Algorithms have to factor in human values too

Profits or people? Businesses will increasingly have to choose.

I write a lot about optimizing manufacturing, supply chains, and even employees using sensors and data analytics. While we are nowhere near an ultra-efficient society where every business process or even road trip is optimized, that is the ultimate goal.

As companies start to invest in technology to streamline their operations, I’m starting to question what the societal implications will be. So far, people are mostly thinking about this only as robots taking our jobs. But here’s the dirty secret of optimization: you optimize for just one specific goal.

For many businesses that goal is profit. This will eventually lead to the stark realization that optimizing for profits through automation will put lie to any other corporate mission statement about serving customers or protecting the environment or whatever else doesn’t directly affect the bottom line.

As we move into a digital world where decisions are increasingly made by machines, it becomes clear that we have to understand exactly what the purpose of every business process is. It also means that we have to find some way of factoring into our algorithms other values and elements such as work-life balance or protecting the earth.

Humans can hold two different and competing thoughts in their heads. For example, the highest goal of a business is to make money and then a secondary goal is to serve its customers. But computers, as we program them to optimize for specific outcomes, can’t handle that dichotomy. As every shred of waste is squeezed from a system from a careful analysis of data and automation of operations, the ability to say two diverging things hold true will end.

I’m not saying that making money is evil, just that when we optimize that over protecting the environment or treating workers well, it can lead to problems. Right now, the humans in charge, be it executives or managers, step in to ensure at least some externalities matter.

Yet, I’m still stunned by the lengths that some companies will go to in order to push profits over people. A recent example of this can be found in the algorithmically precise software that scheduled workers at places like Ann Taylor and Victoria’s Secret on an as-needed basis.

While this practice cuts the waste of having an employee standing around doing nothing during a lull, it wrecks havoc on the employee’s lives, making it impossible to schedule childcare or take a second job.

It doesn’t have to be scheduling software. It could be algorithmically determined quotas in a warehouse job that penalize employees for an off day. Examples are all around us, generally coming from companies trying to reduce their operational costs or those that aren’t shy about alienating workers.

In the future, absent consideration, more companies will face this dilemma. At that point, they will have to make a concerted effort to factor in human or other concerns into their algorithms, which may shave a bit off their profits. The other alternative is to have regulations in place that put a cost on things that matter to us as a society.

This isn’t a problem computers will solve.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

What Google’s I/O Keynote says about the future of tech

Google’s AI can build customized photo books for you. No human necessary.

The general theme was one of disappointment after Google CEO Sundar Pichai departed the stage Wednesday afternoon at Google I/O. There were no gadgets. The features — even neat ones — were only features. No one parachuted in.  No new products that will change the world were showcased.

While the tech press gave the event a collective meh, Google actually showed us something quite profound about the future. Not just of tech, but of business in general. If last year’s Google I/O keynote laid out the search giant’s new reliance on AI, this year’s laid out how it planned to use that AI to deliver customized services for people based on context.

For example, Google Lens will recognize where you are and what’s around you to offer information that seems relevant. When you ask your Google Home to “Call mom,” it will recognize who in the home is asking and ring their mother.

These are tiny things, but they are a big step forward in teaching computers to better interact with people. They are a step forward in both a natural interface and in the ability to deliver customized services. And both are important in a world where we create terabytes of new information every single day. No one can get through that. Only computers can hope to try.

So what does Google’s event tell us about the world? That the focus has changed.

We’ve been living under this idea that software is eating the world, but now it’s context that will eat the world. Or shape it.  As we head into a new era of constant connection, cheap data and neural networks, software will still matter, but the biggest arbiter of our experience will be context. Building services on the fly based on who we are, where we are and what we need.

Just like the shift from hardware to software, which required more flexibility and agility from companies and their infrastructure, the addition of context will force us to rethink our computing infrastructure and how we do business. Everything will be distributed.

In that world technologies that can change on the fly, such as software defined networks and server instances that can spin up and then immediately back down, will have advantages. Tracking ownership and negotiating contracts between distributed computers at scale means technology like blockchain and peer-to-peer file sharing will be relevant.

Understanding where data comes from and when edge devices have been compromised will also need a rethink, since the model associated with PCs and single-party ownership of devices won’t make much sense.

If we want to take advantage of the insights that computers can deliver with their ability to parse terabytes of information in a relative flash, then its time to advance beyond software to an era where context is king.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

The internet of delicious meals

Nomiku has raised money from Samsung Ventures.

