In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and described the means by which populations evolve—that environmental pressures naturally select the individuals best suited to their habitat to procreate. Culminating from this work was a phylogenetic tree of life, graphically illustrating and describing the relationships between the species of the world and how they have evolved through time. To better understand the IoT landscape, we have undertaken creating the IoT Tree of Life. However, rather than progressing through time as we move along the branches of the tree, we’ve opted to move through the various attributes each device possesses. These groupings result in each branch owning similar characteristics, much like the branches on a biological tree of life possessing similar genetic history. The various branches of the IoT Tree of Life can then be divided into species that play a specific role in the IoT ecosystem. To set the stage, let’s discuss the most accessible example: the smartphone.
The Rise of the Smartphone as the Apex Device
There is one species whose advancement and rise to prominence set the stage for the era of IoT. Much like biology describes apex predators who are at the peak of the food chain, we can identify the smartphone as a device that is at the apex of miniaturized technology, power-efficient processing, and mobile connectivity. It has domain over and acts as the main controller or access point to the growing number of other IoT species that can be classified under an IoT Tree of Life. The conditions that contributed to its evolution have fostered an ecosystem for internet-enabled devices to exist and thrive in two ways:
(1) The development and commoditization of its internal components have made it possible for new, affordable connected devices to be created.
(2) The smartphone, being a computer in your pocket, can act as the pack leader for the numerous pack-member connected devices, overseeing the processing and connection to the cloud.
The IoT Tree of Life
To create the IoT Tree of Life, we reviewed 115 products—activity trackers, smart watches, smart appliances, home automation devices, remote control drones, and more—and classified them according to four criteria:
Processing—Level of intelligence. Does the species have internal computing capability?
Communication—Level of communication to other species. Does the species send or receive data transmissions, or both?
Sensing—Level of awareness of its surroundings. Does the species have internal sensing, connection to external sensing, or no sensing at all?
Engagement—Level of attention required for a person to use it. Does the species offer full visual interaction, partial attention (ability to multitask), or none (fully autonomous)?
These archetypal products were then mapped out on the IoT Tree of Life, and the groupings were critically analyzed. This analysis resulted in the identification of five main species:
A species that receives commands (from a user or Coordinator species) and performs a task. This species has existed long before IoT. It comprises familiar devices that were previously unconnected and that once received direct prompts from a user. Now, they receive prompts from a Coordinator IoT device. On the IoT Tree of Life, these devices tend to cluster in a group that has no significant processing capabilities and only receives data streams, covering a broad range of sensing and engagement properties.
Example: Philips Hue
A species that primarily relays existing information streams. It does not perform any processing on this data. These devices can be identifiers, notifiers, or view portals, or they can serve other roles depending on the receiver/transmitter of the information. On the IoT Tree of Life, they tend to cluster in two groupings: no significant processing capabilities (only outputting data streams with internal sensors), or significant processing and data in/out capabilities (no sensors).
Examples: Sonos Wireless Speaker, Nest Cam
A species that is highly aware of its surroundings and collects information that is distributed to other species or displayed to a user. These are the quantifiers, analyzers, detectors, and sensors. They commonly perform some processing of the data. On the IoT Tree of Life, Gatherers tend to be a broad grouping of devices that only need to output data and have internal or external sensors.
Examples: Fitbit Charge HR, Muse Headband
A hub for data and communication. On the IoT Tree of Life, the majority of Coordinators take data inputs, perform processing, and provide outputs, and may or may not have internal/external sensors. They also relay and control streams of data and give commands to other species. The paradigm of Coordinators is the smartphone.
Examples: Nest Thermostat, iPhone 6s
Currently one of the fastest growing groups within the IoT Tree of Life. It is a symbiotic species that alters an analog object to make it digitally connected. They are commonly paired with non-connected Achievers, forming a new organism that can communicate with other species in the IoT ecosystem. On the IoT Tree of Life, these are currently clustered together with no significant internal processing capabilities; however, they do have data in/out capabilities and internal sensors, adding functionality like WiFi control of batteries to remotely receive notifications from a standard fire alarm and shut it off.
The White Spaces
While the identification of these five species can help frame where new devices will fit into the greater IoT ecosystem, perhaps even more interesting is analyzing an unfulfilled niche where there is a lack of products on the IoT Tree of Life. These missing branches can represent a species that doesn’t exist because it doesn’t make sense, such as a species that has processing power; it sends data out, but it has no sensors. This species should not exist because there would be nothing to process, and thus no data to send out. The other reason for the existence of white spaces in the IoT product landscape is to allow for hypothesizing where future subspecies may reside and act as drivers for future product development. For example:
Devices with internal processing, data input streams, and external sensors are currently a significant white space. These devices could act as Coordinators that directly take data from dumb sensors and process it for immediate use without transmitting it first to the internet. Examples are VR headsets that need low-latency data transmission from environmental beacons to calculate positioning and content for the user, or a digital wallet that can make purchases without having to send credit information over insecure networks. This category will be driven by low-power processing, security desires, and other special use cases.
A second white space of interest exists with devices that do no processing, only offer data output, and have no sensors. These are environmental enablers, or, more specifically, City Automation Enablers. These low-power devices will be the beacons and sensors integrated into public objects, buildings, and spaces that can make environments react and interact with citizens. Examples may be devices that a user can press a simple button on, swipe a keycard, or come into proximity with, which would then upload data to cloud storage for later processing or completion of an action by another device. Imagine parking beacons that transmit details to the nearby environment, so that when your car parks on top of one, it can automatically identify where it is and what the parking rates are, then auto-bill your credit card.
A third white space consists of devices that have no significant internal processing capability, data input only, and external sensors. These are devices that monitor an external sensor and do a simple assigned task, depending on sensor values. Imagine a window that can automatically open based on the environment. The user tells the window to air out the house during the day, but the window then monitors incoming weather data and external rainfall sensors to determine the optimal time to accomplish this task.
The Evolution of Future Subspecies
Much like how animal and plant species evolve to better suit their environment, IoT species will adapt to better meet the desired use cases of consumers and match their behavior over time. While we can’t predict the future, we can analyze current trends and make some educated hypotheses.
Trend: Tracking and Quantifying Consumer Goods with IoT
As IoT continues to become more widely accepted, people will require more information about the production of the things they’re buying. Future devices will address consumers’ concerns about food safety, animal treatment, product recalls, and product end-of-life, opening channels for tracking consumer products all the way from farm/factory to table/house.
New Subspecies: Disposable Gatherers
These specialized Gatherers will exist as enabled containers/packaging, gathering information on their contents as well as the environments they travel through. They will then communicate this data to allow people to understand exactly what they are buying, and how the contents will affect them.
Trend: Measuring and Improving Mental Health and Wellbeing
People want their devices to not only anticipate their schedule, but also their emotional state. Future devices will empower users to trigger events and improve their health, wellbeing, and performance. They will play new roles in changing health and wellness contexts. Their ability to sense, diagnose, guide, report, and coordinate care will impact both our personal and shared health and wellbeing.
New Subspecies: Emoters, Empathizers, and Health Vaults
These Gatherers and Coordinators will exist as wearables to collect and interpret biometric data, providing contextual cues for other connected devices within the house, as well as standalone data repositories that will store, maintain, and protect your personal health data.
Trend: Security and Privacy in the Internet of Spaces
As more and more objects collect an increasing amount of data about us, our online selves will be even more connected to our offline selves. People will want to be able to manage their digital identity and to control how their information is stored and what is communicated. Ultimately, new species will exist in order to help manage how the connected environment views and interacts with us.
New Subspecies: Digital Diplomat
The Digital Diplomat will act as the ambassador to the connected world, allowing people to negotiate their presence in a digital space, protect their anonymity, and decide what information is exchanged. They are the coordinators of your digital identity.
Disruptions to the IoT Tree of Life
Natural selection determines which species are better suited to their environment. Genetic drift is the process by which portions of the population are randomly selected, typically due to unforeseen environmental events. These two processes cannot operate unless there is variability in a population. Mutations, gene flow between populations, and recombination through sexual reproduction are processes that help create that variability. What are the equivalent forces driving variability and evolution in IoT devices?
Changes in human behavior can be correlated to natural selection, as that will drive the adoption of new devices and change the distribution of species. Would the development of a new core technology then be the equivalent of a genetic mutation? What would the equivalent of gene flow or recombination look like in an IoT device? An extreme environmental catastrophe can cause significant genetic drift in a population, such as the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs and gave rise to the mammals on earth. What will the equivalent extinction event for IoT be? Will it be singularity? Transhumanism? What devices will be the mammals of IoT? How will they evolve? Will they even be called IoT at that point? Only time will tell.