The Future Has Never Been More Promising and Unpredictable

When I think about the future, often in the realm of technology, I tend to look specifically at computers and even more narrowly the Internet of Things (which is kind of my thing). I read Ars Technica, Tom’s Hardware, and Reddit, and I talk to other developers. Often I see the future through that narrow lens. I see the future in my individual industry coming down the pipe, and announcements seem somewhat predictable.

However, outside of my immediate area of expertise, I’m often surprised to hear about the leaps of progress other industries are making. Sometimes I will stumble on something outside my immediate area of expertise that just blows my mind. Recently, that happened when I came across this video explaining CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).

The tl;dr is that scientists are able splice together DNA to cut out known bad stuff or put in good stuff, even in full-grown adults. It’s essentially programming living things. Wow! How have I not heard about this before? This should be front-page news!

“That’s great, Jared, but you are a programmer. What does this have to do with you?”

I’m glad you asked, even if it was a bit of a snarky remark. Immediately my mind leaps to what the possibilities are: Well, if you can copy DNA extremely accurately, and that can represent data, can we take advantage of that for storing computer data? Well, of course we can, and we already are. Microsoft and the University of Washington teamed up and stored 200 megabytes of data in the space of the tip of a pencil. The storage technology holds the promise of holding about 1 billion terabytes in a single gram. And this is just the cross-roads of DNA and data storage, there are many multidisciplinary approaches to technology that are happening (and should happen more and more, in this author’s view) across the world.

There are so many pieces of technology other than computing that are making progress faster than ever before: Agriculture, education, machinery, nanotechnology, energy, transport, mining, and healthcare. What is happening in these spaces that will affect us all in only a few years? What revolutionary tech is coming online or just about to? It’s mind-boggling.

Knowledge transfer across domains goes the other way, too. Computing improvements can affect healthcare in big ways. Take, for example, protein folding. Unfortunately, classical computers are very bad at doing this. A project called Folding@Home has helped alleviate that problem by harnessing the power of many, many computers (104,000 teraflops of computing power across the world) to figure out how proteins fold. The ultimate goal is to help cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s. Although progress has been made in studying this that would not have been made otherwise, quantum computers have shown significant promise in being able to solve problems like these at speeds that would put all of those harnessed computers to shame. That happens when you can calculate millions of possibilities at the same time, as is quantum computer’s strength. Once quantum computers become more powerful and consistent, and once we figure out better ways to program them, all of Folding@Home’s progress to date could be made in days or hours on just one quantum machine.

These types of interrelationships between technologies (in this case, protein folding and quantum computers) supercharge our advances toward the future. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so a small leap in any one technology can dramatically affect the progress of another. As the excellent In a Nutshell video above explains, imagine the impact that just one technology, the internet, has had on nearly every single piece of our lives. Right now, there are thousands of potentially game-changing technologies in the pipeline. As they come out of research facilities, there will be unimaginable ripple effects.

Worker Productivity Over Time
Chart found in afx114’s PhotoBucket, no idea who the author is. Happy to give a credit where credit is due if you know who made it.

What’s really cool is that these affects are logarithmic in nature. The better a technology gets, the better it makes other technologies. And upward and upward we go in productivity (which is just one, albeit poor, indication of progress) and other indications of progress, faster and faster. With all of the unknown unknowns and the rapid pace of change, the future has never been as unpredictable, or as exciting, or as promising, as it is right now.

Technology Is Nothing Without People

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNRjpZrbMhg

This past Saturday I made the short trek to Disney Springs with my wife, father, and his girlfriend to get some dinner and catch the holiday light show. I had seen some footage provided by Intel so I knew it was going to be good. Turns out, I was right.

To watch the sky expecting to see dark objects roaming about before the show to begin and then being wholly surprised to watch a blooming of lights appear out of nowhere and as if suspended in midair by nothing but the hopes and dreams of the onlookers below is magical. Although like any new technology, it will be normalized over time, but that moment was incredible. It was like watching the future unfold before your very eyes.

It’s the same feeling I got in 2007 when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. It was the same feeling I got when Microsoft revealed the Hololens. This is stuff that moves the bar farther forward than you even expect. And I’m not alone in that feeling.

Before I say what happened after the show, let me explain something about my father. He called me one day this year and asked for my help with his computer. It was a ten-year-old Pentium box running Windows Vista. I took a look and it was completely barren of junk ware. It was used for exactly three things: browsing the web, cutting out vinyl stickers, and editing photos using Paint Shop Pro 7. You’ve never heard of it? It came out sixteen years ago. He was having trouble accessing his favorite websites. The problem? They stopped supporting Internet Explorer 9. Although he is a genius in his own right when it comes to metal and paint as an auto body shop owner, and a naturally curious person in general, when it comes to most things with a computer he’s what you’d call pragmatic. On the adoption curve, he’s what you’d call a “late adopter.”

