In the episode aired on June 5 of 2024 of Radio 24 I’ve had a conversation with the show’s conductor Enrico Pagliarini about interoperability, morality and biocompatibility of the Internet of Things. The following is the translation of the edited transcript of the interview which was originally recorded in Italian.
Enrico Pagliarini: This week we talk again about “Internet of Things”, not only to try to understand some of the consequences, but also some particular considerations that we should start thinking about together with the technology revolution. He’s here with us again, and we thank him for being in our recording studios, David Orban, who is a professor at Singularity University, and CEO of Dotsub. Welcome back to “2024”.
David Orban: Thank you.
EP: We speak about the Internet of Things, and you wanted to point out that translating it into Italian it isn’t called “Internet delle Cose” (Things) but “Internet degli Oggetti” (Objects). Why?
DO: I see things in more abstract categories. They can be pieces of code, ideas, important elements that will gain their autonomy, and we will connect them to the network. But, when in English we talk about the Internet of Things, we actually refer to physical objects, and that is why I want to use this different translation.
EP: And that’s not very common because it’s often translated as “Internet delle Cose”, and this is very important. There is an important technology aspect that we are commenting often in 2024. But probably, if we talk about technology, everything has already been done, or almost everything was done while we are ready to brace this revolution that is happening, but we are still very much at early stages, perhaps at 0.1.
DO: There are analyses and reports made by experts that paint really incredible scenarios. And the transformation between this future dream of science fiction and the reality of today, connecting these points depends on many boundary conditions. One of the natural conditions from the point of view of a large company is to maintain its dominant position, which took a lot of effort of course. You, as CEO, Boards of Directors, promise to shareholders that this will last forever, but there is no guarantee of this happening. And then, when there is a new development, from your point of view this can be a threat, like digital photography was, in the end we have seen deadly, for Kodak.
EP: Or the touch screens on smartphones for other companies.
DO: Absolutely. And as you can or can’t embrace the radical new developments, the immune system of the company decreases the probability of this happening successfully (maybe we will talk about this more in another episode). Specifically for the Internet of Things this means that too often the proposals of the big companies come from a point of view of preserving an existing condition. Then they put aside, or even try to choke the essential criteria of interoperability, or ability to act without preauthorizations, which is paradoxical because it’s a lesson that we have learned over the past twenty years (maybe more), through software, which developed first in a proprietary manner, and then predominantly through Open Source. To this day, on our desktops we use Microsoft Windows or Mac OS, and there are just a few fans who use Linux on their personal computers. But none of the backend systems of large companies such as Google, Twitter or Facebook could exist without the independent Open Source revolution of Linux, nor in fact we would have our cell phones, because the dominant operating system Android, on one hand, is Open Source itself, and on the other it owes a great legacy to Linux.
EP: Referring to Open Source and Linux as representative it’s easier to understand and also one of the greatest examples, if we look at the sizes of the phenomenon, and if we think about Linux, almost everything that we use works thanks to it.
DO: That’s right.
EP: But also many other services.
DO: The Internet of Things, if it doesn’t understand this lesson, will propose solutions that will retrace useless battles.
EP: I recently went to some fairs where there was a very high attention to one of the mega-trends: the Smart Home, the Home Automation. And one of the things that was clear is that every vendor is going their own way, and so far this promise of the Smart Home can’t even be created, because if I buy the video monitoring system of manufacturer A, and the alarm of manufacturer B…there is no standard, and many are questioning themselves about what these will be, or which companies (many think Google, Apple) will be able to integrate, to make in the form of App, as a collector of all these tools that, who knows, if we will have in our homes. Is this the issue or it’s even larger?
DO: There are definitely experts who know how this could be easily overcome. In fact, we have seen this in previous experiences. You sit in any car, and you will be able to drive it because of the standards adopted. No one now imagines to prevent any new car manufacturer to use the steering wheel. Let’s say that Tesla started to produce their cars and then General Motors says: “No, no, build a car, sure, but it can’t have four wheels.” Just last week, last days of May, there was a very dangerous decision from an American court, which ruled in favor of Oracle in prohibiting other software houses to develop functions that work similarly to theirs, even when they are different: meaning, giving control to the so-called APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), which is the perfect way for tomorrow somebody to take a legal decision like the example about cars I told earlier. This is the second time that American authorities, a US court, makes a decision in favor of the companies that is very, very important. First one was the decision about Grokster, condemned with 20 years of slowed development of p2p technologies (peer to peer), which were demonized, criminalized, while they represent an essential development for the Internet of Things. Aggregating the data in centralized data centers is not only a huge waste of resources or just a less optimal way than what it could be to organize the exchange of information. Right now, our 2 phones should talk between them about which apps they should exchange, according to our preferences. But the most worrying aspect of this type of architecture is that it implements those bottlenecks that one nation or another happily exploit because they are vulnerabilities, through acts of political or economical espionage.
EP: So, very important concept … Internet of Things will spread, will develop in a relatively short time even only if it completely marries the concept of Open Source.
DO: And that of interoperability and preferably also of a distributed peer to peer architecture.
EP: In your opinion, is this awareness there, or not?
DO: It’s very interesting how this relates to the mathematical innovation of the Blockchain, a feature of Bitcoin. And you say, “What does this have to do with Bitcoin? It’s a financial matter, about payments!” In reality, what this allows is to organize networks where in the presence of imperfect information, the network itself can reach an agreement without the regulation of central authority. Translated into the language of the Internet of Things, there can be objects that communicate with each other without a switch, a router, without a data-center, and they still can reach decisions on how to operate. In fact, there are prototypes of important internet infrastructure components that are already working in research laboratories based on the blockchain because it’s going to represent a fundamental revolution of the whole architecture of the Internet and the Internet of Things.
