Episode 152 - Weaving A Network
Published March 10, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Scott Lemon. Our planet is slowly being absorbed by technology. You may have heard the term "Internet Of Things". On this episode we're joined by the founder and CTO of Wovyn, an Internet Of Things company, to talk about the wiring of the world and the impact that this technology can have, both on humans and on the world we inhabit. Recorded 3/4/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Scott's blog, The.Inevitable.Org/anism
Scott's company, Wovyn
Scott's consulting company, HumanXtensions LLC
Scott on Twitter
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #152. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Scott Lemon. Scott, thanks for coming on the show.
Scott Lemon: Well, thank you very much for having me.
MJ: Could you tell our listeners a little bit about your background and what you’re doing now?
SL: Background-wise, I’ve been working computer technologies for I’ll say a long time. I got into computers in middle school; I got thrown out of foods class for starting a food fight and so I had to find something else to get into. I got into a computer programming class and really latched onto it. I started in hardware and things like that back in the early ‘80s, so pre-internet, and I was working on a lot of different types of dial-up networking networks and eventually went to work for NOVELL. NOVELL at one time was quite the leader in computer networking pre-internet and then into the internet age. So, I worked in a lot of positions in the early internet days of getting computers networked and connected up to the internet. I left in around 2000 to pursue some of my own research and developments. For the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve been working in a variety of areas of business process automation, I’ve got a consulting company that does that. I’ve moved up into the cloud and large scale distributed cloud applications. About three years ago, I decided I wanted to get back into hardware again. I saw some interesting things that were coming with the arduinos and netduinos and some of the sensor technology. So, three years ago I dove back into that and founded a new company called Wovyn, where our goal is really to focus on how can we make sensors and control technologies much more plug and play to distributed cloud applications and decentralized systems. That’s really our focus and that’s really what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, and we’ve been working closely with a variety of commercial customers and they’re just getting a number of products out onto the market.
MJ: Is this more targeted towards commercial environments?
SL: Yes, very much. Here’s my thoughts behind it: it’s not necessarily that it couldn’t be used in the home, but we don’t know that we have an interest in dancing with the elephants in the home automation conflict that’s about to emerge. We see Apple stepping in, Google stepping in, you’ve got Samsung with the acquisition of SmartThings. You’ve got some major players that are all pursuing the home. I’m actually more fascinated by some of the underlying technology infiltration into background commercial environments, things that we don’t often think about.
MJ: It seems like you’d have a much higher consciousness of security in the commercial space, whereas at home everybody just wants it easy. I know for me personally, I’m interested--I put stuff in my home, I’ve automated it, and it’s very difficult to find products that take security seriously in the home because they’re all interested in just working or connecting up to the cloud. It seems like in the commercial space they would take that more seriously and I think you’d maybe not get the attention of the big elephant corporations, like Google and Apple, fighting for users.
SL: As we look at the commercial space, one of the key things we’ve done is that with our commercial products, we’ve got sort of a product line that starts at some raw sensors technologies, some are third party that we’re integrating and that we’re internet-enabling, and then some are ones that we’re building on our own. For the ones that we’re building on our own, security is absolutely key. We’ve actually started to integrate some technologies like NFC that allows to do the pairing based on either gateway to sensor or even cell phone to sensor to be able to exchange security keys and actually do AES encryption over the air to ensure that we can provide a secure communications environment. Then for our gateways going out, everything is around SSL and certificates and use of off-the-shelf technologies. We aren’t going too over the top but we’re adhering to all the security standards that are being implemented by the cloud platforms that we interoperate with.
MJ: What are some of those cloud platforms that you’re working with? Is that something you can share?
SL: Yeah. One of the things about my core vision really comes from the NOVELL days. There’s a lot of history at NOVELL that people don’t understand. Even in computer networking--a lot of people know about ethernet, but few people seem to know about token ring. Then if you get into ArchNet and GNet, and Allen Bradley broadband, all the network topologies that were out there and proliferated--Corvus Omninet--that, to us, is where we’re supporting the sensor technologies, very similar to what we’re seeing in the Internet of Things. You have a lot of people with wired and wireless sensor technologies and on our gateway we’re able to aggregate and mix and match all of those. On the cloud platform side, we actually talk a variety of standard protocols. I know that everyone is waiting and saying “Hey, how do we get the Internet of Things standard?” We’re taking the approach of “No, there’s going to be a bunch of them, and we’re going to basically support all of them.” So, those are standards such as MQTT, which is a misting protocol that came out of IBM, to simple REST web services. And then cloud vendors, like ThingWorx, or Xively, or TempoIQ, and there’s Exosite. So, there’s a variety--we have about a dozen different players who publish APIs and say “Here’s how you interoperate with our platform” and we’ve started to begin to write drivers--we have about a half a dozen done now and we’re filling out the rest of those. That allows you, as the user, to pick and choose the cloud you want to integrate and utilize and/or if you want to use multiple--we’ll allow you to pump the data into multiple cloud platforms. So, we see an ecosystem beginning to develop that isn’t about me having a silo solution where it’s my sensor to my gateway to my cloud to my mobile app, but more we believe the Internet of Things is really going to take off when there’s much more interoperability available, where you can pick and choose the sensor technologies you want and integrate with the different cloud platforms that provide you the analytics or control capabilities you need.
