Starting from the times of mythology, where one’s wishes were ‘heard’ by Gods, to technology, where one can overlay digital objects over physical reality and interact or ‘act’ as if they are one and the same, the human element has always been the same – you can call them the enabler, master or even creator to some extent if we are not kidding ourselves. However, the one thing that we amazing homo sapiens failed to master or even understand is the human element of things around us. I think it’s time for the budding entrepreneurs to focus not on the Internet of Things (IoT as they fondly call it) and something I believe is not that hard to master or develop considering our pace of innovation (just look at the last 100 years) but on the Internet of (Human) Things (IoH) for the betterment of this world and for better utilization of us, the humans, because we really don’t want robots to rule the world right!
What are Human Things and why are they key for the next big bang of an idea?
Now if you do a quick Google search on Human Things, the top most article from Livescience highlights the the following: Speech, upright posture, nakedness, clothing, extraordinary brains, hands, fire, blushing, long childhoods and life after children. There are few more articles in the first page of Google Search including a beautiful New Yorker archive piece from 1960s called ‘The Last repository’ which I believe surprisingly encapsulates the essence of this article well – the fate of our knowledge that is implicitly present and exhibited in all the things above that make up Human Things, the ones that make us unique.
One might argue or come up with few more things compared to the ones mentioned above but the reason I prefer to use this as the source (besides the fact that Google – a tool built by humans but mastered by a machine) is the breadth of the things it includes. Also, if you look around, some of the major industries/businesses are built around these. For instance, I see YouTube highlighting the Speech part of our life. You can even look at multibillion dollar websites like PornHub highlighting the nakedness elements. We have businesses making billions on energy from fire and aren’t hands and fingers a key to UX (user experience) on a smartphone? I can still recall the keynote, the one used to launch the iPhone back in 2007, and how magnificently Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, showed the power of touch. Now you all know how key it turned out to be. So it might not be so bad, especially economically, to focus on these things, the human things, while we are trying connect or smartify the most inanimate objects like refrigerators, homes, etc.
An example of Internet of (Human) things
Being an MBA and reading enough cases of success and failures made me realize that it’s always better, economically and strategically, to start with a problem that is currently affecting a major population and then build a solution around it instead of a cookie cutter approach of finding use cases for your product. Let’s take clothing for instance! One of the most ubiquitous human thing that we all have and one that is used smartly by many businesses around the world. If you are reading Startup Grind, I’m sure you’d have been aware of the Google Jacquard’s denim Levi’s Jacket. It’s a lovely idea and the use cases are huge. I’m more than confident that one can make a ton of money out of it if it’s executed in the right way and launched at the right time at the right place unlike Google Glass, which I still believe is a great product but one which we are not ready for. However, this smart jacket is still not solving a problem, especially a human problem, which I believe is key for universal and long term success.
Take the example of Smartwatches! Great idea but unlike smartphones, they are not solving any major problem and only Apple is able to sell those right now as it has a different user base, the early adopters and ones like me who dumbly love everything Apple does. One can only imagine how long this would last! I fear Tablets, a brilliant device with some actual use cases that solve some serious issues though at a minor level, are also going the same way. Anyways, smart clothing can only go so far as the problem it solves. One major problem that I see with our clothing right now and something that’s affecting major businesses like hotels is the affection our clothing has for body louse (aka bed bugs) or the other way. This might be a geographically sensitive issue (In India, we never had a issue with bed bugs until I came to North America) but I’m sure with some data, one can easily make a billion dollar problem out of this. Now imagine a chemical/solution/perfume that can deter body louse or any bugs that are bad for our health? Or even a jacket or bed sheet or rug that can deter harmful bugs. Aren’t the implications huge not just from a business perspective but also from a health perspective! To make further case out of this, I will go back to the idea of Smartphones. They solved the problem of communication, interaction and application of knowledge and the impact of that is profound and life changing for many. I believe this was solely because of the human elements it touched, literally.
As we get into the age of supplemented reality, which would include Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Augment Reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI) or the lack thereof employed by various firms will be key to understanding the future better and the role of humans in the internet of these things. For instance, take Google Translate and imagine where this could end up in the next decade or so. Some of our current interactions with the Translate app could be at a foreign place in a domestic space like in a chinese restaurant in Chinatown in Toronto where the menu descriptions could be in Mandarin or in a foreign country during a trip when you need to translate a local menu or guidebook. These tasks can be easily achieved now but before you realise Google Translate might evolve to a live speech translation app or an API on your always on and always hearing bluetooth enabled headphone and might even suggest you a quick response in the local language thus removing the barriers between humans further. However, I still believe an AI driven tool cannot understand the emotional element of Speech, a key human thing, that distinguishes us from the bots or cyber animals as I prefer calling them. One simple bet I can do now and one that I believe which could last for the next decade or two is AI can never help create a viral campaign on YouTube. A simple powerful message with the right elements might have a better chance than one having the best data insights.
Anyways, imagine you are in the middle of a key business negotiation with your foreign business partner and Google Translate suggesting not just the response in local language but also the best possible response with the huge amount of AI it has from publicly sourced data on negotiating in similar scenarios. Here you are acting based on data rather than emotions and there are enough reasons to not trust this as the other party receiving this data and acting on this is a HUMAN who is primarily built on emotions. One might argue that with enough power and enough data, we would eventually reach a point where all humans act on AI based on ever improving and self learning data. However, as long as bots don’t deal with bots entirely thus removing another reason for our existence, I wouldn’t rely on AI completely as we humans are diverse not just how we look but also how we think and behave – no one person is the same. Our decision making CAN’T (not WON’T) change with even the best of data because data is not emotive even if its dynamic. Sometimes, I believe our gut or instincts are much more powerful at predicting qualitative things like happiness, love etc. Moreover, I’m sure no one including the top most scientists in this world can ever quantify emotions or the way our emotions operate. Just like how money can’t buy love or happiness, I believe AI can only go so far. Think of it this way! You can probably replicate all the senses one has using bots but as long as it’s not done in harmony or in a holistic way which I believe is impossible, even the best of AI as shown in the movie like Her can only go so far.
Going forward, every device and every’thing’ in this world will be connected and if we are not careful about including the human element into it as indicated earlier, this world would end up mostly of internet of things and not (human) things. Also, one has to understand the role and extent of AI better while adding the human element especially in areas that concern with our existence. Imagine Google giving us the best route to go to work. It’s the fastest and the most efficient way. However, it still can’t and probably won’t predict if your day will end up the way it was supposed to be even if our entire world and all things involved in that are connected smartly because we humans are not humanoids yet! As long as that doesn’t change, I believe future and current businesses for the sake of long term success should always focus on humans and their problems at the centre of their business model instead of AI and the fancy things that it could do.