Beginning the Internet of Things

Beginning the Internet of Things

How do new things come to be? Creations are neither miracles nor magic, but the consequence of many small, often meandering, steps. Sometimes creators head in one direction only to become lost or reach a dead end, yet – if they continue to hope – they still end up somewhere interesting.

All this is true of my work on the Internet of Things.

The only thing I can perhaps claim sole credit for is the name: three ungrammatical words that now label computing’s future.

I may even be wrong about that. I think I came up with the name while working on a PowerPoint presentation at Procter & Gamble in the spring of 1999. But I was working with many visionaries at the time, and it may be that one of them said it first, and it later reappeared in my mind, a borrowed thought disguised as an original one. No one has ever claimed as much, and I suppose they would have done so by now, but it is possible nonetheless. I am certainly not some heroic individual contributor. Creation never happens that way. Every movie has a poster highlighting a handful of names – a few stars and co-stars, the director, perhaps a producer or writer – and every movie has end credits, where hundreds or thousands of other names appear. The poster shows creation’s myth: this was made by a few. The end credits show creation’s truth: this was made by many. All creations are like this, but only movies have end credits; for everything else, a few people get all the attention. The Internet of Things is the same: I may be on the poster, but

I was only one person in a large community of creators.

I became interested in computers when I was nine or ten years old, because that is when personal computers first appeared. I stayed interested through my teenage and college years, when the Internet became public for the first time, and when I started my first real job, as an Assistant Brand Manager for the Procter & Gamble company, where I was part of team launching a new range of cosmetics under the Oil of Olay Brand name, between about 1995 and 1998.

The cosmetics launch went well, but I was frustrated to find that some of our most popular products were out of stock when I visited my local supermarket to buy my weekly groceries. My colleagues in sales and distribution told me this was not a problem; it was probably only my local store that was out of stock. But to me this was not probable at all:

thousands of stores carried my products, so the odds that the only one with a problem was the one I visited were thousands to one against.

When I checked other stores, I found my most popular products were unavailable in about 40 percent of stores at any given time.

But why? We had made enough products, but they were sitting in our warehouses, never making it to the empty shelves. And that was a clue: the stores did not know they were out of stock.

I asked why again. My interest in computers helped me understand the answer: after much investigation, I found the stores’ information systems were approximate; they were driven by bar code scans at checkout counters, did not know if a product was lost or stolen, and sometimes made errors.

Gradually I realized that it was the bar code scanning, and, more generally, the human entry of data that was the root of the problem. Human-entered data is error prone, inexact, and expensive: no one can afford to be constantly entering data about all the details of an ever-changing environment.

The real world contains countless trillions of terabytes of information, and twentieth century computing could capture none of it.

For me, the problem had manifested as a missing lipstick on the shelf of a grocery store shelf, but it was everywhere, it was everything. Once I saw the problem in those terms my paradigm changed and the solution became obvious, if only conceptually.

Computers needed to gather their own information by sensing the world for themselves.

Sensors had existed since at least since the early days of automation in the early 1800s. During the 1900s sensors became digital, and smaller and cheaper, and by the late 1990s, when I started thinking about them, the next logical step was becoming obvious to at least a few people: connect them to the Internet.

Internet-connected sensors were not a big topic in the 1990s – in fact, they were barely a topic at all. This was the time of the “dot-com boom,” which, as the name suggests, was pretty much all about websites. The idea of creating a vast open network of sensors to gather data about the things in the real world automatically was weird, and the community of people thinking about it was small.

I could not pursue this idea without support from my employer, Procter & Gamble, so I had to find a quick way to sum up my weird vision for the company’s senior executives. To do that, it needed a name that was both familiar and intriguing. Everyone wanted to know more about the Internet in the late 1990s, so using that word was obviously a good idea. I just had to link it to something about the physical world.

A good word for physical stuff was “things,” which was already being used by Neil Gershenfeld, a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the leader of a research program called “Things That Think.” Neil’s work at that time was not especially focused on networking, but he had a good early take on the potential value of embedding computers and sensors into everyday devices, as did other researchers working in a field then called “embedded computing,” and now more commonly known as “ubiquitous computing.”

I combined the two concepts using the word “of,” calling my vision – and the accompanying PowerPoint presentation – “the Internet of Things.”

