Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Isle of Soup Cans and The Internet of Things

Picture an elementary school boy, maybe about six years old, standing with his father in the soup aisle of a grocery store, circa sometime in the very early '80s.

Back then, a supermarket wasn't quite the massive demonstration of industrial efficiency they are today. But even then the concept of a large store of mass-produced provisions was already going on 50 years old, so it was still impressive to look at. If you weren't a six-year-old boy, of course. For someone who grew up in the United States, it was...well...just a boring old grocery store.

"You see all those soup cans?" Says Dad.

"Uh, yeah." Says the boy, wondering what Dad was going to lecture about this time.

"All the ingredients in all those soup cans came from somewhere far away, and required huge amounts of effort to put in those cans."

The boy stood there, trying to figure out what he meant. It was just a can of soup. It was so cheap, it cost practically nothing, even to a blue-collar family.

"The noodles in that chicken noodle soup were once wheat that grew in a field somewhere. Someone had to plant the wheat, help it grow, harvest it, grind it up into flour, and make noodles out of it. Someone else had to grow corn, which was used to feed chickens, which were hatched and fed and looked after for a long time before they could be taken to the soup factory. Someone else at the factory cooked the chickens and combined them with the noodles and all the other ingredients to make the soup.

"Then they put the soup in cans, which are made of metal that someone else dug out of the ground somewhere and melted down into cans. And then the cans of soup were loaded on a truck, which was also made of metal, and was powered by fuel that was made from oil that someone pumped up from a hole deep in the ground on the other side of the earth. The driver of the truck drove hundreds of miles to deliver the cans of soup here, so yet another person could put those cans on these shelves. All so you and I can buy one and eat the soup for lunch tomorrow.

"And then, after we've eaten the soup, we'll throw the can away. Someone will take our garbage to the landfill, where it will be thrown in a big pile along side all the other soup cans that were eaten by little boys for lunch. And everything else that everyone throws away. Can you imagine the mountain of metal you could make with all the soup cans that everyone has ever eaten?"

Even as a six-year-old boy, putting it in those terms helped me begin to appreciate the scale of human-kind's impact on the Earth. The funny thing about it all is that my father has never been someone you'd consider a big environmentalist. He's no Anglo-American neo-Buddhist, or a follower of Zen philosophy. Heck, he doesn't even have a college education. He just has an uncanny sense for how everything is interconnected, and the sheer enormity of it all. And it is one of those little life lessons that just seemed to always stick in my head from that moment on.

What does this have to do with software and the Internet of Things? Simply everything.

Imagine being able to provide more than a general description of how everything is interconnected. Contemplate being able to track our impact on the Earth with great precision, and see, in real time, how changes in our activities reflect in our ability to "tread lightly."

Software like Google Power Meter and devices like Current Cost's ENVI are just the beginning. Some people are estimating that there will be 100 Billion intelligent sensor devices deployed across the Internet in the next 5-10 years. Those devices will be measuring efficiency of factory equipment, the fuel mileage of trucks and tractors, crop yields, fertilizer usage, animal feed volumes, and countless other bits and pieces of data.

If we can figure out how to correlate all that data, we can begin to apply real, hard metrics to complex system interactions. Maybe we can appreciate even more what it really took took to get that can of soup to the grocery store shelf, and what it will take to do something with the waste after a six-year-old boy eats lunch.

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