EP: One of the things that are cited often, especially when it comes to AI, but I think that also applies when talking about the Internet of Things is the big topic of regulation, the laws that will have to change, but there is also a big issue related morality, ethics that we should perhaps discuss again. How does all this relate to the Internet of Things and what should we try to do, to change?
DO: Nowadays, we think we are in the charge and we make the decisions, small and large, that guide our lives. And when it appears that we are not because we pay taxes and we haven’t decided which are right and which are wrong related to the percentage of our income, or, it seems to us that a vote we make in political elections at the end doesn’t change much; in those moments we are surprised, we get angry. But these situations in which we delegate decisions to more or less automated structures are going to increase in the future. In fact, we’ll be happy to delegate. Today we have the patience to charge our phone, the camera, the computer, even buying an external battery for recharging, and then we have to think about recharging the external battery in an endless chain. When there won’t be a dozen objects around us, but hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands for each of us, we won’t be able to handle them, they will have to manage themselves. The most striking example: today (not on the streets of Milan or Italy, but actually on the streets of San Francisco, California and Nevada), there is the novel category of robotic cars, as standalone machines and nodes of the Internet of Things.
EP: Self-driving cars.
DO: Exactly. The law still requires a person with a driving license to be sitting in it, but in fact the machine completely decides what to do: turn, speed up, slow down, avoid someone who cuts in front of it. Although there are estimates that accidents, collisions may decrease rapidly by a dramatic 90% and save countless lives, it’s almost inevitable that there will be times when the machine will have to make a choice. If I cut the road to the car while I’m riding a bicycle and the it either plows me down, or goes to hit a school bus full of children, it has a split second to decide what to do. Today we’re going for these cars without an engineering of the moral sense. Worse, we do not even have a science of ethics and morals. We have the philosophy of morality and ethics, we have religions, but this has not been formalized and we can not refer to the formalization of this.
EP: There are also scientists who asked the nations to do something about Artificial Intelligence. However, I am quite skeptical that this can happen, so I think that the companies themselves will create automated systems that will go a bit by themselves. The companies will decide what kind of morality these automated systems should have. You made the example of the car, but we could do many other examples also on home automatic that will take decisions beyond what we want.
DO: There will certainly be interesting examples and many issues that will arise. I agree with you that a nation or a group of nations (the United Nations or the International Communication Union), aren’t better equipped than anyone else to say how it should be done. Not only that: it’s not desirable that there would be a single decision to 7 billion, 8 billion people. The United States and China have very different visions of how people should live their lives in a society. An extreme example: if I am a single woman at the wheel, and this is verified by the car’s interior camera, and its GPS detects that I am in Saudi Arabia, will the car start or not? And if the car starts, because produced by Google it refuses to adhere to the moral rules of the country in which it is, it will rapidly have to exit the market, similarly to what happened with the search engines in China, where Google has decided to leave that market.
EP: So … are you skeptical?
DO: The smartest companies will assume a proactive responsibility towards the establishment of ethics boards, meaning a board that can inform decisions of product management and engineers on how to proceed with caution, carefully but firmly towards its goals. Like the pharmaceutical and bio-technology industries have it already: it’s not like they decide “I’ll give you this medicine and then let us see how it goes!”
EP: How much can we personally decide or interact with these developments?
DO: The politics and policies are more and more late and delayed with respect to the ability of technology to make an impact on our daily lives. Reforming the rule making process that guide us so that they can be discussed, implemented, verified, updated, it is a key challenge, because otherwise we freeze society creating ever increasing tensions.
EP: One last point that seems important to me that you mention talking about the Internet of Things is: the Internet of Things will not work, will not spread (at least according to some predictions that the big companies are doing) if it cannot become bio-compatible… is this the correct term?
DO: In my case, absolutely yes. I have an implant that is part of the Internet of Things in my hand, and this implant is isolated from my body through a glass capsule because what is inside would be seen as a foreign body and expelled by my body’s immune system. When the researchers, scientists, talk of a fusion between humans and technology, with the ability to query Google with your thought, the ability to control this network of objects made of trillions of nodes, this cannot happen without us being dramatically impacted. However, whether it is inside the body (as in my case) or in the environment, design, deployment, maintenance and eventually removal or replacement these nodes will only happen if they are biocompatible when inside, bio-degradable when outside. Because this has already happened: it took us several decades to understand that shopping bags, instead of being made of plastic, it is better that they are made of a biodegradable corn, even when the tensile resistance of this solution is less strong than traditional ones, so that they don’t pollute the environment. Our computers today are a bit greener than a few years ago, but they have to become radically more so.
EP: So, another important fundamental point, while I more easily understand that if you can’t find an Open Source way, this doesn’t work as it should, how it could work efficiently, I don’t know if we can find an agreement to create a biodegradable Internet of Things.
DO: There is no need to find an agreement. Microsoft would have been happy to sell licenses of Windows NT in all the data centers in the world. When its salespeople showed up and they found themselves in front of Linux-based machines, Microsoft wasn’t able to close the deals. So, if someone for example is able to transform for example, and there are already some experiments, DNA in a parallel computing platform for general purpose computing, that computing platform will be extremely powerful, high-performance, and by definition, bio-compatible, bio-degradable. So, if this criteria counts, that platform will win.
EP: David, thank you for being with us, see you soon and good work.
DO: Thank you.
This post is also available in: Italian