When it comes to predicting the future, Kevin Ashton is not a fan of what he calls ‘vague handwaving’. He prefers laying all his cards on the table, even at the risk of being completely wrong.
Here’s one: 25 years from now, he believes, you’ll be able to live in Edinburgh and commute – in your self-driving car – to London each day via a trunk road designed especially for the purpose, at speeds in excess of 250mph. (Formula 1 racers, he points out, can already drive at 220mph, and the processing speed of a human brain is a lot slower than that of the average microchip.)
For half the journey you’ll catch up on sleep or read a book. There will be no accidents. Along the way you’ll zoom past cars on another road that runs parallel to yours. There, you might see an old Ford Escort, backfiring – driven by one of the holdouts who refuse to embrace modern technology. Once you reach the city, traffic lights and street signs will be connected to the internet and they’ll talk to each other, responding to changes in traffic flow.
Your car will drop you off at work, after which it’ll disappear five miles down the road to a parking spot that’s just become available. At 5pm it’ll pick you up and whisk you back to Edinburgh. It might sound crazy, Ashton acknowledges, but no more so than if you told someone living in Reading in 1850 that one day people there would be commuting daily to London.
In fact, if anyone’s going to have a successful stab at guessing what we’ll be doing in the future, Ashton’s about as good a person as you’ll find. If you haven’t heard his name, you’ll probably have heard of the term he coined to describe how this future will be possible: ‘the internet of things’.
In 2014, Wired magazine told its readers the internet of things (IoT) was already far bigger than anyone realised: ‘It’s going to make everything in our lives from streetlights to seaports “smart”.’ The idea behind the IoT is essentially this: it’s not just computers that can be hooked up to the internet, but physical devices, vehicles, buildings, etc, as well – all of which are embedded with sensors and connected to a network.
You might have a Nest thermostat in your home – connected via Wi-Fi and controlled by an app on your phone. It learns when you’re home and adjusts the temperature accordingly, and you can operate it from anywhere. This is one of the ‘things’ in the internet of things.
But IoT is also revolutionising manufacturing and medical devices, reimagining cities, and helping us discover worlds beyond our solar system. Like me, Ashton is a British expat living in Austin, Texas, and I first ran into him a few years ago at a coffee van we both used to visit.
He told me he was a writer (which he is, now). On his website, it said, ‘The only thing I can perhaps claim sole credit for is the name: three ungrammatical words that now label computing’s future.’ To be fair, he did a bit more than that.
The story of Ashton’s involvement with the technology that’s plotting your destiny goes something like this: as with many people now in their 40s and early 50s (Ashton was born in 1967), his childhood in London was spent tinkering with a Sinclair ZX81, marvelling at the day he was able to buy a ‘memory expansion pack’ and increase its computing prowess from 1KB to 16KB.
He studied Scandinavian literature at the University of London, edited the student newspaper, and became friendly with employees from one of its biggest advertisers, Procter & Gamble, who would later give him a job. At P&G, Ashton was working as part of a team launching a new range of cosmetics, but he wanted to know why a popular shade of lipstick seemed always to be out of stock in local stores.
The problem, he realised, was that staff didn’t have time to monitor the shelves continuously and input information about stock levels – which, in the 1990s, was how most data was fed to computers. ‘The missing lipstick was one of the world’s smallest problems, but it was a symptom of one of the world’s biggest problems: computers were brains without senses,’ Ashton would later write.
Computers were great at processing human-entered data, but they couldn’t sense things for themselves. In fact, he pointed out, a computer could beat the chess world champion, but it couldn’t see if a lipstick was on the shelf.
So he put a type of microchip known as an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag into a lipstick and an antenna on the shelf, so when the lipstick was removed the antenna would relay that information to a computer, then – via the internet – to the department responsible for restocking. This was the beginning of the internet of things.
In 1999, with a grant from P&G, Ashton moved to America to begin a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), expanding on his work with RFI technology. Ashton notes that his move corresponded with the growing popularity of the Harry Potter books.
‘Here I was at the real-life equivalent of Hogwarts, but I wasn’t a wizard,’ he says. ‘And I wondered when they were going to figure that out – that I was the guy who read Ibsen for four years and didn’t know anything about engineering.’