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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Life in the Stupid World

I’m going to be writing a lot, in relative terms, about what I’m doing to make the Internet of Things a reality.  I’m not here for the flying cars.  I can build my own flying cars, thanks.  No, I’m here to prevent the traffic jams which result from flying cars.  Or profit from them. Maybe both.  Regardless, I hate stupidity, and a stupid world isn’t one that’s any fun for flesh-based systems. – Lynne
The world you live in, as a human being, is deeply, terrifyingly stupid.  As stupid as biology might seem to you, the world we’ve made for ourselves is far worse.  Sure, your back hurts, and you get fevers, and kids won’t get off your damn lawn, but at least you’re capable of noticing these things, and fixing some of them.
Your house/home, the most expensive and critical component of your personal infrastructure, though, almost certainly knows next to nothing about the world.  It probably has a thermostat, but it only knows if it should be on or off.  It doesn’t know where it is.  It doesn’t know who’s inside, or what they’re doing.  It’s stupid.  I literally can’t think of a single biological entity that’s even within a couple orders of magnitude of the level of stupidity of your house.  Go ahead, ask your house something.  If you’re like most folks, you didn’t get an answer.
My house is pretty stupid, but it knows something your house probably doesn’t.  It knows how much electricity it’s using.  I have to use a web browser to ask it, but it knows.  Here’s what it just told me about the electricity we’ve used in the past two days.  It knows how much, and what the voltage was. 

How can my house know this?  Because my house has the beginnings of a nervous system.  The “sense organs” in this case are a couple of coils wrapped around the incoming main lines of the house, right at the electrical panel down in the basement.  They’re hooked to a little box that transmits information across the internal house wiring to another bigger box about the size of a fist.  That second box is a web server, and it’s plugged into the house wiring and the house network. 
My house has graduated from inchoate stupidity to being a sub-moron.  It’s not really fair to say that, of course, any more than it makes sense to criticize a submarine for not being able to swim.  At other times in the past couple years, my house was smart enough to know what the local weather was like, and it even had eyes.  Well, an eye, which is the best way to describe the networked webcam that peers out my office window at the labyrinth.
Why is this important and why should you care?
You can ask almost anyone and they’ll be able to tell you the relative temperature.  Even babies know enough to crawl away from a fire.  My house would just sit there, although parts of it would make a loud beeping noise until they melted.  My air conditioner is especially stupid, because it pumps cold air into places where there are no people or machines who want it.  If something springs a leak, my house just sighs and rots a little bit.
It’s stupid.  Not just the house, but tolerating the situation.
What I’m doing is helping to bring about the Internet of Things.  I’m slowly learning how to best integrate sensing technologies with modern, distributed (and parallel) system architectures.  I’m helping to give the digital world a nervous system and the means to make decisions based on what it feels.
Here’s the history in a nutshell, of the things that are leading to the somewhat-less-stupid world:
  • electrical motors – and the attendant universal distribution grid
  • microprocessors  <--  THIS IS WHERE WE ARE NOW
  • ubiquitous networking <--  we’re getting there
  • sensors <--  not even close (imagine it’s 1890 in terms of distribution and density and you’ll be close to the right numbers)
  • actuators (things that can modify the world, or something’s response to the world, based on information collected by sensors and then interpreted by software)
People ask me what I do, knowing that I’m some kind of nerd computer programmer, and this is my new answer:
I’m preparing the way for the End of the Stupid World.