Smart Disposables: Could This Be Birth of Internet of Everything?

Could EVERYTHING be “smart?” It may be happening sooner we thought, and with implications that are hard to fathom today.

That’s the potential with new technology pioneered by Shyam Gollakota, an assistant professor at the University of Washington.  For the first time, it would let battery- and cordless-less devices harvest signals from Wi-Fi, radio, or TV to communicate and power themselves.

Astounding!

For a long time, the most “out there” idea about IoT sensors has been Prof. Kris Pister’s “smart dust” concept, which aimed at a complete sensor/communication system in a package only one cubic millimeter in size. Pister argued that such devices would be so small and cheap that they could be installed — or perhaps even scattered — almost everywhere. The benefits could be varied and inconceivable in the past. According to Pister, possible applications could include:

  • “Defense-related sensor networks
    • battlefield surveillance, treaty monitoring, transportation monitoring, scud hunting, …
  • Virtual keyboard
    • Glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails.  Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer in your watch.  QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play  the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate, …
    • Combined with a MEMS augmented-reality heads-up display, your entire computer I/O would be invisible to the people around you.  Couple that with wireless access and you need never be bored in a meeting again!  Surf the web while the boss rambles on and on.
  • Inventory Control
    • The carton talks to the box, the box talks to the palette, the palette talks to the truck, and the truck talks to the warehouse, and the truck and the warehouse talk to the internet.  Know where your products are and what shape they’re in any time, anywhere.  Sort of like FedEx tracking on steroids for all products in your production stream from raw materials to delivered goods.
  • Product quality monitoring
    • temperature, humidity monitoring of meat, produce, dairy products
      • Mom, don’t buy those Frosted Sugar Bombs, they sat in 80% humidity for two days, they won’t be crunchy!
    • impact, vibration, temp monitoring of consumer electronics
      • failure analysis and diagnostic information, e.g. monitoring vibration of bearings for frequency signatures indicating imminent failure (back up that hard drive now!)
  • Smart office spaces
    • The Center for the Built Environment has fabulous plans for the office of the future in which environmental conditions are tailored to the desires of every individual.  Maybe soon we’ll all be wearing temperature, humidity, and environmental comfort sensors sewn into our clothes, continuously talking to our workspaces which will deliver conditions tailored to our needs.  No more fighting with your office mates over the thermostat.
  • Interfaces for the Disabled (courtesy of Bryndis Tobin)
    • Bryndis sent me email with the following idea: put motes “on a quadriplegic’s face, to monitor blinking & facial twitches – and send them as commands to a wheelchair/computer/other device.”  This could be generalized to a whole family of interfaces for the disabled.  Thanks Bryndis!”

Now imagine that a critical component of such a tiny, ubiquitous device was removed. Because it didn’t need a battery it could be even smaller and cheaper (because of cheaper and simpler radio hardware circuitry).

The goal is having billions of disposable devices start communicating,” Gollakota said (my emphasis).

You may remember that I’ve written before about my metaphor of a pre-IoT era of “Collective Blindness,” the universal inability to peer (literally or figuratively) inside things in the past, which forced us to create all sorts of work-arounds to cope with that lack of real-time data. Imagine how precise our knowledge about just about everything will be if Gollakota’s technology becomes commonplace.

.As Technology Review reported, the critical challenge is making it possible for a device lacking a traditional power source to communicate: “Transferring power wirelessly is not a new trick. But getting a device without a conventional power source to communicate is harder, because generating radio signals is very power-intensive and the airwaves harvested from radio, TV, and other telecommunication technologies hold little energy.”

The principle making the innovation possible is “backscattering,” reflecting waves, particles or signals back in the direction they came from, which creates a new signal.

The early results are encouraging. Gollakata has made a contact lens that can connect with a smartphone. Think I’ll pass on that one, but other devices he and his team have created include brain implants and “a flexible skin patch that can sense temperature and respiration, a design that could be used to monitor hospital patients.”  Marketers will love this one: a concert poster broadcasting a bit of the featured band’s music over FM radio!

Jeeva Wireless, Gollakata’s commercial spinoff, is using a variety of the technology, “passive Wi-Fi.” Devices using it can data up to 100 feet and connect through walls.

Tiny passive devices using backscatter could be manufactured for as little as a dollar. “In tomorrow’s smart home, security cameras, temperature sensors, and smoke alarms should never need to have their batteries changed.”

Gollakata sums up the potential impact: “We can get communication for free” (my emphasis).

That’s incredible, but in light of the continuing series of major DDoS attacks made possible by weak or non-existent IoT security measures, I must remind everyone that speed, power, and ubiquity aren’t everything: we also need IoT security, so I hope the low cost and ability to function without a dedicated energy source won’t obscure that need as well.


 

BTW: a MIT profile on Gollakata mentions one of his other, related, inventions, which I think would mesh beautifully with my SmartAging vision to help seniors age in place in better health.

