Kevin Ashton is best known for coining the ‘Internet of Things’ term in 1999, however that’s just one part of a varied career that’s included building a number of tech startups, co-founding MIT’s Auto-ID Center and leading some of the early development work in RFID (radio frequency identification) networks.
This is the second part of an interview he gave while visiting Sydney last month. Read part one here.
So, onto that inevitable question that you’re going to get about the Internet of Things. Do you regret coming up with that tag?
No, I joked one time that I should have called it the internet for things, and people took that a bit too seriously. I mean, I had no idea that it was going to have a life outside of the PowerPoint presentation that I was working on at the time, but it has a poetry to it. It’s specific enough that when people ask what it is, I think you can give a good explanation. It’s general enough that it’s not limiting itself to one application.
The other thing I think is really curious to me is… so the internet of things was something I talked about a lot between ’99 and 2005. And it was reasonably well known in the fairly small community of people who are interested in ubiquitous computing and embedded computing.
And then it took on a life of its own in the late 2000s and sort of the last few years. And I think there’s a couple of reasons why. Right? One is that there are a lot of people graduating right now who are really internet natives.
So, the idea of things not being networked, or of things being wirelessly networked, the idea of computers only getting information via keyboard, that’s not a paradigm they’ve ever lived in. I think I got that slightly wrong, that sentence, so let me rephrase it for you. But there are a group of internet natives graduating right now who have never lived in the paradigm where computers are not connected.
And they’ve never lived in a paradigm where computers don’t gather their own information. So …the internet of things idea is incredibly natural to them. People who were using computers, let’s say, in the 80s and the early 90s, pre-internet, it can be a little less intuitive. So that’s one thing, but the other thing is, just a complete coincidence, I think, is Twitter. On the internet of things community on Twitter we use the hashtag IOT.
Now, it just so happens, first of all, IoT is very Twitter-friendly because it’s very short. But by calling this thing the internet of things, I inadvertently happened upon a three letter acronym that was distinctive.
In the presentation that preceded this interview you were quite scathing about some of the more trivial commercial consumer IoT examples.
Oh, stupid. Yeah.
I couldn’t help but think of Marc Benioff a couple of years back, waving his connected toothbrush around at Dreamforce.
People will do everything. If you’ve been in tech for a while, people have been doing that for years. It’s bullshit. I mean, the…’So you must live in a super smart home’. Not really, no. And they’re like, ‘what have you got?’
They think I’m going to have Roombas talking to light bulbs or some bullshit. But the one thing out of those consumer products I found useful is my bathroom scale is on Wi-Fi. It’s crazy expensive, but it means that I can never lie to myself about whether or not I’m losing or gaining weight, because there’s something on the web, it’s keeping a record. That’s useful. But…one of the things that’s kind of curious to me. I talk about it a little bit in my book actually is, there seems to be this obsession with consumer applications in technology.
Which is coupled with a complete lack of curiosity, particularly with respect to you, on the part of journalists and editors and people like that, about how the world actually works. Right? The manufacturing, supply chain, distribution, agriculture, the history of technology. They don’t want to know.
It’s like, ‘tell me what it means for my toaster’. But there’s so much more to the world than freaking kitchen appliances, you know? And I’m sure there’s something interesting you might to do with a kitchen appliance, but I can’t really think of it. And I don’t see why I have to.
I’m like, so, you’ve got GPS, right? Yeah. Well, that’s a sensor. It’s network connected. That’s part of the Internet of Things.
And it’s the same with… ‘so, oh, I’ve got a smartwatch now, and I’m measuring how many steps I take’. Great. If you’re doing that, that’s Internet of Things, right?
And on and on it goes. So there’s a real ignorance among a certain class of people, a kind of communicating class, about how the world works, how things are made, how complicated and miraculous that is. And also there’s kind of an anthropomorphic tendency they have that, when you point out that a phone has a camera and a camera is a sensor, that’s kind of confusing, because unless it’s a human-like sense, it kind of doesn’t count, right? Well, we don’t have GPS, but GPS is still location-sensing.
So I think all this is part of paradigm shift, as well. So it’s not that surprising to the Internet of Things generation, which is really people I don’t know, [born] after 1990 or something. It’s fairly obvious to them, but to older people it’s like, ‘oh, what does the fridge say to the toaster?’
I’ve encountered that myself where producers or editors aren’t interested yet the audience enjoys the discussion or topic.
I don’t actually agree with these filters: ‘My audience isn’t interested in this’ because I speak to thousands of people a month, and they’re all interested in it.
So supply chain, it’s amazing to me that there’s a couple hundred eight-metre high freaking self-driving trucks in the Pilbara but because people don’t care about, well, what is a strip mine, and what the hell are they strip mining?
