Are you Smart yet? Will everything become Smart someday?

Everything is getting capital ‘S’ Smart these days. Smart phones, Smart homes, Smart cars, in EPIC there are ‘Smart phrases’, and even a local cafe chain has something called Smart beans….

The Smart trend lumps together intelligent networks, big data, bio-metrics, domains that end in .io, and apparently organic farming practices.  Makes Web 2.0 and the ‘e’ and ‘i’ nomenclature seem so yesterday.

The Smart trend actually takes a lot of smarts to solve and will no doubt take many iterations to get right.  Sounds like a lot of fun stuff to work on!

What is driving this change:

The cost of smartness is dropping based on two principles:

  • Sensing:
    Physical instruments that collect data are becoming more sophisticated, widely available, and easily networked. I personally love the idea of easily and cheaply connecting the world of software to the real world of atoms, photons, temperatures, pressures, ppms, and anything else that can be measured.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • Storing:
    The cost of storing most ‘facts’ is already a rounding error. So, why not just store everything? If you doubt this, see my review of the book “Free”.

The ‘Smart Milk Carton’ concept:

There is a romantic idea of the future where the milk carton tells the fridge it is running low or expired. The fridge then adds milk to the household shopping list. The grocery store sees this and gives you a coupon for milk as you pull up to the store. Or, the delivery service drops off more milk automatically.


That is a novel application of technology, but I’m not sure it solves a need that bothers people enough. Maybe for a restaurant or cafeteria this makes sense, but it would be a luxury for the average household.

Smart becomes practical when the information flow has economic significance:

As a thought experiment, apply the ‘smart milk carton’ technology to a hospital’s store of medications. The hospital’s inventory of drugs could become Smart. When a medication runs low or expires more is automatically ordered. Orders to suppliers happen automatically reducing human error and staff overhead. Analyzing the flow of medications can help reduce costs, ensure vital drugs are fully stocked, and forecast which drugs are needed when.

The information flow surrounding a $4 gallon of milk once or twice a month is not that interesting or economically viable. The information flow surrounding the millions of dollars worth of medications used everyday is just one example of how hospitals will get ‘Smart’.

Smart devices measure you:

You know how if you don’t pay for something (like Facebook or Google) you are the product?

Well our DNA, vital signs, and behaviors are about to be measured and commoditized in the coming decades like never before. Human biosensors are coming out that track every facet of our health (sleep patterns, nutrition, digestion, respiratory, cardio, etc).  Two popular products that already track health stats and sync to the cloud are fitbit and jawbone.

In practice biometric data analysis has the potential to substantially lower the cost of overall treatment (and perhaps save lives). Right now, measuring things like a person’s vital signs or EKG is still somewhat intrusive. Eventually it will be a matter of swallowing a capsule or having a subdermal implant that syncs to a smartphone.

Smart and the changes ahead:

There are social implications as the Smart revolution rolls out. The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of this technology will be in two different and very unequal worlds. Those who have access to this technology will be able to remove variability from their business, maintain their health to a higher degree, and be in greater control of their environment.

A side effect is monopolies may stay in power longer because of the extra edge that comes from wielding the most data and having the best toys. This will create additional barriers to entry for market newcomers.  Maybe this has always been true though?

In 50 years today’s world will look like the dark ages in terms of all the advanced knowledge we will have about our health, our potential, and our interactions as a society. Can you imagine what it was like 50 years ago to go on vacation to another country with just a guide book and paper map? We’ll look back and say, gosh can you image what it was like not to know your blood chemistry stats in real time on your phone? Yes, cholesterol really does spike after eating a burger and fries!

For more reading:

The Human Face of Big Data by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt has dozens of examples of the application and promise of big data. The book lives up to its name. It is huge, twice the page size of a standard book!


Milk and Cat image by ‘the bridge‘ on Flickr
Sensor image by Huskeflux on Flickr


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