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BC's Role in the Next Huge Phase of the Internet

A Richmond company's technology could remake our world and oh, maybe save the planet.

Geoff Dembicki 15 Jul

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

You wake up one morning in a future not so distant.

The air in your bedroom is slightly brisk, but not uncomfortably so. The thermostat knows this is the perfect temperature to get you out of bed. It adjusts slightly, adding a few degrees of warmth as you shower down the hall.

Damp and dripping you step onto the bathroom scale. You haven't been eating that well lately: lots of starch and fat. The scale compares your body weight to millions of other people your height and age. It books you an appointment with a nutritionist.

In the driveway your electric car is fully charged. Most of the power came from a wind turbine atop your house. But when gusts slowed around midnight the neighbourhood biomass plant provided the rest.

The car knows about delays on your daily commute. It suggests several alternate routes. On the freeway your stomach tightens. Did you leave the stove on? Your car enters self-drive mode as you check your smartphone. Yep, you turned the stove off.

The phone's appliance app also suggests you activate a load of laundry, since your neighbourhood's demand for electricity is low right now. Suddenly your car swerves. It texts the nearest road crew about the pothole you just missed.

All around you machines are communicating to machines. Forklifts race unmanned around warehouse floors. Streetlights brighten as traffic approaches. Airplanes align their flight paths with changes in air pressure.

Not only has such technology made your life more comfortable, it's also helped avert the risk of catastrophic climate change, and saved trillions of dollars in the process.

But not everyone is feeling smarter, better, faster and greener. It turns out those road delays your car anticipated were caused by a mass street protest. By now the NSA surveillance scandal of 2013 seems quaint.

Advertisers pore over the minutiae of your daily life. Insurance companies videotape your morning commute. And it was recently revealed that government intelligence agencies, by analyzing the intimate data produced by billions of human lives, can now identify and arrest a terrorist in the making.

Reading later how the street protest was dispersed by remotely controlled drones, you're unsure: Has human ingenuity liberated our civilization, or enslaved it?

'Rise of the machines'

On a sunny afternoon in early July, I visit the Richmond, B.C., headquarters of Sierra Wireless, one of the world's leading developers of machine-to-machine (or "M2M") technology.

I'm greeted in the front lobby by the company's VP of market development, Larry Zibrik, who leads me down a curving hallway and into a cavernous ground-floor boardroom.

"We're right on the forefront of this," Zibrik says matter-of-factly, gesturing towards a projector image on the wall. It depicts an electric car driving through the "connected world" of the future.

In this world, wind turbines, smart meters, billboards, tablets, electric cars, charging stations and security cameras are linked together in a series of overlapping systems. The possibilities, proponents say, are endless.

(The same way, potentially, that search engines, email, social media and online shopping all belong to the broader Internet.)

"There's up to 50 billion machines out there that aren't connected," Zibrik says. But though the market for solutions to connect them "is really starting to explode," he adds, "most people don't understand machine-to-machine technology."

Sierra Wireless began operating in 1993 alongside a similarly unheard of technology with revolutionary potential: the Internet. It's best known for designing a high-speed USB modem that makes it easier for people to get online.

But earlier this spring Sierra Wireless sold its entire AirCard business for $138 million. The company, Zibrik says, is now "laser-focused" on enabling the streetscape being projected onto the boardroom wall in front of us.

This "connected world" goes by many names: Industrial Internet, Internet of Things, Internet of Everything, the Sensor Revolution. The Economist has declared the "Rise of the machines." Wired, meanwhile, recently described a "Programmable World."

"In this future," Wired's senior editor Bill Wasik wrote, "the intelligence once locked in our devices now flows into the universe of physical objects ... It will change the whole way we think about the division between the virtual and the physical."

Already companies have built unmanned forklifts that can work 24-7, bathroom scales that transmit data to your doctor, streetlights that dim when no one is around and thermostats that adjust to your daily routine. Google is testing driverless cars.

"There's all sorts of different things we can connect," Zibrik says. Those types of innovations ultimately depend on the sensors, modules and network software developed by Sierra Wireless.

The B.C.-based company, with revenues last year of $400 million, controls about one-third of the global market for such technology. But it's very much a nascent industry.

Of those 50 billion devices that could someday be connected, only about 1.4 billion currently are. "In the big picture we're still small," Zibrik says of Sierra Wireless.

Saving the planet

Last May, not long after Sierra Wireless became "laser-focused" on machine-to-machine technology, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million.

"We have failed miserably in tackling global warming," climate scientist Pieter P. Tans lamented to the New York Times.

Could the "connected world" envisioned by Sierra Wireless help humanity adjust course? A report from Richard Branson's Carbon War Room estimated that if deployed rapidly over the next seven years, machine-to-machine technology would reduce global carbon emissions 9.1 gigatons by 2020.

Not only is that equivalent to all the emissions released in 2010 by India and the United States. But such an effort, it added, could provide up to $15 trillion worth of cost savings and new revenues to the global economy.

"In the past, sustainability often meant privation -- a contraction of economic activity," the report read. "If we utilize technologies such as M2M to their full potential, 'low carbon' will be synonymous with economic growth."

Have trouble visualizing what "full potential" actually means? You're not alone. In the early days of the Internet, people could only speculate about the immense changes it would bring. The same is true of today's M2M industry.

"It is still beyond our imagination, in some ways," Mark Kummer, a vice-president at the Canadian unit of network provider Cisco, has said.

But here's one much-discussed application: an office building outfitted with sensors to monitor heating and cooling. The sensors are linked through a wireless network that allows software to collect data -- reams and reams of it -- about the building.

Analyzing that data for patterns can reveal a hidden energy narrative where energy is being used smartly, and where it's wasted. The software might find that dozens of empty boardrooms are being heated all night.

By telling the building to only heat those boardrooms when people need them and by fixing other energy wastes, such technology can reduce overall energy consumption by 25 per cent and save millions of dollars, IntelliCommand pilot studies have suggested.

But that would only be the beginning. In the "connected world" of the future, this building would also communicate with a "smart" electrical grid.

Most electricity right now is generated in centralized power plants and then transmitted long distances to whoever needs it. That system is comparable to the TV networks that dominated the 20th century's flow of news and information.

"Smart grid" projects more resemble the two-way communication of the Internet.

Here's one example: suppose that a sensor-laden office building is powered by wind turbines on its roof. When the wind is strong, a "smart meter" tells the grid that all is well, no need for it to dispatch electricity from the power plant down the road.

But that same "smart meter" also informs the grid when gusts begin to die down, telling it to send enough extra power to keep the lights on. Now imagine all the city's buildings -- its homes, factories and offices -- similarly evolving from passive consumers of energy to active participants in its creation and distribution.

It would be like moving from NBC and CNN to Netflix and YouTube.

"We would dramatically decrease our energy usage," said University of Richmond professor Joel Eisen, an expert on smart grid policy. "It could end up being one of single biggest things we do to mitigate the impact of climate change."

Government's 'eyes and ears'

But that scenario could come with tradeoffs. Let's return to the image Zibrik projected onto Sierra Wireless's boardroom wall, the one showing an electric car driving through the "connected world" of the future.

Imagine you're in the driver's seat. The car informs you there's a charging station up ahead. That station is linked to a "smart grid," which is also communicating with nearby buildings, faintly visible wind turbines and the smartphone in your hand.

Here's where things start to get a little scary: suppose each nearby building has security cameras outfitted with machine-to-machine technology. They take a reading from your smartphone as you drive by. So do the billboards up ahead.

Meanwhile the car is sending driving data to your insurance company. And back at home, your smart meter not only records each light switch you flick, what type of appliances you own, and how often you use them: it's creating a behavioural profile.

"By combining appliance usage patterns," a Congressional Research Service report on smart meters noted, "an observer could discern the behaviour of occupants in a home over a period of time."

That prospect fuels public campaigns against smart meters in B.C. and elsewhere. How, such critics ask, does individual freedom fit into a world where the minutiae of your daily life is collected and analyzed?

BC Hydro insists that its smart meters "cannot identify or infer your activities within your own home." But M2M proponents agree there is a growing tension between the vast public goods the technology enables, and the private lives it may expose.

"A bunch of data that wasn't available is now going to be," Zibrik says. "There's a lot of good things and there's a lot of questionable things you can do with it."

Already critics suggest the pervasive monitoring allowed by machine-to-machine technology will someday make this summer's NSA scandal seem quaint by comparison.

"The Internet of Things gives the governments and corporations that follow our every move something they don't yet have: eyes and ears," wrote security technologist Bruce Schneier in the Guardian. The result, he believes, will be "ubiquitous surveillance."

We're starting to see early signs of what that world could enable. Target, the U.S.-based retailer, can figure out whether a woman is pregnant by analyzing her spending habits, and then market products to her accordingly.

"This is not the NSA pulling down all of your phone records to see that you're calling a gynecologist," says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The stuff you buy at a Target store ... tells a story that none of us knew existed."

'Informed consent'

But even the most ardent privacy defenders acknowledge that issues raised by machine-to-machine technology aren't entirely new. Tien reminds me that people in the 1980s saw Caller ID as an "enormous privacy invasion."

The development of the Internet in the early 1990s created all sorts of questions about personal data that we're still struggling to answer. Ditto the invention of GPS, and the smartphones we never leave the house without.

"We'll be making the same trade-offs with the Internet of Things that we do for the Internet today," says Kevin Dean, VP of Architecture and Standards for GS1 Canada, an industry group helping develop privacy rules for machine-to-machine technology.

"Informed consent" is the principle that helps guide Dean's work. We're willing to let Facebook pry into our private lives, and then target ads at us, because of all the benefits that social media brings.

Yet as we move deeper into the "connected world" that companies such as Sierra Wireless are enabling, such "informed consent" won't always be possible -- the technology may move too fast, and we'll struggle to understand its consequences.

"Unfortunately," Dean laments, "we know from experience that some privacy concerns are addressed retroactively."

So we must ask ourselves: is the smarter, better, faster and greener future envisioned by its proponents worth the trade-offs? And if not, what are the alternatives?  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Science + Tech

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