Internet of things

Human Communication is the Heart of a Connected City

Nora Young
“We at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.”Richard Feynman 

The From Now conference gave over 100 people an opportunity to learn and discuss how technology is integrating into, and changing our societies and culture. Conversations both formal and informal ranged from smart cities, wearables, the internet of things, the quantified self, quantum computing, big data, grassroots tech movements, the maker movement, apps, mobile, robotics, cyborg anthropology, philosophy, bionics, user experience, the impact today and the future of where our tech-led world is taking us.

However, the theme stayed true to keeping humanity with technology. The speakers delivered thoughtful, thought provoking, entertaining topics with each warranting a feature story in their own right.

Nora Young’s (Journalist and host of CBC Spark) morning keynote ‘Design for the Internet of Things: An Urban Utopian Fantasy’ had a deep resonance. For the past 34 years ‘the city’ has been my home, and Young’s talk spoke to the roles that cities play today and how they’ll be the future home to more and more of the worlds population.

The evolution of the connected city has to be more than the applications designed for the efficient delivery of services. Technology can increase citizen engagement, but should also give us a deeper sense of local connection. Asking “does it all have to be known?” Young suggested “we need our digital cities to have a place for the unstructured, unplanned, discoverable, and with room for surprise.” Young cited the great example of Bristol, UK, being a ‘playable city’ with their “hello lamp-post project.”

“We need to actively plan and think seriously how the digital world will influence our physical spaces,” said Young, reminding everyone that we are and will continue to be part of the digital city. The language of the smart city can’t be driven and dominated by the soulless, technocratic, neo-liberal discourse. Touching on her conversation with Adam Greenfield and his work “Against the Smart City,” it served as further reminder about the importance of creating a better human experience.

There’s the need to think locally, and as Young offered to build on the unique “placeness.”

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By taking a distinct approach to urban information she asked “what’s the data personality?”

“What’s the digital difference between Toronto and Vancouver?” she asked. “Consider how we experience our spaces, and to look at something like the Murmur project, illustrating how located media can play a role in connecting us to place.”

There’s a place in the language of the connected city for the vernacular, or to reimagine our spatial relationships through the experience of augmented reality. As citizens we can take ownership and claim to build our own digital and data environments. Young sees this as creating “the democratization of space making in the urban environment.”

Citizen engagement should be about advancing our collective creative and intellectual capital. Within this fabric of citizenry, Young pointed out that “partnerships are needed in the politics of the city.” Conversations should be happening around how we define the notions of “data civics and the data commons.” She shared the importance of spreading of ideas, and how Social Physics can act as a mechanism of change.

Technology can’t be about creating individual bubbles and it can’t be about cutting people off or creating isolation. Isolation only creates more despair. Taking a moment, pausing to wipe away the tears, Young reflected on a friends recent suicide. “Technology should be about the removal of obstructions. The city can be a place of accidental sharing, bumping shoulders, unexpected connections, and place to just hang out. Let it encourage empathy. How do we see ourselves better? Other people better? How do we see each other better?”

Defining the type of cities that we want to call home is “a moral and spiritual issue. The city should be a platform for improving the human experience.” Technology isn’t the savior, it’s only the enabler. We’ll get the cities we want by asking more of ourselves, not by asking more of a city government. Revolutionaries we’re not.

The evolution we should want will happen, as Young said, in true Canadian fashion “by taking to the sidewalk in an orderly fashion.”

Originally appeared in BetaKit

British Columbia Will Have the Planet’s Smartest Coastline

 

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Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) has announced a collaboration with IBM to create the “smartest coast on the planet”. A three-year, multi-million dollar project will equip British Columbia with a monitoring and prediction system to respond to offshore accidents, tsunamis and other natural disasters.

The “Smart Oceans BC” program will use marine sensors and data analysis to enhance environmental stewardship and public and marine safety along Canada’s West coast. It will monitor vessel traffic, waves, currents and water quality in major shipping arteries and will include a system to predict the impact of offshore earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surge, and underwater landslides.

ONC is the University of Victoria’s largest research project. It is already operating the world’s most advanced cabled ocean observatories off BC’s coast. IBM is investing $12 million in cloud computing infrastructure, analytics software, services and skills training in support of expanding this vital system. This also furthers Canada’s position as a global leader in ocean technology.

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Michelle Rempel, Canada’s Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), announced that Western Economic Diversification is also contributing $9.1 million in funding that will bring online a number of additional underwater observatories and high frequency coastal radars.

Scott McLean, director, ONC Innovation Centre said “the concept for the project was created by the ONC Executive team in several brainstorming sessions last fall. We were discussing how we could apply the ONC Observatory technology (developed for a research facility) to more directly support public and marine safety.”