Until then, as far as I know, “Internet” was a standalone noun – a monolith with no variations, seldom, if ever, used with a preposition. Today it’s not uncommon to hear about an Internet “of” something or other.

My executive meetings achieved their objectives: Procter & Gamble’s senior executives gave me money to start a research project at MIT and so I made the presentation many more times all over the world, until my phrase “the Internet of Things” became famous. Far more importantly, the vision it named became real. That was the result of the cumulative contributions of a vast community of people, from different places and times, all working to make things better. In that sense the Internet of Things is like every other creation. If this were a movie, the end credits would start now, and they would be long indeed.

“Beginning the Internet of Things” was first published as a special introduction to the Japanese edition of “How to Fly a Horse—The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.”

HTFH Awarded “Best Business Book of the Year”

HTFH Awarded “Best Business Book of the Year”

In January 2016, at a publisher appreciation event in New York City, “How to Fly a Horse” by Kevin Ashton won the award for “Best Business Book of the Year” from 1-800-CEO READ. “How to Fly a Horse” was initially shortlisted in early January by being chosen as the best book in the category of Innovation and Creativity, and eventually beat out the other business books in the categories of Leadership & Management, Entrepreneurship, Finance & Economics, Marketing, Sales, Personal Development, and General Business.

While Ashton has yet to comment publicly on the win, he did post a very enthusiastic, and all caps “YAY!” on Twitter with a link to the winning announcement after receiving the news.

Read more about the honor and the selection process.

Before I Begin

Before I Begin

The three most destructive words in the English language may be “before I begin.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: “To begin, to begin. How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. I should write something first, then I’ll reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. OK, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”

The only thing we do before we begin is fail to begin. Whatever form our failure takes, be it a banana-nut muffin, a tidier sock drawer, or a bag of new stationery, it is the same thing: a non-beginning, complete with that dead car sound, all click, no ignition. Having resisted the temptation of others, we must also resist the temptation of us.

The best way to begin is the same as the best way to swim in the sea. No tiptoes. No wading. Go under. Get wet and cold from scalp to sole. Splutter up salt, push the hair from your brow, then stroke and stroke again. Feel the chill change. Do not look back or think ahead. Just go.

In the beginning, all that matters is how much clay you throw on the wheel. Go for as many hours as you can. Repeat every day possible until you die.

The first beginning will feel wrong. We are not used to being with ourselves uninterrupted. We do not know the way first things look. We have imagined our creations finished but never begun. A thing begun is less right than wrong, more flaw than finesse, all problem and no solution. Nothing begins good, but everything good begins. Everything can be revised, erased, or rearranged later. The courage of creation is making bad beginnings.

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, one of the great innovators of twentieth-century music, played a Bach fugue on the piano every morning. He started every day like this for years. Then he worked for ten hours. Before lunch he composed. After lunch he orchestrated and transcribed. He did not wait for inspiration. He said, “Work brings inspiration if inspiration is not discernible in the beginning.”

Ritual is optional, but consistency is not. Creating requires regular hours of solitude. Time is your main ingredient, so use the highest-quality time to create.

At first, creating for an hour is hard. Every five minutes our mind itches for interruption: to stretch, get coffee, check e-mail, pet the dog.

We indulge an urge for research, and before we know it we have Googled three links away from where we started and are reminding ourselves of the name of Bill Cosby’s wife in The Cosby Show (it was Clair) or learning what sound a giraffe makes (giraffes are generally quiet, but they sometimes cough, bellow, snort, bleat, moo, and mew). This is the candy we give ourselves.

What solitude creates interruption destroys. Science describes the destruction unequivocally. Many experiments show the same things: interruption slows us down. No matter how little time is stolen by interruption, we lose even more time reconnecting to our work. Interruption causes twice as many mistakes. Interruption makes us angry. Interruption makes us anxious. These effects are the same among men and women. Creation knows no multitasking.

Interruption, unfortunately, is also addictive. We live in an interruption culture, and it conditions us to crave interruption. Say no to the itch. More “no’s” equals fewer itches. The mind is a muscle that starts soft but becomes long and lean with use. The more we focus, the stronger it gets. After that first difficult hour, several seem easy. Then we not only work for hours but also feel wrong if we do not. A change comes. The itch is not for interruption but for concentration.

As we sit with our pens poised above the pages we aim to turn into a novel, scientific paper, work of art, patent, poem, or business plan, we can feel paralyzed—and that’s only if we can summon up the courage to sit in the first place.

While knowing that this is a natural and normal part of the creative process may ease our minds a little, it may not make us more productive. We look around for inspiration. This is the right thing to do, only much of art lies not in what we see but in what we don’t. When we envy the perfect creations of others, what we do not see, what we by definition cannot see, and what we may also forget when we look back at successful creations of our own, is everything that got thrown away, that failed, that didn’t make the cut. When we look at a perfect page, we should put it not on a pedestal but on a pile of imperfect pages, all balled or torn, some of them truly awful, created only to be thrown away. This trash is not failure but foundation, and the perfect page is its progeny.

Good writing is bad writing well edited; a good hypothesis is whatever is left after many experiments fail; good cooking is the result of choosing, chopping, skinning, shelling, and reducing; a great movie has as much to do with what ends up on the cutting room floor as what does not.

To succeed in the art of new, we must fail freely and frequently.

The empty canvas must not stay empty. We have to plunge into it.

How a Child Slave Created a Billion-Dollar Business

How a Child Slave Created a Billion-Dollar Business

In the Indian Ocean, fifteen hundred miles east of Africa and four thousand miles west of Australia, lies an island that the Portuguese knew as Santa Apolónia, the British as Bourbon, and the French, for a time, as Île Bonaparte. Today it is called Réunion. A bronze statue stands in Sainte-Suzanne, one of Réunion’s oldest towns. It shows an African boy in 1841, dressed as if for church, in a single-breasted jacket, bow tie, and flat-front pants that gather on the ground. He wears no shoes. He holds out his right hand, not in greeting but with his thumb and fingers coiled against his palm, perhaps about to flip a coin. He is twelve years old, an orphan and a slave, and his name is Edmond.

The world has few statues of Africa’s enslaved children. To understand why Edmond stands here, on this lonely ocean speck, his hand held just so, we must travel west and back, thousands of miles and hundreds of years. On Mexico’s Gulf Coast, the people of Papantla have dried the fruit of a vinelike orchid and used it as a spice for more millennia than they remember. In 1400, the Aztecs took it as tax and called it “black flower.” In 1519, the Spanish introduced it to Europe and called it “little pod,” or vainilla. In 1703, French botanist Charles Plumier renamed it “vanilla.”

Vanilla is hard to farm. Vanilla orchids are great creeping plants, not at all like the Phalaenopsis flowers we put in our homes. They can live for centuries and grow large, sometimes covering thousands of square feet or climbing five stories high. It has been said that lady’s slippers are the tallest orchids and tigers the most massive, but vanilla dwarfs them both. For thousands of years, its flower was a secret known only to the people who grew it. It is not black, as the Aztecs were led to believe, but a pale tube that blooms once a year and dies in a morning. If a flower is pollinated, it produces a long, green, beanlike capsule that takes nine months to ripen. It must be picked at precisely the right time. Too soon and it will be too small; too late and it will split and spoil. Picked beans are left in the sun for days, until they stop ripening. They do not smell of vanilla yet. That aroma develops during curing: two weeks on wool blankets outdoors each day before being wrapped to sweat each night. Then the beans are dried for four months and finished by hand with straightening and massage. The result is oily black lashes worth their weight in silver or gold.

Vanilla captivated the Europeans. Anne of Austria, daughter of Spain’s King Philip III, drank it in hot chocolate. Queen Elizabeth I of England ate it in puddings. King Henry IV of France made adulterating it a criminal offense punishable by a beating. Thomas Jefferson discovered it in Paris and wrote America’s first recipe for vanilla ice cream.

But no one outside Mexico could make it grow. For three hundred years, vines transported to Europe would not flower. It was only in 1806 that vanilla first bloomed in a London greenhouse and three more decades before a plant in Belgium bore Europe’s first fruit.