What is it that Rio Tinto do anyway? It looks kind of dusty, and the things are big and yellow, and not quite black and shiny, or whatever, so we don’t care. That’s amazing technology. And we depend on the minerals those guys are mining, and they can’t necessarily afford to pay $200,000 a year for someone to drive that truck because nobody wants to live there.
I get that a $200,000 a year job is nice, but living in that place probably isn’t, right? So there’s a dehumanising thing about that kind of work, as well. Mining is horrible. The less manual it is, the better. Dangerous, nasty, it’s bad for your health. So that’s really cool. But you’re right, try pitching it to an editor.
This touches on a constant theme with the IoT and automation. Where do you see the jobs coming from?
We have to be real careful when we talk about jobs, because there’s a hard piece to this which is on the individual level, it can be quite devastating.
If you made a living as a cab driver, for example, in some licence-regulated monopoly city taxi service, Uber is a threat to your livelihood, and there’s no getting away from that. So on the individual level, new technology can be very disruptive, and I don’t want to trivialise that at all.
However, where people asked that question, they’re generally asking on a macro level. And on a macro level, what we see all the time is that technology tends to humanise the workforce. What technology can do compared to what humans can do is relatively basic. Again, I talk about this in the book. But a thousand years ago or something in the textile industry, there were people whose job was to stomp up and down on wet cloth all the time, right? To prepare the fibre for weaving, manual weaving, or whatever. And they got replaced by water mills and windmills.
And then you had apprenticeships, right? So people learned to weave as apprentices, and that predates the education system. So, instead of it being enough for you to stomp up and down in time to some song people were singing, you got trained in a skill. You became more valuable. I think that’s a more fulfilling life.
Then weavers got replaced by automated looms. But that created a volume of sophisticated new textiles that required management jobs, and so people were taught to read. I’m simplifying slightly, but the macro trend is very obvious. As technology replaces menial and manual labor, we need more skilled workers, we need more educated workers, and that’s why we can all read.
Our three times great grandparents were probably illiterate. As were all our ancestors before that. Reading is a very recent skill, and now it’s public education, and it’s considered elementary. That’s why it’s called elementary education. It never used to be. So, in terms of where the jobs come from in the Internet of Things age, I think the Internet of Things generates efficiencies that allow us to produce more things and that give people longer, better lives, and managing that production and that productivity requires skills. It’s really that simple.
I remember trying to explain to some friend’s mother what I did, when I was just in a marketing job at Procter and Gamble. And she was like, ‘oh, so you don’t really do anything’. And she was very explicit. But it’s like, ‘I don’t do any manual labour. I’m a knowledge worker’.
I think that comes from something [Peter] Drucker said in the 1960s. But that’s what happens. And the more we move to a knowledge economy, the less your job is a health risk, and the higher your quality of life, and the higher standard of education your nation is going to want to give you.
I don’t want to be too cynical about it, but countries don’t invest in public education for your sake. A lot of the time, they do it for the sake of the economy. I was just talking to some lady about why Australian school kids need to code. That’s a great question. That’s an important thing. And it’s not coding that matters. It’s advanced mathematics, advanced critical thinking skills.
And by the way, as we end up with a more informed population, a more informed electorate, we end up with a more enlightened society, because it’s harder for some guy on a pulpit or something to talk about brimstone and fire and spew hatred. There’s these huge social trends that we see that come partly from the more educated workforce you need in a more high-tech society, all interconnected.
So what skills do you see being in demand?
I think coding is a little bit…you’ve got to understand, coding is a little bit yesterday’s skill, actually. I did want to say that to the coding lady. But the thing I mentioned to the panelist today, but the thing that’s more important than coding now is data science.
And data science is not coding. Data science is understanding statistics and maths and modelling in a way that means you can write an algorithm, which you or somebody else then turns into a piece of computer code.
But basic mathematical equation, that can separate the wheat from the chafe in a big pile of numbers, and identify what’s interesting and what’s not. It’s a little bit like solving a puzzle, and it’s really quite cool. Auto-correct is an example of it, and Netflix recommendation algorithms is an example of it.
It’s a wild and interesting frontier, particularly for mathematically-inclined kids, or puzzle-solving, chess-playing kind of kids. And there’s a huge skills gap. Huge. And these guys are making a fortune coming out of school. They’ve got 20 job offers. And that will be true 10 years from now.
I’m trying to push my kids into doing statistics and data science. It’s a hard sell.
Yeah, I get that it’s not for everybody, but the kind of kid that might get directed toward coding is probably the kind of kid that could also be directed towards data science. And you know, they’re not mutually exclusive, but that’s the bias that I like to lean people towards, because technology is changing very rapidly.
We have to think about what’s going to be needed five to 10 years from now and not what’s needed today. You don’t want your 12-year-old to be learning a thing they need to know today, that the workforce needs to know today, that’s not going to be relevant in 10 years from now.