It’s called  WiSee, which uses wireless signals such as Wi-Fi to “enable whole-home sensing and recognition of human gestures. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, WiSee can enable whole-home gesture recognition using few wireless sources (e.g., a Wi-Fi router and a few mobile devices in the living room).”

I love the concept for seniors, because (like Echo, which I’m finally getting!!) it doesn’t require technical expertise, which many seniors lack and/or find intimidating, to launch and direct automated devices. In this case, the activation is through sensing and recognition of human gestures. According to Gollakata,“’Gestures enable a whole new set of interaction techniques for always-available computing embedded in the environment. As an example, he suggests that a hand swiping motion in the air could enable a user to control the radio volume while showering – or change the song playing on the stereo in the living room while you are cooking in the kitchen.”

He goes on to explain:

“…. that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. ‘We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users.”

Combine that with speaking to Alexa, and even the most frail seniors could probably control most of the functions in a smart home. Gollakota says that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. “We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users, “he says.

Incredible work, professor!

Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You: One of Largest Botnet Attacks Ever Due to Lax IoT Security

Don’t say I didn’t warn you about how privacy and security had to be THE highest priority for any IoT device.

On September 19th, Chris Rezendes and I were the guests on a Harvard Business Review webinar on IoT privacy and security. I once again was blunt that:

  • you can’t wait until you’ve designed your cool new IoT device before you begin to add in privacy and security protections. Start on Day 1!
  • sensors are particularly vulnerable, since they’re usually designed for minimum cost, installed, and forgotten.
  • as with the Target hack, hackers will try to exploit the least protected part of the system.
  • privacy and security protections must be iterative, because the threats are constantly changing.
  • responsible companies have as much to lose as the irresponsible, because the result of shortcomings could be held against the IoT in general.

The very next day, all hell broke loose. Hackers used the Mirai malware to launch one of the largest distributed denial-of-service attack ever, on security blogger Brian Krebs (BTW, the bad guys failed, because of valiant work by the good guys here in Cambridge, at Akamai!).

 

The threat was so bad that DHS’s National Cyber Awareness System sent out the first bulletin I ever remember getting from them dealing specifically with IoT devices. As it warned, “IoT devices are particularly susceptible to malware, so protecting these devices and connected hardware is critical to protect systems and networks.”  By way of further explanation, DHS showed how ridiculously simple the attacks were because of inadequate protection:

“The Mirai bot uses a short list of 62 common default usernames and passwords to scan for vulnerable devices. Because many IoT devices are unsecured or weakly secured, this short dictionary allows the bot to access hundreds of thousands of devices. The purported Mirai author claimed that over 380,000 IoT devices  (my emphasis) were enslaved by the Mirai malware in the attack on Krebs’ website.”

A later attack in France during September using Mirai resulted in the largest DDoS attack ever.

The IoT devices affected in the latest Mirai incidents were primarily home routers, network-enabled cameras, and digital video recorders. Mirai malware source code was published online at the end of September, opening the door to more widespread use of the code to create other DDoS attacks.

How’d they do it?

By a feature of the malware that detects and attacks consumer IoT devices that only have default, sometimes hardwired, passwords and usernames (or, as Dark Reading put it in an apocalyptic sub-head, “Mirai malware could signal the beginning of new trend in using Internet of Things devices as bots for DDoS attacks.”

To place the blame closer to home (well, more accurately, in the home!) you and I, if we bought cheap smart thermostats or baby monitors with minimal or no privacy protections and didn’t bother to set up custom passwords, may have unwittingly participated in the attack. Got your attention yet?

 

No responsible IoT inventor or company can deny it any longer: the entire industry is at risk unless corporate users and the general public can be confident that privacy and security are baked in and continuously upgraded. Please watch the HBR webinar if you haven’t already, and pledge to make IoT privacy and security Job #1!


 

PS: According to the DHS bulletin:

“In early October, Krebs on Security reported on a separate malware family responsible for other IoT botnet attacks. This other malware, whose source code is not yet public, is named Bashlite. This malware also infects systems through default usernames and passwords. Level 3 Communications, a security firm, indicated that the Bashlite botnet may have about one million (my emphasis) enslaved IoT devices.”

BTW: thanks for my friend Bob Weisberg for reminding me to give this situation its due!

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Circular Company: Will Internet of Things Spark Management Revolution?

Could the IoT’s most profound impact be on management and corporate organization, not just cool devices?

I’ve written before about my still-being-refined vision of the IoT — because it (for the first time!) allows everyone who needs instant access to real-time data to do their jobs and make better decisions to share that data instantly —  as the impetus for a management revolution.

My thoughts were provoked by Heppelmann & Porter’s observation that:

“For companies grappling with the transition (to the IoT), organizational issues are now center stage — and there is no playbook. We are just beginning the process of rewriting the organization chart that has been in place for decades.”

