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Air Traffic Control, iTunes and the IoT: Curation Resolves Chaos

What’s happening now with the IoT is following a familiar pattern: When a new technology starts to take hold, people grapple with how to best utilize it.


There’s no doubt that the Internet of Things (IoT) is here and growing at a staggering rate. Millions of devices, structures and moving machines, existing and new, are being fitted with sensors that provide information used in their operation. The increasing power and smaller size of microprocessors and the emergence of wide-area connectivity make it possible to beam data from devices that were once “islands” into the larger fabric of the cloud. The cost of implementation and operation continue to drop to where even everyday objects can now transmit data.

But where is all of this data going? A new McKinsey report found that 99 percent of the time, it’s used briefly, sometimes for a fraction of second, then discarded.

What’s happening now with the IoT is following a familiar pattern: When a new technology starts to take hold, people grapple with how to best utilize it. Since it’s typically complex, only the most technically savvy are able to speak about it accurately, which leads to a lot of “because we can” ideas for how it will be employed. Not all survive as a technology matures and finds its position in the panoply of global consumer, business and governmental applications. A grand history of “because we can” notions have pervaded most major technological adoption. In almost all of these instances, what settles in over time and becomes the de facto version of how that technology weaves itself into the fabric of the world is guided by curation.

Think about aviation. We’ve only had heavier-than-air flying machines for just over 100 years. Kind of amazing when you think about how far it has all come. But one critical advance had to happen for air travel to become the mundane occurrence it is today: Air traffic control.

During WWII, aircraft-building technology advanced radically; after the war, large airplanes with pressurized cabins and jet engines came out of the military and into common use. Coupled with the paved runways built worldwide to support military bombers, we could now carry a lot of people — fast — across and between continents. That was both awesome and scary, since now two aircraft could close on each other at a combined speed approaching more than 1,000 miles per hour. Even scarier was the fact that as aircraft got larger, more humans could be involved in mid-air collisions.

Up to that point, outside of the relatively small zones around airports where control towers could “see” airplanes using radar, routing aircraft was still handled mainly from inside the cockpit and via pilots talking to each other on radios (today we’d be tempted to call that peer-to-peer communications). Introducing air traffic control moved traffic handling from cockpits into a network of waypoints, stations and operators focused specifically on the safe and efficient routing of aircraft operating above certain altitudes around the world. This “curation” works so well on a daily basis that when it fails, it makes headlines. It has kept the skies safe, and allowed the world air-travel industry to scale magnificently for decades.

A more current example of chaos versus curation surfaced when it appeared that peer-to-peer file sharing a la Napster would eat up the entertainment industry. Many prognosticated that without people paying for content it would become economically unfeasible for record labels and the like to generate new product. And it seemed dire there, for a while. Then something came along that moved it into a new era: Apple introduced iTunes.

To make it palatable to all parties, Apple brought an end-to-end solution that curated the entire supply chain, handling content procurement, rights management, how users found the content they sought and how they consumed it — from artist to ears in one cohesive system. Beyond functioning extremely well, it set the standard and pace for how the entire professional entertainment industry was able to finally transition into the digital era. Video didn’t kill the radio star, and peer-to-peer (while still being used in enormous volumes) didn’t kill the concept of an entertainment business.

Curation has played a key role in driving very different industries to progress, versus the “chaotic” model of pure peer-to-peer handling. With the IoT, there is much discussion about your refrigerator talking to your coffee pot, and lots of ad-hoc standards organizations formed around that notion. Doubtless, these will be useful and important, but not universal. Given history, the far more likely mode will be some form of curation at both micro and macro levels.

It’s already happening, since many consumer IoT offerings center on … a center. You install a “brain” that all of the intelligent elements in your home connect with and through. It makes decisions and also has the primary connection with the cloud. Individual devices aren’t doing everything among and by themselves. And in commercial, industrial and governmental areas, it’s fairly obvious that pure peer-to-peer device communications without any curation won’t cut it. Much like the Napster/iTunes situation, something/someone needs to act as curator to ensure that things are handled well and properly, rules are applied and regulations/laws/rights are respected.

With airplanes, “peer-to-peer” communications and handling modes coexist with curated ATC. If you jump in your Cessna and want to fly underneath and outside of official air corridors, you can guide your aircraft between any two small airfields virtually unrestricted. But to step into the big commercial world, you need to “join” ATC for your journey.

If history has anything to say about it, the IoT it will be the same; a mix of peer-to-peer and curated hub-spoke handling of sensing and control data. The former will fit some use cases, mostly noncommercial or at minimum unrelated to something official and/or revenue related, and for sensor traffic that needs to be graded, guided and dealt with in the worlds of rights and commerce, curation will be the preferred mode. It will be fascinating to see it evolve, and many opportunities abound in participating.

David Knight is the founder and CEO/CTO of Terbine, the first large-scale commercial marketplace designed to curate the world’s physical data. A serial entrepreneur, his background is in core technologies including multi-spectral sensing and communications, messaging, enterprise software and distributed systems, with work ranging from digital entertainment to defense technology and participation in initiatives including setting communications standards, the creation of the first commercial email server and online mass storage. Knight was an original member of the XPRIZE team that helped to launch the private space industry, and sits on the California Science Center’s Board of Trustees. Reach him @thespacedude.

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