MJ: It seems to me like the whole ethos you described--I’ve been in IT systems engineering for a while, and I worked with NOVELL systems and things like that--but what you’re describing in the Internet of Things space sounds to me a lot like the early days of the internet, where things were much more interoperable and it wasn’t just all the web, it was things like Gopher and FTP and IRC. Not that that stuff disappeared exactly, but… I know for a lot of the people I talk to, it seems like maybe they have a choice of browser but other than that they maybe go to a couple mainstream websites and that’s about it. They aren’t “venturing out into the wild” as much. It sounds like the Internet of Things space has got some of that dynamic environment again.
SL: I agree with you. It’s interesting, we do believe, just like all those network topologies sort of went down to the ethernet--you have ethernet and you have WiFi and that’s kind of it--and then you have slight variations on them. Okay, 100-megabit ethernet vs. gigabit ethernet, or you’ve got 802.11 a/b/g/n. So, there’s slight variations but there is this fallout that we think will occur. In the meantime, we want to try and future proof installations, provide customers with some flexibility in what they’re able to do. The other thing with your analogy is that again starts to look at this difference between the consumer space versus the commercial space. If you talk to the average consumer and their use of the internet--I was even reading a survey recently where in third world nations there are a number of people who think Facebook is the internet, and that they even sell data plans on cell phones that are Facebook-only. So, you get your cell phone and your data plan is a Facebook plan and that’s all you see of the internet. Whereas, again, if you’re into data centers and into enterprises… Enterprises are still doing a lot of things that the average consumer, the average internet user just doesn’t really recognize, when you really get into the VPNs and the more complex applications and things that are going on, you don’t see that. That’s what we’re finding in this industrial and commercial space that’s very similar. There’s so much that goes on around us behind the scenes that we just don’t even recognize. An analogy I’ll give people is: you go to the grocery store and you’re doing your self-checkout of your groceries, and you don’t even think about the fact that with each beep you hear as you scan a barcode, it’s actually updating inventory information in that store, already generating orders that are going to flow out to the supply chain that are then going to cause those orders to be split to the different warehouses, to then tell forklift drivers to go pick certain products and assemble them onto a pallet that’s going to be put on a truck to go to that store.” All of that is happening completely automated with no human intervention but we don’t even think about it. You just think about that beep as you’re scanning your groceries.
MJ: It does seem like an awful lot of things that are happening behind the scenes. To take a step back into your background within technology, how deep do you think people’s lack of awareness goes? How much room is there for this technology magic to seep into the environment around us?
SL: It is immense. I think the commercial and industrial Internet of Things is probably a hundred fold the size of what we see as consumers, and I don’t think consumers necessarily need to or should see it. But I think we’re moving into a world where more and more work being done by people is going to be driven more and more by computers. We’re working on a project right now that is instrumenting various appliances in retail and gas station/convenience store-related applications. You don’t think about it, but when you walk into a convenience store and you look around, you’re surrounded by a variety of machines that are all running 24/7--refrigeration, drink dispensers, the ice machines, the hot dog rollers. There are people whose jobs are there to actually maintain and ensure that equipment is working in order to keep sales going, because if a machine dies, well it can’t then roll the hot dogs or generate a drink or dispense a drink, and that means the business that supplies those food products can’t make sales through that location now. Well, they’re now looking at how can we instrument all of those machines that monitor their operation, bring that back live to monitor the status to automatically open trouble tickets to the service people to know when they need to go service a piece of equipment, or even to page the location owner to say “You need to go clean the air filter on this particular device.” It’s those kind of applications that, when you start looking at the numbers, are just unbelievable. It’s huge quantities of machines and that efficiency in the system and the automation that they’re providing really hits the bottom line of these businesses that, again, are fairly transparent to the consumer. They just walk into the store to buy a drink or to get a hot dog.
MJ: That brings up an interesting point. One of the topics that Matt and I return to again and again, and we talked to author Martin Ford about this and we also touched on it with John Danaher--there seems to be this worry that’s gotten a lot more press lately, about automation eliminating jobs. From what you describe, all of that currently eventually kicks off to a human who goes and does the work of cleaning this, but do you think we’re beginning, just for you in the technology space and with your experience, to approach a point where maybe there aren’t going to be as many jobs because eventually there will be a robot that does that actual cleaning and it’s kicked off completely by an automated process.