I often tell people that a connected product can’t just offer the ability to turn something on or off from a smart phone. It has to solve a real problem. (Which may involve turning something on or off from a smartphone, but that is pretty rare.) In the case of Nomiku, a connected sous vide device, the problem connectivity solves is fast and easy dinner prep. Nomiku makes a sous vide circulater, a chef’s toy that is making its way into kitchens because it makes delicious food without much effort. To cook sous vide, you put your meat, vegetables or whatnot into a bag and place the bag in water set to a specific temperature.

Nomiku makes sous vide cooking a subscription meal service that lets you order (and reorder) pre-packed bags of food that you then cook with your Nomiku sous vide. This uses the smarts that connectivity can deliver as well as convenience. And for Nomiku, it also provides a recurring revenue stream that helps offset the cost of maintaining the cloud back end for the sous vide circulator. All it needs to do now is make sure the food is good (and deliver to my area).

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Amazon’s Echo Show threatens Nucleus … and everyone else

Nucleus was the largest investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund. Now, amazon’s new product will compete with the intercom system.

This week Amazon introduced the Echo Show, an Echo device that adds a screen and video-calling to Alexa. It also looks a lot like the Nucleus intercom system, which was launched less than a year ago, and counted the Alexa Voice Fund as an investor.

Jonathan Frankel, the CEO of Nucleus, said when it launched on Tuesday, “Hey that looks like a product I know and love!” However, he insists that he’s not mad because he understands why Amazon made a calculated business decision to add features that competed with his.

“Why would they show the marketplace that they can’t be trusted as a partner?” he asks. His answer is that the opportunity was simply too great. “[Amazon] grasped what we have grasped, which is using communications is the path to get normal, everyday people to put devices throughout their homes, and then to connect their homes to other peoples’ homes. So Amazon has this once-in-a-generation opportunity to literally get their shopping cart into every room in millions of homes.”

For Frankel, the real question is what the telcos, retailers and other tech giants decide to do. While he’s clearly threatened, he points out that so are the Googles, Targets, Wal-Marts, and Comcasts of the world that now have seen Amazon potentially sever their relationship with the customer. To hear more on how that happens and how Nucleus plans to respond, download this week’s podcast. (iTunes, Android)

You’ll also hear Kevin Tofel and I explaining how to call people using your Echo, some Industrial Internet stats and a deep dive into the economics of serverless computing that explains why it’s the hottest IoT architecture around.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Internet of Things News of the Week, May 12, 2017

Microsoft’s real world image recognition is cool, but scary.

Here’s notable Internet of Things news from the past week.

Microsoft’s IoT Edge is a big step forward for Microsoft: This week at its Build conference, Microsoft showed off a new service called Azure IoT Edge which is essentially a way to offer dumb devices at the edge a bit of the smarts of Microsoft’s Azure cloud and then let the device seamlessly share its information with Azure. This isn’t a new concept, but Microsoft’s embrace of an edge product is. Roughly a year ago, I spoke with Sam George, director of Azure IoT, and he seemed convinced that Microsoft would stick with Azure in the cloud and wouldn’t branch down to the gateways. It seems Microsoft has shifted that position. It’s a good thing. (Microsoft)

Microsoft’s image tracking is pretty freaky: At its Build conference this week Microsoft didn’t just talk about industrial IoT platforms. It also showed off a real-world, real-time image tracking project that could take a camera stream and identify all of the objects in the frame. While the writer of this article imagines us whipping out a phone to use this service to find the last place we left our keys, I think we’d probably just ask Alexa or Cortana where we left our keys and she’d tell us. (Popular Mechanic)

Germany plans to use the blockchain for smart power grids: The idea here is that something large and distributed like the electrical grid might benefit from a decentralized way of tracking how power is moving on and off the grid. The company testing this is using IBM’s Hyperledger-backed blockchain standard. (Coin Telegraph)

Want a lot of data on the smart home? Nielsen has surveyed smart home device buyers to find out who they are and what they buy. The results are a bit surprising in that people are buying more home automation than security, when most surveys indicate that security is the top reason for purchasing smart home devices. The other data such as buyers skewing male (62%) and younger (39% are between the age of 25-34) is less surprising. Also, almost 30% of people surveyed would be interested in some kind of smart carpet that could detect who was walking on it and sound an alarm if it was an intruder. Could I get it in a Berber?  (Nielsen)