Walking back from the end of the Disney drone show, he was enthusiastically talking about all the possibilities of drones. I mentioned that Amazon was planning on using them at some point, and he said “Yeah! You could drive a truck out to a rural area, with drones all ready to go and they all fly out and in five minutes you’ve got two hundred packages delivered.” We talked about how they could have done it and further possibilities of the technology on our walk to dinner. With the typical Disney parental roles reversed, I drank in the look of possibility and wonder on his face.

That is the power of technology. It’s all about people, and it touches all of our lives, even those of us who don’t run out to buy the latest gadgets. We, the people who make technology, always need to keep that at the forefront of our minds. We have a responsibility to delight, to inspire, and to create good with the skills we possess.

Could Use A Confidence Boost? Teach Some Kids

Confidence is a kind of high. You see the world a little brighter, your stride becomes a strut, and colors are saturated. It’s also a high in the sense it’s not the constant state of things. As a professional,we take our knowledge and experience for granted sometimes, and in doing so, confidence is always elusive. After every fist-in-the-air hooray moment after an epiphany comes a crash back to reality as a new problem to overcome emerges.

Recently, I visited the elementary school where my wife teaches to do Teach-In. This is essentially 21st-Century “Career Day.” I’ve done this before a few times, and each time I marvel at the lack of impulse control children possess, as well as their curiosity, interest, and genuine excitement for learning. I suppose the house is in your favor when you have something you are interested in teaching, too, so that erases some of the drudgery associated with a typical school day.

Getting prepared to teach children about what you do is a wonderful treat. When you ask yourself how you would explain what your career is like to children, you start to dig deep into the fundamentals of your professional life. Why do you do what you do? How did you get here? What difference are you making? As long as you truly believe you are doing something wonderful, your confidence is lifted even before you step in a classroom. For example, I started my slide deck with “Programmer By Day: Software developers are basically modern-day wizards.”

I don’t mean to flatter myself, but wow does it feel good to see that in writing. I’m a wizard! When I think about the fundamentals of programming, of writing code from nothing that creates magical things to happen, it’s actually the coolest thing in the world and I feel extremely fortunate I am able to do this for a living. People pay me to turn nothing into something useful.

Once you are finished truly understanding what it is you do and why you do it, the real fun begins. That nervous adrenaline kicks in before you start talking because this is the gauntlet. I don’t know if you know this, but children are brutally honest and generally don’t care if they offend you. On one hand, you can guarantee that you won’t get polite clapping at the end if you do a bad job. On the other hand, unlike your office meetings, if you do a good  job you won’t have a jealous Brenda sitting purse-lipped in the corner doing the least amount of clapping possible to not be noticed by the others.

Instead, despite any teacher’s best efforts to maintain order, you’ll get kids shouting out “Make me a game!” when you say you’re a modern-day wizard thirty seconds into your presentation. Maybe not the most productive feedback, but you know they are listening. Below are some actual quotes from children during my presentation.

“Can you guys make a new update?”

That was a student wondering if I can make a new update to Minecraft. I had to explain that I personally do not work on Minecraft.

“Is he still alive?”

This is in reference to the creator of Minecraft, Notch. Kids really love Minecraft.

“Awesome!”

I wrote two lines of code that made a light turn on. That’s awesome. I love this, this is the confidence booster stuff I’m talking about.

“No way!”

When I moved my Arduino (little computer) with code on it from the computer I had been programming with to a random computer in the classroom, and it still ran the program that I put on it.

Keep in mind, these were unsolicited exclamations from the kids. I did have a Q&A time and got asked some surprisingly great questions from fourth graders, but this was just their real, live, unfiltered reactions. It sure beats what I have to put up with from Brenda in all those meetings.

I left the school that day exhausted but with some lightness in my step. I taught five sessions in all, or roughly 120 kids total. To be able to positively influence that many people, in person and all in one day, is completely inspiring. To see kids literally leaning forward to hear what you have to say is a huge confidence boost and I highly recommend it.

How IoT Will Revolutionize Healthcare

In a recent panel we had at the Orlando IoT Meetup, we were discussing the future of the Internet of Things. Ashley Simmons, the Director of Innovation at the Florida Hospital, gave some insight to the future of healthcare when I asked each panel member what their field will look like in 50 years. She imagined a world where there are less hospitals and more in-home care, including monitoring and preventative care. This was a surprising answer from someone who’s paid by a hospital!

