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Can IoT Save the World

Originally published on LinkedIn:

With all of the hype about IoT (Internet of Things) you might wonder if this is something that might be really important. Could it be that IoT is not just a lot of IT media noise. Could IoT save the world? I think it just could; or it could at least play an instrumental role.

I was recently watching a very depressing, but at the same time uplifting, documentary on CBC about the impact of global climate change (aka Global Warming) on the poor in various parts of the world, and about their response to it. People at the very bottom of our society are organizing to oppose projects that will damage the climate and that will very directly, and most immediately, impact their lives. The documentary also highlighted the state of the environment in several areas of the world, of which China was the most depressing, and perhaps the most emblematic, of what could happen elsewhere. Most touching were some clips from an anti-pollution film made in China (“Under the Dome” by Ms Chai Jing – Under the Dome: The smog film taking China by storm). “Have you ever seen real stars?” she asks a 6-year-old girl. “Never.” “Blue skies?” “I’ve seen one that’s a little blue.” “White clouds?” “Never.”

Clearly, if we cannot control runaway pollution of our air and water, the world will end. How can IoT save the day?

In the speech about the Internet of Things in 2009, former premier Wen Jia Bao explains the motivation for IoT this way:

“A million cars idling for 10 minutes will consume some 140,000 litres of gasoline. At the same time we have serious global problems with climate change and local problems with air pollution. Why should this be the case? The problem can be seen as one in which there is a lack of communication between the vehicles and the road.”

Generalizing this idea, we can see air and water pollution as a lack of communication (and, I would add, control) between pollution sources and the environment.

Of course pollution sources do “communicate” with the environment, but only in one direction, by filling the air with carbon, carbon oxides, and a host of noxious and dangerous materials. This communication can be seen in terms of changes in atmospheric temperature, acidity, and cloud and smog formation. We can see the results easily enough — “I’ve seen one that’s a little blue” — and the result should frighten us.

Suppose we were able to use our ability to model the climate for predicting what is happening now and what will happen next, and use that, in turn, to control (communicate with, and provide feedback to) pollution sources at every level from cars, to homes, to buildings and factories.

That would require the ability to measure pollution more or less everywhere, to input these measurements into local and global environmental models, and to use the predicted results to control the actions of the polluting sources. That might mean automatically turning down the temperature in your house, or refusing to start your car until other cars have left the road and are no longer polluting.

IoT offers the promise of being able to make measurements everywhere (everyone’s cell phone might measure pollutants in the air), and to feed these measurements into cloud-deployed environmental models, to create actionable directions to polluting devices. Edge computing might restrict pollutants at source, but we need some global roll up as well. Again, IoT offers the promise of making this possible.

A major challenge in all of this is how to regulate pollution sources based on the global state of the environment, and the predicted state in the near and longer term future. This is both an algorithmic challenge and a challenge to our political systems of governance (would you accept your car being shut off automatically for the greater good). We all agree that the global state which we all experience is the result of the accumulated impact of our local actions. We are less clear, however, on how our local actions might be regulated in response to measures and predictions of the global state of the environment.

One sign from a completely different domain is the “regulation” of web sites by Google and others in order to protect their browsing community from phishing, web forgery, and other attacks. In this case, Google reserves the right to declare a web site as dangerous based on measures they alone determine. A recent experience of mine brought this close to home when a colleague’s web site was declared dangerous even though the site was quite innocent. It seems, in such cases, that we have been willing to accept an authoritarian private entity ruling on the safety of the Internet. Can we extend the same idea to the environmental safety of our cars, homes, and factories. Of course we go part way in this direction when we expect compliance with standards for emissions or power consumption in our vehicles and household appliances. However, the difference might be that it may now be possible to measure our instantaneous contributions of pollutants, and to use that (combined with local, regional, and global climate models) to actually regulate our output in real time.

IoT gives us the promise of everywhere measuring the relevant quantities, feeding these back for analysis and determination of action, and then effecting that action through direct governance of actuation devices. It is a big brother like none of us may have foreseen, but it may be the direction needed to save the world.

Illustration of car and factory poluting the air with heavy cloud cover, an IoT connected Smartphone, and a stop sign with a white hand