Apps are dying: No really. What we think of as an app is no longer the way web services will be built. I’ve argued that the API becomes the app, but this article explains it far better than I ever could. Instead of apps, we will rely on customizable collections of services that do exactly what we need. The applications of this will lead to new architectures and startups. (LinkedIn)

Privacy as a luxury good: I’ve written a bit about this in my prior job at Gigaom, but as we bring in more connected products and sell more of our data — data we may not even be are that we are selling — privacy is no longer a right, but something you pay for. This article does a good job tracking down that loss, but also our cognitive dissonance around the idea. (NYT)

Sensor Fusion is back! The concept of taking a sensor or set of sensors, adding an algorithm and then getting a completely different type of sensor has been around for a while. The concept is called sensor fusion, and this Carnegie Mellon project reminds me of the concept. (

Bikes will disrupt automobiles: Are you ready to trade your car for a bike? Horace Dediu, an analyst, believes that bikes (especially electric bikes) will disrupt the hegemony of the automobile. He argues that the tech comes first and then the environment will adapt. So we’ll soon see enclosed bikes and more bike lanes, I suppose. As a parent, I guess I’ll wait for that sidecar that can ensure I bring my kids with me. (CNN)

Speaking of transportation … The Citymapper app folks have outfitted a private London bus with all kinds of sensors and cameras to figure out how to rethink bus transport. The idea is to consider the equipment, adapt the routes and even share the data they gather. I’m looking forward to this experiment. (Medium)

Did you know the Internet of Shit now has a column?: Go read it because this person feels the same way I do about Apple’s HomeKit.  (The Verge)

This connected saltshaker is so terrible: I am usually excited when people use connectivity to re-imagine a product so it can work better or add a new function. But in the case of this Bluetooth saltshaker, I am begging folks to take a hard pass. This thing lights up, plays tunes and presumably dispenses salt. Think of it as a dumber Alexa that sits on your dinner table. Eh. (New York Magazine)

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Comcast takes the smart home beyond its service footprint

Plume pods that Comcast will resell.

Keep an eye on Comcast.

Usually I’d say this with a bit of doomy foreshadowing in my voice and I’d go on to share its latest depredations on network neutrality. When it comes to the smart home, however, Comcast is worth watching for friendlier reasons.

The cable giant is building a technology platform that offers a lot of customer-friendly services that it plans to bring to other cable companies as part of a tech platform. That means Comcast’s Xfinity products may find their way into your home even if you aren’t in a Comcast area.

This week Comcast rolled some big improvements to its Wi-Fi network with the launch of a software based control panel for users that lets them set parental controls, prioritize traffic, and see what’s on their network and how it’s behaving.

It also announced the known investment in Wi-Fi startup Plume and said it would make and resell the Plume hardware to its customers. Plume makes plug-in network extenders that act somewhat like a mesh, except they are actually optimizing the path data takes in your home from a cloud service. I wrote about Plume here.

Chris Satchel, chief product officer and EVP with Comcast, says that the software for xFi plus the investment in Plume means that Comcast can now tell customers where their Wi-Fi sucks and then offer them an easy-to-install product that will help fix it.

This only works if you have Comcast’s modem and router. If you’re using another router like Eero or Google Wi-Fi with your Comcast modem, then none of these options are available. This means that you’ll be paying Comcast’s $ 10 modem rental fee if you want any of this.

Still, plenty of people pay the fee and the software should help Comcast solve a big problem for its users–namely that Wi-Fi is highly variable depending on your home’s layout and construction materials. The biggest problem that folks have with their broadband is that the Wi-Fi doesn’t work.

The second biggest challenge for consumers who are buying connected devices is that they can’t get them connected to their network. Comcast is trying to solve this through a deal with a company called Cirrent that puts its software on manufacturers’ devices and then connects those devices automatically to participating networks. If you bring home a device with Cirrent’s software and you have a Comcast home network then the device should find the network and authenticate almost automatically.

Comcast will offer both the Plume devices and its xFi software to other cable companies, which means that even if you aren’t in Comcast’s service area you may soon get better Wi-Fi from your cable company…if you’re willing to pay the modem rental fee.

This will expand Comcast’s business and revenue-generation beyond its established geographic area. This isn’t the only line of business where Comcast is seeking to become a platform for other cable companies. When it closed the deal to buy part of iControl in March, it also scored the smart home and security platform that is used by smaller cable companies. The iControl software is what underlies Xfinity Home.

Given that bad Wi-Fi, difficult provisioning and the underlying integration platform are some of the toughest problems facing the consumer smart home, Comcast is now in a position to grow the category for itself and others.