If I’m right, the IoT could let us switch from the linear and hierarchical forms that made sense in an era of serious limits to intelligence about things and how they were working at thaFor companies grappling with the transition, organizational issues are now center stage—and there is no playbook. We are just beginning the process of rewriting the organization chart that has been in place for decades.t moment, to circular forms that instead eliminate information “silos” and instead give are circular, with IoT data as the hub. 

This article expands on that vision. I’ve tried mightily to get management journals to publish it. Several of the most prestigious have given it a serious look but ultimately passed on it. That may be because it’s crazy, but I believe it is feasible today, and can lead to higher profits, lower operating costs, empowering our entire workforces, and, oh yeah, saving the planet.

Audacious, but, IMHO, valid.  Please feel free to share this, to comment on it, and, if you think it has merit, build on it.

Thanks,

W. David Stephenson


The IoT Allows a Radical, Profitable Transformation to Circular Company Structure

 

by

W. David Stephenson

Precision assembly lines and thermostats you can adjust while away from home are obvious benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), but it might also trigger a far more sweeping change: swapping outmoded hierarchical and linear organizational forms for new circular ones.

New org charts will be dramatically different because of an important aspect of the IoT overlooked in the understandable fascination with cool devices. The IoT’s most transformational aspect is that, for the first time,

everyone who needs real-time data to do their jobs better or
make better decisions can instantly 
share it.

That changes everything.

Linear and hierarchical organizational structures were coping mechanisms for the severe limits gathering and sharing data in the past. It made sense then for management, on a top-down basis, to determine which departments got which data, and when.

The Internet of Things changes all of that because of huge volumes of real-time data), plus modern communications tools so all who need the data can share it instantly. 

This will allow a radical change in corporate structure and functions from hierarchy: make it cyclical, with real-time IoT data as the hub around which the organization revolves and makes decisions.

Perhaps the closest existing model is W.L. Gore & Associates. The company has always been organized on a “lattice” model, with “no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.”  Instead, they use cross-disciplinary teams including all functions, communicating directly with each other. Teams self-0rganize and most leaders emerge spontaneously.

As Deloitte’s Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson wrote, “Continuing to invest in the future using yesteryear’s industrial blueprint is futile. The lattice redefines workplace suppositions, providing a framework for organizing and advancing a company’s existing incremental efforts into a comprehensive, strategic response to the changing world of work.”  Add in the circular form’s real-time data hub, and the benefits are even greater, because everyone on these self-organizing teams works from the same data, at the same time.

You can begin to build such a cyclical company with several incremental IoT-based steps.

One of the most promising is making the product design process cyclical. Designers used to work in a vacuum: no one really knew how the products functioned in the field, so it was hard to target upgrades and improvements. Now, GE has found it can radically alter not only the upgrade process, but also the initial design as well:

“G.E. is adopting practices like releasing stripped-down products quickly, monitoring usage and rapidly changing designs depending on how things are used by customers. ‘We’re getting these offerings done in three, six, nine months,’ (Vice-President of Global Software William Ruh said). ‘It used to take three years.’”

New IoT and data-analytics tools are coming on the market that could facilitate such a shift. GE’s new tool, “Digital Twins,” creates a wire-frame replica of a product in the field (or, for that matter, a human body!) back at the company. Coupled with real-time data on its status, it lets everyone who might need to analyze a product’s real-time status (product designers, maintenance staff, and marketers, for example) to do so simultaneously.

The second step toward a cyclical organization is breaking down information silos.

Since almost every department has some role in creation and sales of every product, doesn’t it make sense to bring them together around a common set of data, to explore how that data could trigger coordinated actions by several departments? 

Collaborative big-data analysis tools such as GE’s Predix, SAP’s HANA, and Tableau facilitate the kind of joint scrutiny and “what-if” discussions of real-time data that can make circular teamwork based on IoT-data sharing really achieve its full potential.

The benefits are even greater when you choose to really think in circular terms, sharing instant access to that real-time data not only companywide, but also with external partners, such as your supply chain and distribution network – and even customers – not just giving them some access later on a linear basis.  For example, SAP has created an IoT-enabled vending machine. If a customer opts in, s/he is greeted by name, and may be offered “your regular combination” based on past purchases, and/or a real-time discount. That alone would be neat from a marketing standpoint, but SAP also opened the resulting data to others, resulting in important logistics improvements. Real-time machine-to-machine (M2M) data about sales at the new vending machines automatically reroute resupply trucks to those machines currently experiencing the highest sales. 

With the IoT, sharing data can make your own product or service more valuable. With the Apple HomeKit, you can say “Siri, it’s time for bed,” and the Hue lights dim, Schlage lock closes, and Ecobee thermostat turns down. By sharing real-time IoT data, each of these companies’ devices become more valuable in combinations than they are by themselves.

Hierarchical and linear management is outmoded in the era of real-time data from smart devices. It is time to begin to replace it with a dynamic, circular model with IoT data as its hub.