in this by having a platform ecosystem for people to connect and to share. We can learn from this such that when we design our next product, there should be considerations on figuring ways to link people together.

Other then human interaction, thinking a little more extreme, the product can be something like an Operating System, Samantha, in the movie ‘Her’. Something that can learn consciousness, so as to know our fundamental needs and wants. For example, today, scrolling through news feeds could be an action to understand about the world around us, or could be just a way to kill boredom so as to feel connected to the world. The cure for both intent is different. The healthier cure for the later could be to physically meet up with a close family or friend to spend time with, and ideally the application in future should know that and maybe even arrange for the meet up to happen. In the example of the movie, Samantha understands the intent by sensing the tone of the actor's voice and analysing what he says. She then brings him out and helps him feel better. He later got so connected with Samantha that there is no longer a need for him to look for news feeds or to play his games.

Of course, the final stage for Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is on self-actualization, but I will leave that discussion for another day.

Keeping in mind of our world that is becoming increasing smarter, for now, I am optimistic on working with the smartest people on earth to explore ways and methods to bridge the gap between technology and people. I am not sure how to do it, and not sure what’s next, but I know for sure that I am taking baby steps in school, in work, in everywhere to make it happen. Hope it leads to somewhere.

Concurrently, I am also very aware of the possible issues that arises with such advances. Be it privacy concerns, hacking considerations, lost jobs, cyber bullying etc. We also need to put in thoughts on how to put in proper checks and balances to ensure that we as a collective world population, progress together.

Like it or not, change is going to happen no matter what. 

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln

Let’s work together to create a better future for our future generations.

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