As a communications company, finding ways to expand beyond providing just the pipe into the home is an essential strategy. But so far, most ISPs have had trouble moving beyond the bundle of voice, entertainment and broadband. With its improvements in Wi-Fi and a credible security and automation platform, Comcast seeks a new source of revenue.

So far, Comcast has 1 million subscribers to its home automation and security platform.

New sources of revenue could get Comcast to back off some of its more egregious broadband practices, but it’s also good for consumers that a company with such a huge market presence is focused on taming some of the challenges of implementing connected home devices.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Internet of Things News of the Week, May 19 2017

Here’s a summary of interesting Internet of Things news from the past week. Get this summary in your inbox every Friday when you subscribe to the newsletter.

AT&T’s IoT network is now live: AT&T says its LTE Cat-M network is now available and pricing start at $ 1.50 per month per device. The modems are cheaper than standard LTE modems with prices as low a $ 7.50 each, including a SIM card. Verizon’s Cat-M network launched with pricing of $ 2 per device per month. That’s still a high price to pay for many cheap sensors, but there will be a market for LTE-Cat M. As a reminder these networks offer data speeds between 300 kbps and 1 Mbps, and can have a battery life of up to a decade depending on usage.  (Fierce Wireless)

Penguins and Alexa in the hotel room of the future: If you want to get a glimpse of your future business travel digs, wander over to the First Build site to see the winners of The Hotel Room of Future contest. The winners all reflect a modern design, but they also serve as a marker for what we deem as essential “smart” features. Voice control, including controlling lighting and temperature, are big. (First Build)

Dor gets funds for cheap people tracking: I love sensors that use math to replace a far more expensive device such as a camera. Dor’s people-tracking sensor falls into this category of devices, offering a battery-powered sensor that uses cellular connectivity to communicate the number of people in an establishment. Right now this is used by shops and restaurants eager to understand their foot traffic, but could also be used in far more innovative places, such as for assessing how busy an emergency room is. (PEHub)

IOTAS raises $ 5.3 million: IOTAS, one of several companies trying to build smarter apartments on behalf of property companies, has raised $ 5.3 million from the Oregon Angel Fund and Rogue Venture Partners. I profiled the company a few months ago, and have followed it for years, so I am hoping it can take advantage of this lucrative market. (VC News Daily)

FogHorn Systems gets a bit more money: FogHorn Systems, a company selling analytics at the edge for industrial IoT companies, has extended its funding round to include the newly created Dell Technologies Capital and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures. The new funds bring FogHorn’s total Series A to $ 15 million.  (FogHorn)

The lesson to take from WannaCry isn’t about Microsoft: Instead, it’s a warning that when businesses and governments add technology to their operations, they can’t set it and forget it. They have to budget time and resources to patching and ensuring such systems stay secure. We’re also likely to need new models for paying for and implementing computer security given that the desktop and OS model won’t work when computing from multiple vendors is embedded in devices from multiple manufacturers. So what’s next? (Motherboard)

We still haven’t hit bottom when it comes to compromised hospitals: As the WannaCry malware threat spread around the world, spurred by unsecured old XP operating systems in use around hospitals, the focus was on Microsoft and unpatched systems. However, amid the threat, I didn’t hear too much about the fears that CISOs at hospitals seem to have–namely that their connected devices (also running Windows XP) might become compromised and hurt patients. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, and the Harvard Business Review also picked up the threat. It spent a good chunk of space telling CISOs how to prevent an ever larger calamity — namely a loss of life if equipment gets malicious. (Harvard Business Review)

Alexa improves her listening skills: Amazon is offering developers of Alexa Skills the chance to double check the wake word that the device thinks it heard with the cloud. The idea is this double authentication will reduce the random instances of Alexa waking up during a movie or when she wasn’t summoned. (Amazon)

Philips Hue joins the Comcast Xfinity Home lineup: Last week I wrote about Comcast’s ambitions in offering a smart home service offering and why it is a player to watch. This week it added to the number of third-party devices it supports with an integration with Philips Hue lights. You’ll be able to control the lights from your Xfinity Home app and tie them in with your security system. For example, if a motion detector gets set off then your Hue lights might flash on to dissuade a prowler. (CNET)

Ban the ‘Bots: San Francisco has decided that delivery robots are a potential nuisance and San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee proposed a law to ban the beasts. This is a fairly lighthearted story since the threat seems mainly hypothetical and the harm reduced to some sore toes, but it neatly showcases the challenges cities have when it comes to figuring out how to legislate progress.  If San Francisco can’t figure it out, what hope does the rest of Amerca have? (Wired)

