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The Internet of Things: Saving Ourselves with Technology

July 23, 2014


I recently listened to a provocative presentation given by Gary Atkinson (@GaryA_ARM), Director of Emerging Technologies at ARM, entitled “Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?” The focus of his presentation was the Internet of Things (IoT). He began his presentation by asking a fundamental question: “Why do we need the IoT at all?” A one-sentence answer to that question might be: “The world is facing a number of global challenges and technology is going to help us find solutions.” Atkinson discussed four major global challenges that are only going to increase in significance as the world’s population grows over the next four decades. Those challenges involve food, water, energy consumption, and healthcare. He stated, “Technology won’t solve these problems, but it can help.”


His discussion about food actually started with a discussion about arable land. He noted that around 40 percent of the world’s land (not including Greenland and Antarctica) is devoted to agriculture. Even in a world that is becoming more urbanized, Atkinson noted that we use 60-times more land for growing crops than we do for providing urban habitats. Since mountains and deserts aren’t suitable for most agriculture, his conclusion was that we are running out of room to grow food. He stated, “Ecologically, we cannot continue to assimilate our forests, savannahs, and tropical rainforests to agriculture – we need to do more with what we have.” That’s where the Internet of Things comes into play. Atkinson pointed out that two agricultural areas could “benefit significantly from the application of sensor based control: increasing yields on existing land through more precision agriculture and reduced use of water and fertilizer through drip irrigation.” I was a bit surprised that he didn’t discuss using vertical space (i.e., high rises) and urban farming as an option for growing food closer to where it’s consumed.


Atkinson raised an even sharper alarm when he discussed water availability. He called water “our rarest commodity.” He stated, “We have very little water to keep society alive – just 0.3% of all water is usable.” Of that water, nearly 70 percent is used for agriculture. He pointed out, for example, that 1 kilo of steak requires 15,000 liters of water to produce; and, a single cup of tea requires 35 liters of water to create. That is why consumption habits are becoming a big concern. He noted that western diets, in general, require more water to support than traditional eastern diets. Changing food consumption habits is just one of the strategies that needs to be implemented to help ensure food security in the decades ahead. For more on that subject, read my post entitled “Food Security Requires Implementing Complementary Strategies.” Atkinson isn’t the only observer concerned about the pending water shortage. More and more you hear supply chain risk managers raise their voices in concern as well. In the Part Two of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the bard discusses the distress of mariners floating upon a windless ocean under a withering sun and running out of supplies (including water). One of the most famous stanzas from that poem is:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

That’s situation in which the whole world might find itself if significant measures are not taken. For more on that subject read my three-part series entitled “Water, Water, Every Where — What Can We do About It? — Part 1,” “Part 2” and “Part 3.”


Moving on to the subject of energy, Atkinson asserted, “Clearly we have to produce more energy but in a sustainable way.” He discussed a number of ways that we can do more with the energy already being produced, such as “time-based tariffing” which would allow companies to “time shift demand and reduce the peaks.” He also recommended the adoption of “micro-generation” systems that would put electrical power generation closer to the point of consumption. Apparently there is some movement in that area. An article in Peak Oil reports:

“The grid is undergoing a radical transformation in which energy production, monitoring and control is moving away from the generation and transmission center to the distribution edges. If only a few percent of electric utility customers in the U.S. deploy these, there will be millions of them at the edges of the grid. This is happening even more rapidly in the majority of the world, the developing economies, which could not deploy the kind of monolithic, centralized grid infrastructure that exists in the smaller, less-populated developed economies. Over the next decade or two, throughout the world many millions of distributed energy production, storage and management systems will be deployed at the ‘Grid Edge’. There will eventually be hundreds of millions, even billions of end-use devices that are equipped with autonomous intelligence and automation to optimize the economy, sustainability, reliability, and security of the electric energy economy.” [“Smart cities and the smart grid,” 25 May 2014]

