IoT Revolution, Smart Systems, and Our Planet

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When people think of self-driving cars and the IoT Revolution, their thoughts turn to the very real, first-person experience:

  • What will it be like to trust a machine to drive?
  • Will it be safe?
  • What if my car is hacked, or worse yet, develops an independent AI-driven consciousness and decides to take me on a death ride straight out of the movies?

As history has proven, innovation (at least initially) provokes a lot of fear.

Yet despite my natural fear of losing control in a self-driving car, the climber, outdoor person, and environmentalist in me is stoked about the giant gains in sustainability and efficiency that are possible. The simple notion that personal transport vehicles won’t have to be idle for 80% of existence—sitting in driveways, garages, trailheads, and traffic. Instead, the opportunity to “sweat the asset” more completely becomes possible. The enormous tax of a newly manufactured car polluting the earth can be reduced dramatically, to say nothing of the transformative gains in fuel efficiency, traffic routing, and infrastructure. In essence, self-driving cars are a technology solution to a big, manifested environmental problem.

Technology is Not the Complete Fix But It is Part of the Solution

Years ago as an environmental science undergrad, I was very suspicious of the technocrats who believed technology solutions would answer for all environmental problems. In my view, I believed that humanity was traveling on a path to create fundamentally unfixable and tremendously consequential problems. That path continued, arguably accelerated, and today, among other environmental dangers we face an increasingly warming planet, significant loss of biodiversity and declining access to clean water with no easy solutions in sight. My earlier suspicions about the assumed omnipotence of technology and the naive vision of the technocrats have largely been affirmed.

Flash forward to today…we are lucky that is not the whole story. While it’s not likely we are going to be cooling our planet with technology in the near future, there are significant bright lights on the technology horizon that offer more promise than I otherwise would have expected during my student days. In my view, there is no light brighter than the increasingly connected and “smart” world captured by the marketing umbrella called the “IoT revolution.”

The IoT Revolution

While as a species we have been on a consistent evolutionary trajectory to develop increasingly efficient physical systems to reduce energy consumption (broadly defined), we are now at a significant inflection point. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, our increasing ability to cheaply instrument or “sensorize” virtually everything in the physical world, coupled with ubiquitous networks and rapid advances in compute and storage, are helping us build much more sophisticated and effective control systems.

Nevertheless, the 2nd order change dynamic at play with these capabilities in our grasp isn’t better control–it’s “smart” systems defined by learning and autonomy. It is the increasing ability for these systems to recognize and handle anomalous behavior with little or no human intervention, also known as machine learning. Self-driving cars is one example, but think about smart homes, smart buildings, smarter industrial machines all running more efficiently, lasting longer, requiring few resources and consuming less energy.

At InfluxData, we are trying to do all we can to support this exciting (and a little bit scary) future. Building a purpose-built platform designed to ingest, store, process, and act upon the time- based metrics and events is the foundational “data processing” work needed to support this emergent change dynamic. We are doing this work as an open source project because we believe, even as a commercial entity, that this grassroots effort is how we will have the biggest impact.

Helping Our Customers Change the World

I am very proud of many of the projects our customers are building with our platform, but a couple of them stand out: BBOXX and Spiio. BBOXX is a British company that is providing clean affordable solar electricity to off-the-grid communities around the world. They currently have 85,000 BBOXX (“Battery Boxes”) platforms deployed, serving 350,000 people in 85 countries and they are targeting 1 million units by 2020. They are monitoring and controlling those boxes in real time to maximize their uptime but also to learn how to evolve their systems to serve more of these communities efficiently and cleanly.

In the more developed world, Spiio provides a sensor and software solution for remote monitoring of vertical living green walls and high-value green plant installations. This enables horticulture professionals to make data-driven decisions and retain full control of millions of plants with the use of real-time analytics–essentially controlling green installations in real time, saving water, energy and human effort in the process. BBOXX and Spiio are just two examples of the roughly 70,000 sites today running InfluxData to build “smarter” systems.

Turning back to my college days, my environmental concerns and my fear that technology will not be able to correct for carelessness with our natural resources and my concern that we will rapidly come up against the carrying capacity of our planet…that fear is still there. But quite a few years post-college, I can’t help but admire some of the things we have been able to do technologically to address those concerns. I am optimistic that we will grow increasingly adept at being more efficient with our limited resources.

For my part, I am proud to be working with the InfluxData team to develop platforms to accelerate these technology gains and do our small part to support and drive these changes. With that in mind, from my environmentalist perspective, the self-driving car and its corollary smart home seem quite a bit less scary and infinitely more exciting.

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