IKEA’s new Tradfri lights are pretty pricey: Just ask Ry Crist, the lighting expert at CNET who tried out the bulbs and declared them expensive if you buy the gateway, but a decent deal if you skip the hub and go with a basic three-way or motion detection kit. Also, be sure to listen to my podcast interview with Ikea about the smart home. (CNET)

Another course in cloud economics: After almost a decade of covering cloud computing, I can’t help but devour any interesting studies that come my way. And while almost all connected devices have a cloud component, it’s no longer a large focus of my coverage. However, this blog post that lays out research into the cost of cloud computing and how prices and demand intersect is fascinating. It also helps explain why Amazon Web Services’ Spot market hasn’t taken off. (The Morning Paper)

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Yonomi has a new idea for smart home manufacturers

One of the biggest challenges facing the makers of connected devices is figuring out how to pay for a product that they sell once, but which has an ongoing cost. Every connected device requires cloud infrastructure, developers to continue updating apps, security updates and customer support.

So a device that sells for a one-time cost of $ 200 might end up costing the manufacturer $ 3 per year to support. That may not seem like much, but if the company sells 10 million of those devices, then suddenly they have a $ 30 million ongoing cost for the lifetime of that device.

So what’s a connected device company to do? While it can’t eliminate all of those costs, it can turn to vendors who are looking at that ongoing cost as an opportunity. Yonomi, a Boulder, Colorado-based startup, thinks it has part of the answer.

Yonomi makes a consumer-facing software app that detects the connected devices in your home and suggests automations that make them work better together. Now it’s adding a cloud architecture for makers of connected devices that will let a thermostat or lock maker build their own smart products in a more flexible way.

Yonomi calls it Thin Cloud and there are two elements that it has tweaked. The first is that it sells a license to the code, so a buyer of Yonomi’s Thin cloud gets the software in a one-time deal (there are subscriptions available for support and management). This addresses concerns about buying into an IoT cloud platform and realizing that your device is then locked into a single vendor.

The second tweak Yonomi made is in the architecture. It designed its cloud platform to take advantage of what many call “serverless” compute. These are services such as AWS Lambda or Google Cloud Functions. Technically this type of computing still occurs on servers, but the difference is in how it’s used.

A typical AWS computing instance spins up and runs all the time, ready to do the bidding of your program. With serverless computing, the instance only spins up when the program says it needs to complete a task and then it spins back down. This can save costs for something like a sensor that only wakes up when motion happens.

When the motion sensor is triggered, the sensor sends the message, the Lambda instance wakes up to trigger something, and then disappears. This is much cheaper than keeping a computing instance running just in case the motion sensor sends something.

That’s somewhat of a long explanation, but this is a trend that is going to be important for many IoT use cases. There are drawbacks for now. For example, depending on AWS Lambda, which has the most well-documented set of tools today, means you are tied fairly deeply to other AWS services. However, Joss Scholten, CTO and co-founder at of Yonomi, says that he’s confident that Yonomi can move its Thin Cloud offering to other clouds in the near future if clients want that.

Yonomi’s Thin Cloud has been in beta for several months and has several customers. The only one it can disclose is the parent company of Schlage locks. Rob Martens, who is a futurist at Schlage, says the product changes the economics of supporting a connected product and helps make it more predictable.

Schlage is so impressed that it put an undisclosed amount of money into Yonomi several months after it signed on as a customer. Martens joined the board.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Google’s IoT Cloud takes on Amazon and Azure

GE’s Geneva talks to Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.

This week we recorded before the big rush of news from Google I/O but we managed to cram in the details on Google’s new IoT Core beta that offers developers a cloud-based platform for connected devices. Kevin Tofel and I also discuss Android Things and the moves Amazon has made with the Echo to compete with anticipated Google news. These include notifications on the Echo and a pledge to pay some developers. Add to this, Samsung’s new ARTIK modules, Honeywell’s new venture fund and some speculation on Spotify and we have a solid show. Plus, soon I can shop at B8ta.

Our guest this week is Bill Gardner from GE Appliances, who shares the industrial giant’s thinking around connected ovens, stoves and more. There’s some bad news, an AI named Geneva that works with Alexa and Google Home, plus a call for partners in building the smart kitchen for the future. And just for fun, I find out why I may want a connected washer and dryer. Enjoy the show!

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis