Digital Mesh: the organic digital era?
17 October 2016 | 0
The trouble with The Internet of Things (IoT) is that it is not a term that gets us very far. Many would argue that the Internet already connects ‘things’ because that is how it works. We spend a lot of time specifying what the connections and contents and applications are, even as they develop and change. We sometimes forget that the Web is in fact a sub-set of the Internet, with the ability to carry text and images and video that are intelligible to humans. We usually mean something slightly different by machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, but strictly speaking what else is data replication between servers or data centres? It is an automated internet process, no humans involved.
The IoT does not have any technical specification. It is just a concept, connecting everyday ‘things’ over the Internet for data exchange purposes. Much of that vision involves simple devices like sensors, of which we are developing multitudes for present and potential purposes. We have been doing that for generations, of course, but the Internet offers vastly greater networking capabilities. The IoT is also relatively dumb, in the sense that the devices are largely simple and the data is harvested for monitoring and a limited degree of control. We may talk about ‘smart meters’ but in fact they are really simple electronic devices. Smarter control will undoubtedly arise but then we are into M2M territory, carried over the Internet.
Gartner has come up with the terms Digital Mesh and Device Mesh as a useful distinction — and a major technology trend — that involves smart services on smart devices rather than those limited purpose ‘things’. Mike Walker of Gartner explains the Digital Mesh as an über theme. “Our network models have broken down, in many ways. Old hub-and-spoke and other centralised models have lost their value in a world in which technologies, businesses, organisations and people have all become ecosystems. So we chose the term ‘mesh’ to suggest the multiple ways in which these now connect, many to many, and bringing them together in a meaningful way orchestrated by context.”
Walker gives the example of Starbucks: “They use your smart phone to add value by giving you Wi-Fi and special offers, pre-ordering, payment and other ways to augment their business digitally. Now it is an easy step to imagine extending that, for example asking permission to access some of your data from an Apple watch or Fitbit or other wearables. Then the coffee shop’s system could sense when you have been jogging and may be thirsty and offer you a free bottle of water with your customary medium latte. So the vision is of a mesh of micro-services, again driven for the most part by context of some kind.”
As Gartner sees it, the Device Mesh is the enabler for the overall digital mesh of services. “Context would certainly include location, previous enrolment to services and providers, degrees of consent to personal data. The connectedness is the rich potential of the mesh, orchestrated in a meaningful way by the many possible contexts,” says Walker. “The contexts include shopping and recreation and the management of multiple aspects of life and work. The devices could be personal, like smartphones and wearables, or in the home, workplace, cars and public transport systems, enabling an ambient user experience that changes constantly throughout the day according to the context.”
Much of this will be managed by constantly evolving Virtual Personal Assistants, he explains, more advanced versions of today’s Siri or Cortana. “At least one emerging company aims to provide a highly secure platform layer above all of these possible services. Users choose how much and what to reveal of their personal data, which in turn determines how rich the potential of the ecosystem of services will be. This is the way in which the digital mesh is bringing us into a kind of organically grown and ubiquitous ecosystem, based on the collaboration between people, the users, and services and organisations and constantly growing and being enriched by the data collected.”
Blending physical and virtual
From one general point of view, all of this development, the digital mesh or whatever we choose to call it, is the blending of the physical and virtual environments in the imminent future. “It is in many ways about making meaning out of the connectivity and the aggregated data,” says Professor Linda Doyle. “One of the things I am sure of is that there is no such thing as neutral design. This notion that we will have multiple sets of consensual services that would cut off when we want them to is simply not true. We are setting out to embed sensors into the world around us — buildings, homes, vehicles, trees and lampposts, even in ourselves — all gathering data ‘to help us make informed decisions’ as we hear so often. My questions always are, Informed by whom? For the benefit of whom? Currently, there are no clear answers.”
In engineering terms, she explains, the constant objective is to optimise something in line with an objective function. “But somebody has to set that objective function. That in turn could be governed by marketing, consumer taste, political or legal reality or whatever. So one thing is very clear, and we practice it here in Connect, is that there needs to be multi-disciplinary teams governing the design process and the judgement calls involved. We bring in artists and urban designers, for example, because they bring other valuable dimensions to the thinking.
“There is also the challenge of judging the value of data — the new currency, according to the hype — it’s actually impossible to say at any one time what is relevant. Sometimes the need is to know the temperature, there, now. But another time it may be the historical pattern that is of relevance and value. So it is very hard to dismiss data which might be useful at some time in the future in the context of more powerful Big Data analytics and combinations of apparently disparate data.
“But all of these challenges are exciting,” Prof Doyle says, “including the fact that you can no longer research anything and be purely technical. You have to think of the social, the economic, the political and certainly the cultural aspects. But I think that makes the whole research process much richer, although it certainly raises questions to which we do not know the answers. In many ways the digital mesh and the IoT and what we generally mean by those terms is developing incrementally but invisibly. So we need to be better informed and more articulate in discussing and debating what is happening in our world.”