Turning to healthcare, Atkinson noted, “There are marked differences between regions in the number and proportion of older persons. In the more developed regions, almost one fifth of the population was aged 60 or older in the year 2000; by 2050, this proportion is expected to reach one third. In the less developed regions, only 8 per cent of the population is currently over the age of 60; however, by 2050 older persons will make up nearly 20 per cent of the population.” This is a potential problem because the potential support ration (i.e., the number of persons aged 15-64 years per one older person aged 65 years or older) is going to make it difficult for younger workers to care for aging populations. According to Atkinson, currents trends are not sustainable. One way of improving the demographic outlook is making older workers productive rather than retiring them. Michael Hodin, the Executive Director of the Global Coalition on Aging, agrees with Atkinson that developed countries will lose their ability to maintain economic growth as their populations age. He maintains, however, that “demography is not destiny. It is the result of a failure to realign societies to population aging and the new demographics of the 21st century. With the right policies and practices, rapid aging and rapid growth can become parallel phenomena.” [“Big Data Solutions,” Huffington Post The Blog, 7 May 2013] As the headline of his post declares, Hodin believes that Big Data analytics is going to play a significant role in finding solutions that keep aging populations productive in the decades ahead. He writes:

“While there are innumerable possibilities, the most fundamental contribution that Big Data can make is to trigger health and medical breakthroughs. … The balance of global economic power is shifting, and the aging of ‘rich’ societies is accelerating this new world. Global economic fortunes, however, do not need to be a zero sum game. One nation doesn’t need to get poor for another to get rich. We can all see the sun rise, and that’s the win-win-win of market capitalism embracing evolving demographics — understanding that the debate over austerity is the wrong one. This is a debate over growth and, particularly, how healthy and active aging populations can become new sources of economic growth. Now there’s a goal worthy of 21st century imagination.”

As noted at the beginning of this article, Atkinson believes that technology is going to play a vital role in helping address some of the challenges that lie ahead. He predicts that we will see significant breakthroughs in all four of the areas discussed above, including:

Water – Desalination becomes commodity and increases the proportion of usable water on earth.

Food – Get past hysteria of genetically modified plants, then we can make crops more resistant to bad weather but also increase the vitamin content of some staple crops.

Energy – Micro-generation and storage becomes the norm. We reduce the stress on our electricity grids and we distribute the generation capability closer to where it is consumed. Cost-effective storage will allow us to capture energy for future use (i.e., during night time or when there is no wind).

Healthcare – The smartphone becomes the nexus for real-time monitoring. We are not far away from $50 smartphones that can serve as the gateway to low cost medical monitoring and putting the advances in medical science into the hands of people that find it difficult to get to a trained professional. Pair that phone with a low cost monitoring device, then we can track blood pressure, blood oxygen, and ECG on a daily basis and alert on downward trends.

In every instance, Atkinson noted, sensing and monitoring is essential. “This is where the Internet of Things comes into its own.” He continued, “Just to be clear about what we mean when we say Internet of Things, we mean sensing and controlling at the edge and wirelessly connecting devices that feed data into Cloud applications running on distributed data centers.” To make the IoT function with the greatest effectiveness and efficiency, Atkinson stated that we will need to deploy billions of sensors. Such devices will have to be cheap, easy to connect to the Internet, and easily deployed and managed. Unfortunately, Atkinson noted, “many problems must be solved before IoT can be as it is envisioned (transparent/ambient, and impactful).” He explained:

“Today IoT is an internet of silos. It cannot enable the scale and interoperability needed for IoT to flourish. We need to put the ‘I’ in IOT, this needs to be an eco-system effort. Internet-style connectivity from sensors to servers must be achieved with automatic reliable interoperable connections end-to-end. We need to encourage faster proliferation of standards (radios and software) that enable IoT applications to flourish and sensors to be easily connected and addressable.”

The bottom line is that we need to manage all of our resources better. The urbanization trend will help, but we also need to embrace technologies that help us manage resources, especially in urban environments. I agree with Atkinson that the IoT and Big Data analytics will play a significant role in helping us address global challenges in decades ahead.

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