After some reflection, it’s an obvious direction to go in. Hospitals are notorious for cross-contamination of diseases, are hard to get to in an emergency, and while people are staying in a hospital their homes sit empty. In-home care fixes these problems all in one shot, but what’s preventing this from happening right now is our level of technology, regulations, and mindset.

Holistic and preventative care are becoming more in vogue in the healthcare field, and for good reason. You know how health insurance companies have started offering gym memberships and more mental health counseling? It’s because they know that covering your monthly $20 membership is much cheaper than paying for a triple bypass surgery or years of insulin. If you can offer better predictive and prescriptive care that automates away some of the more rote aspects of healthcare, everyone will be better off.

For example, if you have a Fitbit-of-the-future that can tell you what your blood pressure is and it knows that you have been eating McDonald’s every day and only getting 2,000 steps in each day, it can tell you to lay off the cheeseburgers and maybe take a walk. This has saved you the yearly lecture from your doctor about losing a few pounds and since it’s happening in real time, you can see your results in real time as well.

Undoubtedly, thanks to the Internet of Things, the future of healthcare is going to look very different. I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Categories IoT

Is IoT A Fad?

Is the Internet of Things a fad? If you want the “Too Long, Didn’t Read” version: No. It’s actually been here a while and the concept won’t be going away any time soon, although it will undoubtedly change form as technology changes (and may even change it’s name to something else if history is any indication).

It’s not that difficult to get things talking to each other over an internet in theory. You just have to have a few things in place:

  • A sensor on a machine to measure some sort of thing that needs to be communicated.
  • A processor on that machine to process that measurement.
  • Code running on the processor to calculate the measurement.
  • A modem connected to an internet to transfer that measurement to a listening machine.
  • A machine (may be a computer or server) “listening” for that measurement and doing something with it.

This list probably looks quaint to you now, but it was actually a pretty cool concept when it was put out there. When was that, exactly, though? The concept has been around since the early 1980’s and was put into application by students at Carnegie Mellon University when they connected the Coke machine to the internet to inform people if the soda was cold – and you could check it anywhere in the world. Of course, the “other machine” was a server that just sent that data visually when queried, but I still think this fits the bill. The story is actually pretty fascinating.

They installed micro-switches in the Coke machine…the switches were hooked up to CMUA, the PDP-10 that was then the main departmental computer…people could check the Coke machine from any CMU computer.

Industrial machines later in the 1980’s started to build on this concept. It even got a name, it was called Machine to Machine communication (or “m2m”), and gosh darn it, we liked it that way. Remote monitoring was likely the most used application, making it so temperatures, humidity, etc. could be checked from yards or even miles away. Many of these devices back in the day were intranet devices, on a closed network only available to a single corporation, so depending on how loose your definition of IoT is or how liberal you want to get with what the “I” stands for, these examples may not hold up.

As with any tech history, ideas build on each other, so saying when the first true Internet of Things device came online may be tricky. Throughout the course of the 90’s and 2000’s, devices got smaller and started getting the ability to wirelessly communicate, not only to terminals and computer screens but to each other. Within the past few years, hardware has has become extremely cheap and small (hello $5 Raspberry Pi Zero), cloud computing so accessible, and wireless technology so robust, that there is a perfect storm for a new wave of IoT devices and hype.

Is this hype warranted? I think so. Even if this wave of hype dies down, hardware is only getting smaller, wireless technology better, and computing cheaper. IoT is not a fad, it’s been around a long, long time, and I believe it will only get more prevalent.

Categories IoT

Internet of Things 101: How Does IoT Work?

As the organizer of Orlando IoT, I don’t get a lot of 101-level questions about the Internet of Things. Typically, the questions are like the one I was asked recently that went something like this: “How do I get two Arduinos to talk? Right now I’m using nrf24L01.” For those out of the IoT loop, that sounds like gibberish. Heck, the latter part about enn-arr-eff-twenty-four-ell-oh-one was a complete mystery to me (turns out it’s a low-power radio frequency transceiver).

Even if you have no knowledge about IoT, you can still learn, just like I did about that transceiver. If this video is completely beneath your skill level, count yourself lucky. You are well on your way to knowing how the Internet of Things works and may well be on your way to actually doing something with it. If you are just starting to understand IoT even from a consumer point of view and this video was a great primer, that’s fantastic too. Just as the IoT ecosystem needs people to make things, it needs people to buy things as well.

I will be posting more posts and videos about the Internet of Things, so I hope you stick around. In the meantime, feel free to join us at the Orlando IoT Facebook group and if you are in the area, join the Meetup group as well.

Categories IoT