“ONC has a world-leading marine sensor network and associated expertise,” said IBM president Dan Fortin. “IBM is making significant investments in technology and skills-training to ensure ONC has the capacity to analyze data from the new sensors coming online. This will allow modelling systems to better support disaster planning and drive Canada’s economic future through the development of big data skills and associated digital expertise.”

ONC will be running earthquake and tsunami simulations with a goal of predicting their behaviour and potential impact on coastal areas, using on-premise cloud computing technology. This information will benefit a wide range of stakeholders from public safety agencies to public transportation, tourism, and other industries operating in the area.

With new visual analytics, data streams processing, machine learning and data exploration software, researchers will be developing, testing and running decision-support systems. This also presents an avenue of commercial viability that could aid industrial and governmental agencies in sea state, pollution monitoring, spill response and other aspects of ocean management.

“Through IBM’s contribution, we’re able to draw insights and conduct analysis of a massive amount of new data that will be critical in the implementation of a world-class marine safety system,” said ONC president Dr. Kate Moran.

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She also said, “Smart Oceans BC will help to develop best practices in three focus areas: marine shipping, environmental monitoring, and public safety. For example, for marine shipping, we will be developing baselines of the sound in the sea. Should sound increase from shipping, this information would be used to suggest best shipping practices to mitigate and reduce noise, such as altering routes to minimize impact on marine mammals, and identifying areas where ships should alter their speed to reduce noise.

ONC estimates the global market for smart oceans systems technology will grow from $4 billion to at least $6 billion by 2020. Part of IBM’s commitment will be supporting internships for over a dozen students from BC universities to build subject matter expertise and practical experience in this emerging industry. The students represent the importance of having a cross-disciplinary approach, and will include MBAs, researchers, programmers and biologists.

McLean puts this project in a global context saying, “ONC is an international research facility with over 10,000 users from around the globe and has a program founded on international partnerships. We have already had an international workshop in March for tsunami modelling and will be establishing partnerships around Smart Oceans BC that will serve as a testbed for new technologies.”

A smart coastline is good, but arguably for many British Columbians a safe coastline is better. I also asked Moran if this project will have any impact on making future potential oil tanker travel any safer for BC’s coast?  She foresees that “Smart Oceans BC will reduce risk by providing real time information on sea conditions to ships traveling along the coast.  Knowing sea conditions in real time provides valuable information to make decisions about when and what route to travel.”

This story was first published in BetaKit

Thinking about Watson’s World and the Autonomous Auto

IBM-Watson

“I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Ken Jennings was humble in accepting his  Jeopardy defeat to the silicon of Watson. While not the theme of the recent Wavefronts Wireless Summit 2014, it’s a fair subtext.

Now that connected cows and connected home appliances are no longer the stuff of bad internet jokes, the relationships between mobile devices and everyday things seems to be catching on. Forecasting of 50 billion things being connected to the internet by 2020 equates to sizeable opportunity. Over 500 people in attendance (double of last year) at the summit indicates a growing interest in this business.

The healthcare industry stands to benefit from much of this innovation. More importantly it’s the patient who stands to gain the most. Jeffrey Betts leads IBM’s Chronic Disease Management and Personalized Healthcare activities in Canada, and presented, “Converting Big Data into Better Healthcare with Analytics.”

We spoke about the opportunities that Watson is presenting to healthcare professionals. It’s an an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language. “Watson holds the promise of providing a physician with all of the evidence, all of the time at the point of care,” said Betts. In spite of their 8-12 years of training and education, keeping current with information is a huge challenge. As he points out “the cold hard fact is velocity of change in health information far exceeds any humans cognitive capacity to absorb it. So physicians are obsolete at graduation and fall behind in their knowledge continuously.”

Technology like Watson is giving physicians the ability to draw on the latest evidence. This comprehensive collection of evidence makes a significant difference in the work they do diagnosing a patient, and in selecting a treatment.

Text is the key driver of healthcare communications, yet so much important context is lost. Bett’s points out “about 80% of medical information is done in the form of free text. It’s being able to actually utilize this to find facts about the patient that are not explicitly captured in some other system of record, like if they might be a smoker or not can impact the prognosis or treatment plan.”

Watson can both read and reason, and thus establish context. It has the ability to infer and understand the nuances of language. From the medical perspective Watson has the ability to place relevant facts that it finds in unstructured text, into context for the physician.

For instance, Betts shared that “in talking with Oncologists about their process for creating a treatment plan, there’s a lot of ambiguity and complexity. It’s takes time. It’s a very iterative process. By having all of the evidence relevant to the patient presented with options ranked in probability, plus the evidence associated with those options means added physician confidence is just a click away.”

