Previewing “The Future Is Smart”: 1) Collective Blindness and the IoT

This is the first of an occasional series of posts preceding the August 1st publication of The Future Is Smart. The book will introduce the Internet of Things to business audiences and help them create affordable, profitable strategies to revolutionize their products, services, and even their very way of doing business through the IoT.  Each post will excerpt part of the book, giving you enough detail to be informative, but not — LOL — complete enough that you’ll be able to skip buying the book itself!

The critical point the book makes about revising your products and services to capitalize on the IoT is that it’s not enough to simply install sensors and beef up your data analysis: equally important are fundamental attitudinal shifts to break free from the limits of past technology and realize the IoT’s full capability.

A critical component is what I call “Collective Blindness,” a way of describing how limited we were in understanding how products actually ran in the era when we had almost no data about their operations, let alone real-time data that we (or other machines, through M2M controls) could act on instantly to create feedback loops and improve operating precision and facilitate upgrades.

Let me know what you think (after an horrific hack, I’ve decided to scrap comments on the blog — if I think it’s merited, I’ll feature your feedback in future posts)!


Technologist Jeffrey Conklin has written of “wicked problems” that are so complex they aren’t even known or detailed until solutions to them are found.

What if there had been a wicked problem, a universal human malady that we’ll call “Collective Blindness,” whose symptoms were that we humans simply could not see much of what was happening in the material world? We could only see the surface of these things, while their interiors and actual operations were impenetrable to us. For millennia we just came up with coping mechanisms to work around the problem of not being able to peer inside things, which we accepted as reality.

Collective Blindness was a stupendous obstacle to full realization of a whole range of human and business activities. But, of course, we couldn’t quantify the problem’s impact because we weren’t even aware that it existed.

In fact, Collective Blindness has been a reality, because vast areas of our daily reality have been unknowable and we have accepted those limits as a condition of reality.

For example, in a business context:

  • We couldn’t tell when a key piece of machinery was going to fail due to metal fatigue.
  • We couldn’t tell how efficiently an assembly line was operating, or how to fully optimize its performance by having changes in one machine trigger adjustments in the next one.
  • We couldn’t tell whether or when a delivery truck would be stuck in traffic, or for how long.
  • We couldn’t tell exactly when we’d need a parts resupply shipment from a supplier. (Let’s be honest: What we’ve called “just-in-time” in the past was hopelessly inexact compared to what we’ll be able to do in the future.) Nor would the supplier know exactly when to do a new production run in order to be ready.
  • We couldn’t tell how customers actually used our products once they were in the field, or help those customers adjust operations to make them more efficient.

That’s all changing now.

The wicked problem of Collective Blindness is ending, because the Internet of Things solves it, giving us real-time information about what’s happening inside things.

The Internet of Things will affect and improve every aspect of business, because it will allow us to eliminate all of those blind spots resulting from Collective Blindness, achieve efficiency, and derive insights that were impossible before.

Cisco, which focuses not only on the IoT’s enabling technologies but also on the management issues it will address, understands the Collective Blindness concept. It refers to previously opaque and unconnected things as “dark assets,” and says that, “The challenge is to know which dark assets (unconnected things) to light up (connect) and then capture, analyze, and use the data generated to improve efficiency while working smarter.”

Vuforia “sees” inside Caterpillar device

PTC has created the most literal cure for Collective Blindness: Vuforia, an AR system that lets an operator or repair person wearing an AR headset or using a tablet to go from looking at the exterior of a Caterpillar front-end loader to “seeing” an exploded view of the system that shows each part and how they connect as well as monitoring the realtime performance data of each component, gathered by sensors on the machinery. That insight can also be shared, in real-time, by others who need it.


You may quibble with my choice of the “Collective Blindness” metaphor for the obstacles we and businesses in general, faced before the IoT, but I do think we need some sweeping description of exactly how limited we used to be because the acceptance of those limits, and our inability to “see” how things really did restrict our ability to fine-tone products and their operation — and even now may keep us from re-examining everything now that we have gained this ability. Let me know your thoughts on this — and I hope you’ll stay tuned for more excerpts from The Future Is Smart in coming months.

 

Why IoT Engineers Need Compulsory Sensitivity Training on Privacy & Security

Posted on 4th April 2018 in AI, data, Essential Truths, Internet of Things, privacy, security

OK, you may say I’m over-sensitive, but a headline today from Google’s blog that others may chuckle about (“Noodle on this: Machine learning that can identify ramen by shop“) left me profoundly worried about some engineers’ tone-deaf insensitivity to growing public concern about privacy and security.

This is not going to be pleasant for many readers, but bear with me — IMHO, it’s important to the IoT’s survival.

As I’ve written before, I learned during my work on corporate crisis management in the 80’s and 90’s that there’s an all-too-frequent gulf between the public and engineers on fear.  Engineers, as left-brained and logical as they come (or, in Myers-Briggs lingo, ISTJs, “logical, detached and detailed” and the polar opposite of ENFP’s such as me, ” caring, creative, quick and impulsive” ) are ideally-suited for the precision needs of their profession — but often (but not always, I’ll admit…) clueless about how the rest of us respond to things such as the Russian disruption of our sacred political institutions via Facebook or any of the numerous violations of personal privacy and security that have taken place with IoT devices lacking in basic protections.

The situation is bad, and getting worse. In one Pew poll, 16% or less of Americans felt that a wide range of institutions, from companies to government, were protecting their information.

Engineers are quick to dismiss the resulting fear because it isn’t logical.  But, as I’ve written before, the fact fear isn’t logical doesn’t mean it isn’t really real for many people, and can cloud their thought processes and decision-making.

Even worse, it’s cumulative and can ensnare good companies as well as bad.  After a while, all the privacy and security violations get conflated in their minds.

Exhibit A for this insensitivity? The despicable memo from Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth:

““Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

Eventually he, begrudgingly, apologized, as did Mark Zuckerberg, but, IMHO that was just facesaving. Why didn’t anyone at Facebook demand a retraction immediately, and why did some at Facebook get mad not at Bosworth but instead at anyone who’d leak such information?  They and the corporate culture are as guilty as Bosworth in my mind.

So why do I bring up the story about identifying the source of your ramen using AI, which was surely written totally innocently by a Google engineer who thought it would be a cute example of how AI can be applied to a wide range of subjects? It’s because I read it — with my antennae admittedly sharpened by all the recent abuses — as something that might have been funny several years ago but should have gone unpublished now in light of all the fears about privacy and security. Think of this little fun project the way a lot of the people I try to counsel on technology fears every day would have: you mean they now can and will find out where I get my noodles? What the hell else do they know about me, and who will they give that information to???

Again, I’m quite willing to admit I may be over-reacting because of my own horror about the nonchalance on privacy and security, but I don’t think so.

That’s why I’ll conclude this screed with a call for all IoT engineers to undergo mandatory privacy and security training on a continuing basis. The risk of losing consumer confidence in their products and services is simply too great for them to get off the hook because that’s not their job. If you do IoT, privacy and security is part of the job description.

End of sermon. Go about your business.

 

 

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