The missing ingredient was whatever pollinated the orchid in the wild. The flower in London was a chance occurrence. The fruit in Belgium came from complicated artificial pollination. It was not until late in the nineteenth century that Charles Darwin inferred that a Mexican insect must be vanilla’s pollinator, and not until late in the twentieth century that the insect was identified as a glossy green bee called Euglossa viridissima. Without the pollinator, Europe had a problem. Demand for vanilla was increasing, but Mexico was producing only one or two tons a year. The Europeans needed another source of supply. The Spanish hoped vanilla would thrive in the Philippines. The Dutch planted it in Java. The British sent it to India. All attempts failed.

This is where Edmond enters. He was born in Sainte-Suzanne in 1829. At that time Réunion was called Bourbon. His mother, Mélise, died in childbirth. He did not know his father. Slaves did not have last names – he was simply “Edmond.” When Edmond was a few years old, his owner, Elvire Bellier-Beaumont, gave him to her brother Ferréol in nearby Belle-Vue. Ferréol owned a plantation. Edmond grew up following Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont around the estate, learning about its fruits, vegetables, and flowers, including one of its oddities – a vanilla vine Ferréol had kept alive since 1822.

Like all the vanilla on Réunion, Ferréol’s vine was sterile. French colonists had been trying to grow the plant on the island since 1819. After a few false starts – some orchids were the wrong species, some soon died – they eventually had a hundred live vines. But Réunion saw no more success with vanilla than Europe’s other colonies had. The orchids seldom flowered and never bore fruit.

Then, one morning late in 1841, as the spring of the Southern Hemisphere came to the island, Ferréol took his customary walk with Edmond and was surprised to find two green capsules hanging from the vine. His orchid, barren for twenty years, had fruit. What came next surprised him even more. Twelve-year-old Edmond said he had pollinated the plant himself.

To this day there are people in Réunion who do not believe it. It seems impossible to them that a child, a slave, and, above all, an African, could have solved the problem that beat Europe for hundreds of years. They say it was an accident – that he was trying to damage the flowers after an argument with Ferréol or he was busy seducing a girl in the gardens when it happened.

Ferréol did not believe the boy at first. But when more fruit appeared, days later, he asked for a demonstration. Edmond pulled back the lip of a vanilla flower and, using a toothpick-sized piece of bamboo to lift the part that prevents self-fertilization, he gently pinched its pollen-bearing anther and pollen-receiving stigma together. Today the French call this le geste d’Edmond – Edmond’s gesture. Ferréol called the other plantation owners together, and soon Edmond was traveling the island teaching other slaves how to pollinate vanilla orchids. After seven years, Réunion’s annual production was a hundred pounds of dried vanilla pods. After ten years, it was two tons. By the end of the century, it was two hundred tons and had surpassed the output of Mexico.

Ferréol freed Edmond in June 1848, six months before most of Réunion’s other slaves. Edmond was given the last name Albius, the Latin word for “whiter.” Some suspect this was a compliment in racially charged Réunion. Others think it was an insult from the naming registry. Whatever the intention, things went badly. Edmond left the plantation for the city and was imprisoned for theft. Ferréol was unable to prevent the incarceration but succeeded in getting Edmond released after three years instead of five. Edmond died in 1880, at the age of fifty-one. A small story in a Réunion newspaper, Le Moniteur, described it as a “destitute and miserable end.”

Edmond’s innovation spread to Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the huge island to Réunion’s west, Madagascar. Madagascar has a perfect environment for vanilla. By the twentieth century, it was producing most of the world’s vanilla, with a crop that in some years was worth more than $100 million.

The demand for vanilla increased with the supply. Today it is the world’s most popular spice and, after saffron, the second most expensive. It has become an ingredient in thousands of things, some obvious, some not. Over a third of the world’s ice cream is Jefferson’s original flavor, vanilla. Vanilla is the principal flavoring in Coke, and the Coca-Cola Company is said to be the world’s largest vanilla buyer. The fine fragrances Chanel No. 5, Opium, and Angel use the world’s most expensive vanilla, worth $10,000 a pound. Most chocolate contains vanilla. So do many cleaning products, beauty products, and candles. In 1841, on the day of Edmond’s demonstration to Ferréol, the world produced fewer than two thousand vanilla beans, all in Mexico, all the result of pollination by bees. On the same day in 2010, the world produced more than five million vanilla beans, in countries including Indonesia, China, and Kenya, almost all of them – including the ones grown in Mexico – the result of le geste d’Edmond.