The internet of things, or IoT, is the technology of today. The internet of intelligent things is the technology of tomorrow. Or, at least that’s Dave Evans’ contention. Evans is the Silicon Valley executive who coined the term “internet of everything” in 2012 near the end of his 24-year tenure at Cisco Systems Inc., which uses the phrase to refer to the long-term potential of the data derived from our highly connected world. Evans’ job titles while at Cisco included chief technologist and, later, chief futurist.
Today Evans is co-founder and chief technology officer at Stringify, a startup mobile app that seeks to advance the connectivity of the internet of things movement and, in a number of ways, make managing it easier for consumers. Simply put: As people add more “smart” devices to their lives, managing those devices gets complicated. There isn’t yet a universally agreed upon protocol for manufacturers making web-connected devices, and most devices are controlled individually through their own apps. Stringify lets consumers control all their smart devices through the Stringify app, and consumers can create rules linking the operation of those devices together, while also mixing in other data sources, such as weather and location data, making them more intelligent. For instance, a consumer can write a rule that says when he turns the ignition off in his connected car and parks in his garage, it triggers his back door to unlock and turn on the entry light. Or, if the weather calls for a 90% chance rain, it won’t turn on the automatic lawn sprinklers.
Internet Retailer talked with Evans to get his forecast on consumers’ connectivity levels, the exponential growth and applications for data, and the budding technologies that have implications for online retailers.
IR: What transformative technology do you anticipate gaining mass consumer adoption?
DE: Artificial intelligence. Although many consumers won’t know they are using AI per se, they will use it everywhere. We are seeing the early glimpses through Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, et cetera, but this is just the very beginning. AI will creep into many areas of shopping. When you try on a dress or suit in the mirror, the mirror will recognize your emotion: Are you frowning? Are you delighted? It will then make suggestions accordingly. Smart shopping carts will make recommendations of other things to buy based on the existing contents of your cart, and with your permission, what is in, or not in, your pantry and fridge at home. Food sensors will prompt you to buy food at a discount that has a closer expiration date. Drones will use AI to deliver products more intelligently. Trucks will use AI to self-drive and deliver products. AI will be as pervasive as connectivity is.
IR: How quickly do you see adoption happening?
DE: Two to five years. The life cycle between keeping things relative to what they were before is rapidly increasing. Think of cellular phones. For many consumers, every year Apple comes out with a new phone and people go buy it. Or TVs. In the old days, people would buy a TV, and it would last a lifetime, and they’d keep it until it died, sometimes for decades. But today the technology changes faster and people always want that new set of capabilities. That drives much more rapid replenishment cycles.
IR: Will artificial intelligence be built into the core of these new products?
DE: AI is going to infiltrate all connected devices. It is going to be unprecedented in terms of what changes it will bring. In terms of transformative technology, I see it as second only to the creation of the internet. AI is going to change society in a big way. Every major company right now—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel—is putting massive amounts of money into AI because it will be a massive differentiator for them.
IR: Is what we’re seeing with the rollout of smart products that have retail implications—such as the washing machine that will order detergent when it is running low, or the refrigerator that can order a replacement water filter—just the leading edge of what’s to come? Realistically, how far into our lives as shoppers will automation like this reach?
DE: I’m not convinced that a fridge ordering milk when you’re low is a good use case for smart products, but a fridge that tells you a product has gone bad or alerts you to a potential allergy issue might be. A good example of this type of use case is Juicero. Juicero is a connected juicer that has a camera in it. It reads the QR code on the juice packs and can automatically prevents the juice pack from being juiced if there has been a recall, for example. This is an excellent example of a smart product that can proactively prevent a disease outbreak.
Of course, it’s not just about the food, smart devices can talk to services to get energy prices and run only when energy is at the cheapest or when the grid is not overloaded. They can “phone home” in the event of a mechanical or electrical failure and automatically schedule a repair. From a manufacturer’s perspective, new firmware can be uploaded to add new features or fix bugs. They can see failures across the entire product line and get visibility where they had none before.
We are in the very early stages of what I believe will be a huge transformation in this space.
IR: Right now it appears Amazon has the leadership position in the development of IoT technology as it relates to retail and reordering goods, with major manufacturers like GE and Samsung integrating its Dash Replenishment Service code into their products. It’s like built-in sales for Amazon down the line. How concerned should Amazon’s retail competitors be?
DE: For commodity products, retail competitors should be concerned. No one says, “Hey, I can’t wait to go to the store to buy soap.” These types of purchases may very well be automated, and Amazon is currently leading the way. When it comes to higher end products—clothing, furniture—in-store assessment is still very much a prerequisite to a purchase. Retail competitors need to continue to up their game however, and competing on price alone is not sufficient. Great in-store experiences, value-added services and excellent customer service need to be differentiators.
IR: What should retailers and brand manufacturers understand about the concepts/technologies that may be on the fringe today but could get bigger?
DE: Technologies are changing faster than ever before. Retailers and manufacturers do not have time to be complacent. If they don’t adopt them, their competitors will, and they may cease to exist. Amazon is currently testing a concept called Amazon Go utilizing AI. [Editor’s note: Amazon Go is a high-tech grocery store that eliminates the checkout lane.] If successful, it could transform retail. My advice to retailers is to look at these things with an open mind and apply careful, rational experimentation to see how they can use technology to ultimately differentiate themselves.
How can you provide better services, better capabilities to consumers? Don’t be scared of it. Retailers than don’t quickly adapt will be left behind.
IR: What are you personally most excited about among the technology innovations you see?
DE: I call it the “internet of intelligent things.” As we put more and more intelligence in the cloud, “dumb” devices—with just a connection—will be able to tap into that intelligence. This means that day-to-day devices will become incredibly smart. All you need is a connection, and dumb things become intelligent things. Think about your front door; it is a pretty dumb device. But put a low cost camera sensor on it, then give it a connection to the cloud. Your front door is suddenly a pretty smart thing—it can be made to do facial recognition or voice recognition, connecting to vast amounts of intelligence. I’m not just connecting a thing to the internet, but connecting this thing to the internet to now access vast amount of intelligence.
IR: And some of this intelligence comes from each of us contributing to the data set through our devices and behaviors. Who owns or controls that data?
DE: That’s a good question, and a tough one. Many companies and government agencies are mining massive amounts of data generated by consumers, and it is reasonable to assume that all forms of electronic communications are analyzed and processed in some fashion. Multiple organizations will have access to information. Facebook will use it for advertising. Google will use it for advertising and services. I’m not sure there is one owner, and it is naïve to think consumers own their own data. That’s the exchange for access to all these free services. All these things you use on the internet, they are not free because the currency is information. Most consumers are willing to make that tradeoff. Some people will perhaps complain about it but enough consumers are willing to exchange it for access to free services.
IR: We’ve seen the form factor of online retailing change, from desktop transactions to mobile devices to apps. How will online shopping change next?
DE: In the near term, drones will make their mark in assisting with shopping. Not just the flying type, but wheeled drones too. We’ll see many drones fill the skies. Consumers want faster and faster gratification of purchases—even two days sometimes feels frustrating. Drones will be huge for that. And I’m talking about unmanned drones—drones that are under computer control. It won’t work if humans are behind the wheel. Truck driving is a thing of a past. Truckers are the backbone of the delivery network but they are also a massive safety concern because some of them are pushed to work longer hours. A fully autonomous truck can drive 24/7. Trucking will be one of the first industries to take advantage of fully autonomous vehicles.
In the longer term—a couple of decades out—it’s feasible that next-gen 3-D printers will be as common as microwaves in the home and print many commodity products in just a few minutes.