SL: I’m a huge fan of a lot of different authors. Years back, I got to go to a conference to hear Ray Kurzweil speak as he introduced his Age of Spiritual Machines and I’ve followed the singularity conversation, I’ve looked at technology… I’ll admit, there is a side of me that looks at what is happening in automation--at one of the conferences, I got to meet Vernor Vinge and we were talking about his singularity theories and what he calls soft takeoff and hard takeoff. I said to him that I think that part of a way to measure the onset of the singularity is how many people are working for machines. What I mean by that is it’s funny where you see things in the world--I was living in Atlanta, Georgia and had a friend whose mom at the time, this is back in the mid-80s--she refilled ATM machines as a job. One day while we were over at his house and she was there, she got a page on her pager and she looked at it and said “Okay, I’ll be back. I have to go fill a machine,” and she commented out the door saying “You know, I don’t even work for my boss. I work for this pager.” It really struck me. There was no real internet at the time, there was no concept of the singularity, but she made that statement and it made me think about the fact that she didn’t really work for her boss. She reported to him, but what she worked for was that machine telling her “It’s time to go to this machine and go put money in it.” Well, that was really revisited and hit me again when I was with NOVELL and we had some large accounts like UPS. In talking with one of the guys at UPS, he was talking about how their drivers work for the machine, that there is no way for humans ever again to manage the routing of packages at UPS, and that the driver shows up for work and really gets his digital clipboard of “Here’s what you do today,” his tasklist, and he’s going to sit there and check off things and scan things. Throughout the whole day, all he’s being driven by is a machine--where to go pick things up, where to go drop things off, what to do next, what to do after that--all of that until he comes back and pulls into that parking lot and ends for the day. So, I see that there’s this first transition where we’re going to see more and more people who are simply driven by machines that are giving them their job, telling them their tasks, telling them what to do. Like you’re saying, it seems that then there is this natural progression of where more and more automated intelligence systems can start to encompass and implement human knowledge and capabilities and automate that job. So, I still think there is probably a gap in the robotics side, but I even just read an article the other day of somebody being at a construction show where they were watching a giant robot that was laying brick walls. So, all there was, was a guy loading a bin with bricks and this thing would actually jostle the bricks into an order on a conveyor, and then it was putting the cement down and actually dropping the bricks in place and tapping on it. It just crawled along, laying a brick wall. That’s pretty amazing to me to think about exactly what you’re saying--”Where are those jobs and are they being knocked out?” I think there is a certain inevitability of it.
MJ: Exactly like you were saying Scott, I’ve seen a couple of buildings 3D printed. They wheel these big things on and they lay the concrete down and they even skip the brick stage. They just completely print a 3D building. It’s certainly pretty amazing. If you were starting out now, for someone that is interested in technology and where it might be going, what advice would you offer that helped you in your career to other people that are coming up, or students, or people like a truck driver who’s thinking that his trucking driving might not be too safe if it’s replaced by some kind of automated trucking system? What kinds of things would you look for out in the world to latch onto for future jobs?
SL: That’s a good question. One thing I’ve always believed for the last several decades is that anyone in any application should learn some form of programming. I think that’s one that’s very important in how you can increase your efficiency and what it is you’re able to do, implementing your job in code. People don’t think about that--even a good Excel spreadsheet or something is sort of a form of programming. But anything these days, the more and more you can understand how to use technology and optimize what it is you do using that technology is definitely valuable. It’s kind of tough to think about; if you aren’t interested in technology, then what is the skill, what do you try and do? I don’t know. I don’t know how to express this other than to say that there is a fear in me that sometimes does come up, wondering what some people are going to be able to do for jobs as they don’t have more technical skills. It’s not to say they won’t. I just have a hard time envisioning what those jobs would be.
MB: I think companies get to the point where somebody figures out “Alright, if we spend $100,000 on a machine that can do what even a minimum wage worker can do…” The machines, they don’t ever call in sick, they don’t require vacation time or raises. You spend $100,000 and you’ve got a machine until it breaks. You’re starting to see machines replace even minimum wage jobs. When you look back you just think “Wow, that’s a job that’s going to be done by a machine.”
MB: One thing that Americans and especially people that are looking for jobs, have to realize is that you’re no longer just competing with the guy who lives in your town. You’re competing with somebody who may live in the Philippines, or India, or Argentina, or wherever. You have to compete with a lot of different people. As a country, we’re going to obviously have to step up the education system if we want to compete worldwide.