With the Watson API it will be interesting to see what new innovation entrepreneurs will deliver. This is technology that can be key in breaking down of our current health system silos. The patient will finally become the centre of care.

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But that wasn’t all that grabbed attention at the Wavefronts Wireless Summit.

Tim Hayden is author of the forthcoming “The Mobile Commerce Revolution” and announced to the crowd that “we’re at the end of the auto age”. Social is mobile, he said, and it’s changing our relationship to “being” mobile.

Hayden offered that “if you look at what’s happening with Lyft for instance, it’s like virtual mobile hitchhiking. It’s getting simpler to get a car only when you need it, and paying for it only when you use it. To a younger and more urban demographic the car is becoming a utility. It’s not the status symbol of past generations. As Hayden says, “everyone born after 1994 has a very different outlook on life. They’re not going to have a car define who they are.”

Michigan, California, Nevada and Florida now allow self-driving vehicle research to take place on their highways. There’s been the recent news of driving coast to coast without a drop of gas courtesy of Tesla. Transportation is in the early days of massive upheaval.

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Hayden notes “it’s interesting that Uber pre-orders 2000 self driving cars two days after receiving it’s $258 million investment from Google Ventures. Here’s good old fashion ‘peanut butter and jelly’. You have the service and you have the OEM talking with each other about how to make this extremely efficient. Not paying drivers, a lower infrastructure cost per vehicle, not worrying about driver errors, changes the game.”

Jay Giraud is cofounder and CEO of Vanoucer’s Moj.io, which is connecting the car to the internet. He believes personal transportation is “about turning your car into a platform. It can now act and behave like a smartphone. We’re envisioning new models of ownership, new ways of commuting, new ways of connecting with people while you’re on the road, and getting the things you need in a very contextual and automated way.”

While he’d love a self-driving car, Giraud knows the reality of mass adoption is still on the distant horizon. What he’s see right now is the fact that “we all do the same commute, but we all have different needs. How we use our cars, how connect with cars, how we find cars, get in cars, and maybe even how we own cars is up for grabs right now.”

Regardless of technology, the devices and how they’re connected, none will solve our global challenges. Only people can solve people challenges like carbon emissions and personal wellness. Ideally technology will be the enabler to a better future.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Solid Thinking: Reflections on Solid Conference 2014

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“Software is eating the world…. Hardware gives it teeth.”Renee DiResta (Principle, OATV)

With one look at what the O’Reilly Media team, Jon Bruner and Joi Ito had planned for the first Solid Conference, there was never a question of me not going. It was only a question of getting there. Having the deep pocketed editor helping jet-set me around in the pursuit of a story is the unicorn in my freelancing magical world. Between the support of the Vancouver technology community, and the generosity of many others the trip came true because of a successful crowd-funding initiative. The 21st and 22nd of May at Fort Mason revealed a treasure trove of thoughts, conversations, and visions of the connected self and connected society. I’m grateful to have earned the experience. This is only the start of a story that will keep on giving.

For the more than 1400 attendees at times the choices had to be overwhelming. With key note speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts with over 100 talks fuelling the imagination. There was so much on display the senses had moments of being overloaded.

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Jon Bruner started everyone thinking by simply asking “what’s a tech company, anyway?” It’s more than the 0’s and 1’s, the circuits, sensors, the materials, the connectivity, and the transcending science fiction into science fact. As the digital experience continues merging with the physical experience, there’s no shortage of why’s to ask. Asking why some of this technology needs to exist is a good place to start. Is it solving big problems? Is it making us more capable? Is it making us smarter? Cool wasn’t making the grade for me.

Astro Teller“Hardware is hard” seemed almost understated coming from someone who’s all about moonshots. Visions of what could be aside, Google’s Astro Teller gave advice more entrepreneurs need to seriously consider saying “get more oil on your hands or mud on your boots to take down the really big problems.” Take the time to learn more about Google X and Astro Teller in the great Fast Company feature.

Envisioning relations in terms of both the potentiality and the tension between our digital, spacial, and physical worlds, Hiroshi Ishii was brilliant.  His talk, “Vision Driven: Beyond Tangible Bits, Towards Radical Atoms” left me breathless.

Hiroshi IshiiIshii leads The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Lab, where the TRANSFORM project is described as one that “fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. 

The motion design is inspired by the dynamic interactions among wind, water and sand in nature. Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells the story of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.” Watch for yourself.