SL: One thing I look at is how can we look at those resources as resources to leverage rather than compete with? How do we teach people here not to think of it as “It’s us or them,” but more that it’s “Us AND them”? That’s really what I do with my company. I have my main team of core architects and developers here, but we’re able to throw tasks to offshore resources. We go to bed, we wake up in the morning and there’s code written and we can use it. There’s a place for us to realize that if we don’t hire and use those people, somebody else is because they’re hungry. It’s funny, we broadcast our television, our shows, our media and everything all over the globe--people look at it in all the other nations and they want the same thing, and they’re willing to work for it for even less than most Americans. So, I think that’s one--how do we continue to grow our understanding of how to leverage globalization to our benefit rather than to see it as a threat?
MJ: For you as an entrepreneur, do you think that within the US people haven’t cultivated that entrepreneurial attitude that might enable them to think of resources offshore as resources for them; that they should be, instead of looking for just a job and that’s it, but looking for opportunities to say “Hey, I want to create this kind of thing. Maybe I can use someone offshore that’s a programmer.” For some of the rates it seems you can pay out to people with those skills, it’s actually fairly inexpensive it seems like for an individual now to leverage some of those resources. I don’t know if that’s what you’ve found, but the little bit that I’ve read seems to say that would be the case.
SL: Yeah, I really do think it is and that’s what I’ve found. I can’t say it’s everywhere. I had a harder time leveraging--I used to have software programmers in India but India’s standard living has raised so high that I almost can get developers here in the US at a competitive rate compared to what I get in India. The Philippines is still much lower; Argentina has been affordable. But I think the conversation about the threat of offshoring and things has had us look at it as a real negative rather than this positive that can be leveraged. The internet is just astounding. I don’t exactly know where you guys are right now and we’re doing this call, right? The fact that I can have developers and I’m online with them and we’re working on code together and I don’t exactly know where they are… My team in the Philippines, I let them work from wherever they want. We don’t have an office over there. They can work from home, they can work from the mall, they can work from wherever. That kind of flexibility is kind of neat. Right now, I’m also doing some hardware manufacturing, and in one case of our metal enclosures, we’re building those here in the United States because we’ve found some rural metal fabrication places that were highly competitive with offshore production of them. I might be able to save a little bit here and there if I were to go to China or some place, but the difference was not significant enough, and at that point I don’t mind continuing to have that done here.
MJ: Do you think the attitude of seeing instead of as a race to the bottom where we’re in competition with people but as more of a rising tide that lifts everyone up, that that makes a difference in the impact and the response you get from both people offshore and people here?
SL: I do get that. I’m sometimes confronted with the fact that I have people who are very anti-offshoring. We have to work around that. There are some people who are still very strongly opinionated about where the work should be done. But I think that things are changing. It’s really the accessibility and instant communication that is global--to me, it’s awesome. It’s just stunning. I can travel anywhere in the world and do my job. I no longer have an office here right now. We have shared office space we use and then I work from home. My developers come to the shared office space or work from home. I’ve traveled to eastern Europe a couple of years ago; I was over there for a month and there were people who never even realized that I had left the country. The fact that I can do that and do it from everywhere makes it obvious that we can be here and leverage people all over the planet.
MJ: Do you have anything you want to make sure we cover, maybe about Wovyn or these other technologies?
SL: One other thing I was going to comment about is the Internet of Things as we look at that and some of the concepts of the singularity, and machines and the impact on jobs. One thing that really struck me about six months ago as we were working on the Internet of Things is that I believe we’re at a real interesting tipping point where up until this point humans really have been the mediator between the internet and the physical world. So, you normally would always have a human at the computer that’s actually interacting through an application or a browser to the internet or to internet applications. What’s fascinating and that struck me was that the Internet of Things is now really extending the reach of the internet to the physical planet. That’s really where I think that we can’t even necessarily comprehend exactly what the implications of that are going to be, that it or these applications out on the internet now have the ability to directly interact with the planet. It can, in a sense, “feel” the planet and things on it and begin to affect change on the planet and around us in a way that just has never existed before. Again, that’s part of my excitement about Wovyn and some of the things that we’re doing, that we get to be a part of that. We get to look at how we actually implement that and make that occur.
MJ: If you were a betting man, would you say that’s a positive change or a negative change?
SL: I don’t know. I always tend to say that everything is good. We might not notice it in the moment, but it’s sort of inevitable and I think in the end it is a positive. Kevin Kelly, who has that book, What Technology Wants, I have to align with him and believe that we really are here building out this infrastructure and creating all of this automation in a way that’s almost… I don’t want to say predetermined, but it’s almost like we’re on this track that’s sort of inevitable and it’s going to be exciting to see what it does.
MJ: Scott, thanks so much for joining us.
SL: I appreciate the time.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.