 

SphereIn the category of science fiction meeting science fact, the SPHERES program was on my radar before the conference. Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

This video is quite the ride – 

Richard IsaacsQuite possibly it was Richard Isaacs (Mechanical Designer and Organ-builder with C.B. Fisk)  who best wrapped a unique context around Jon Bruner’s opening question. His talk, “Musical Counterpoint in Wood, Bone, Metal, and Carbon Fibre” introduced us to the history and the complexity of pipe organs. It’s worth noting (courtesy of Wikipedia) that “beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.” It’s both a history and a future of craftsmanship and musicianship that’s capable of taking us closer to the heavens than any spaceship can. He also shared an impressive visual collection of “pipe-organ porn” too.

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Most encouraging throughout the two days was the talk of design centred thinking, and how crucial user experience and the user interface is. It’s about putting the human experience at the centre of  our hardware and software experiments. We can talk about the industrial internet and the internet of things, yet there is no industry and there are no things without us at the heart of the equation.

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly summed up the spirit of solid thinking best, saying “we need to think about the people… not just about things.” He also extended all of us a challenge, one we need to collectively endeavour towards delivering on everyday – “work on what is hard.”

Many of the pictures are courtesy the O’Reilly Flickr collection.

 

 

Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?

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Reality is not universal. Mix one man’s factual with another’s fictional, and somewhere in that ether is another person’s reality of the moment.

When Marc Andreessen penned “Why Software Is Eating The World” in 2011, he didn’t share a vision of machines or devices. Contrast Andreessen’s reality with the dystopian world envisioned by James Cameron in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where a lot of stuff blew up. Here, man’s conflict with machine also serves as a cautionary tale.

For some people, the reality of this moment is found interacting with connected devices, or machines talking to machines. The internet is more than navigating web pages now: it’s a world of connected things. Bing’s Sr. Product Manager Duane Forrester sees this as a world of “using knowledge to empower objects – THAT is the internet of things.”

Forrester was one of many great speakers at the recent Wavefront Wireless Summit held in Vancouver. The event was three days of talk and thoughts about what is, and what could be. With over 500 attendees, a line-up of international thought leaders, and global business partners the event was true to it’s theme of “driving business transformation with wireless and mobility solutions.”

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With two discussion tracks and so much content delivered it’s impossible to review every topic, conversation, and speaker. It’s also tough picking favourites. But on the heels of this year’s CES event that highlighted wearable technology, the connected home and vehicle, there was no shortage of “cool” consumer enabling technology discussion.

However, there was also serious conversations about significant issues relating to health care, transportation, energy, and agriculture. The entrepreneurs casting a lens beyond our first world problems, by taking a global perspective have enormous opportunities in front of them. There’s a huge part of the world that will never communicate through a strand of copper.

From Kenya, a Skype conversation with Jesse Moore, Managing Director at M-Kopa, illustrated this world of opportunity. Moore shared how machine-to-machine technology (M2M), mPayments and “old school” feature phones have lit up Kenya. While most of us take bank accounts and electricity for granted, that’s just not the case in much of the developing world.
Meanwhile, Gary Atkinson’s presentation challenged everyone to ponder the question, “Can Technology Save us from Ourselves?” Atkinson, the director of emerging technologies at Cambridge, UK’s ARM, offered that if technology is cheap enough, low-power enough and small enough, we need to better deploy it to solve big challenges. Atkinson is looking at how “little data” from sensors can help us make better decisions to improve crop yields, to detecting leaky water infrastructure, to better protecting people with chronic diseases.

We talked about how the use of technology can help better feed our world. He pointed out “we can barely feed and water ourselves today, and there will be two billion more people on the planet by 2050. We need to be able to scale up and increase the yields. Increasing the yields requires us to make better decisions, and be more intelligent about how we grow food on a hectare of land. To be more intelligent we need more measurement. We need a more granular understanding of one plot of land, not a general overview of 10,000 hectares. A couple of areas where technology will help, and precision agriculture and drip irrigation.”

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In spite of having the technological potential, we still haven’t gotten to the point where end devices, that can sense, monitor, and communicate are cheap enough or are durable enough to last ten plus years. For many of the world’s farming operation, this technology is not yet economically worthwhile.

Silicon isn’t the constraint, being able to cheaply communicate data is. Atkinson said “we’re trying to use technology that was developed for humans to talk with humans. But, machines don’t need to be concerned about the whole availability of a network. This is where the design goals for Weightless SIG is about taking out everything that humans need (such as latency dependence, immediately available, relatively high bandwidth, clarity and cell-to-cell roaming). It’s about reducing base station and operational costs, as sensor technology for this type of application doesn’t need to be run on current cellular technology.”

It’s an interesting case of removing human-centred design considerations from the machine, and it will actually facilitate better human related outcomes. By creating a “dumber” network, and decreasing sensor costs by increasing the scale of adoption, the potential to better feed ourselves is an opportunity right in front us.

This article originally appeared in BetaKit