The IoT and investment – too little, too late and too much dreaming


The investments made in – and the revenues expected from – the IoT are eye-popping, and the world’s major vendors are already going gang-busters at getting their share. The UK Government, however, is raiding the piggybank for some small change to cover the cost of a bit of post-hoc dreaming about what might be.

Please sir, we want some more
Please sir, we want some more

The numbers being spent on IoT development investments – and being targeted as potential revenues coming in as a consequence – are eyeball-popping. One wonders if those numbers of digits are allowed to exist in the same data-string.

And the UK is planning to play a part in this business, as this week’s announcement from the PETRAS consortium made clear. Sadly, however, the number of investment digits involved is somewhat paltry – a grand total of just eight of them.

What is more, the investment committed by the UK Government as its contribution to the PETRA project is a mind-boggling £9,800,000. This is part of IoTUK, a £40 million, three-year Government program `that seeks to advance the UK’s global leadership in IoT and increase the adoption of high quality IoT technologies and services throughout businesses and the public sector’.

The investment is, of course, mind-boggling for all the wrong reasons. If you want mind boggling numbers try some of the following.

IBM last month announced a $3 billion investment in its new Watson IoT research and development facility in Munich, where the goal is not even directly IoT systems, but the development of tools that can make sense of the vast gobs of data that the IoT will produce, and point to practical, sensible business and operational decisions that then need to be made – often in real time.

Back in 2011, GE Software was established with a $1 billion investment by the US engineering giant. This is the company that produces complex products such as the GE90 jet engine – widely used on commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 777 – where each one produces more data in a day than all of Twitter’s users. The company knew, more than five years ago, that finding better ways to exploit that data would be a vital skill, especially when it has many fingers in many industrial and engineering pies.

One of GE’s main rivals, Hitachi, was reported last April predicting that IoT could represent a $2-trillion business opportunity by 2020. The company then set its sights conservatively, stating that it was pitching at an IoT-generated revenue stream of $200 billion in 2020 alone. Some analysts at the time suggested that it might even make this number from its existing customer base, given the range and market penetration of its existing sensor product lines.

Pitiful spend

These numbers make the UK’s commitment of £40 million over the next three years to the development of its place in the global space for possibly the biggest, most far-reaching market for applied technology the world has ever seen seem as inconsequential as a flea-bite on the backside of a gnat.

It also has to be set against the UK Government’s continued intention to spend around 1,000 times more money on the application of 19th century technology over an even longer timeframe, in the form of the HS2 railway.

And this investment is intended to solve a problem that existing information management technologies could solve in a far richer, more comprehensive fashion right now, for a fraction of the HS2 investment.

All that would be missing, of course, would be the essential slap-up lunches and dinners needed for `networking’.

This week’s announcement was that Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, has confirmed the establishment of a new interdisciplinary Research Hub `to drive forward UK research in the Internet of Things (IoT)’. Funding will include a £9.8 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which will be boosted by partner contributions to approximately £23 million.

The money will go to the PETRAS consortium of nine leading UK universities. Its three-year mission is to explore critical issues in privacy, ethics, trust, reliability, acceptability, and security.

The nine UK universities involved will be led by UCL, along with Imperial College London, University of Oxford, University of Warwick, Lancaster University, University of Southampton, University of Surrey, University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University. The Hub is also expecting to draw in substantial support and leverage from over 47 partners from industry and the public sector.

In a press statement Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, is quoted as saying:

UK universities are renowned for their creativity, and pioneering research and development. We want the UK to be a world leader in the adoption of Internet of Things technologies, and I know that bringing these universities together with partners from the UK’s thriving tech industry will be instrumental in making this a reality.

To which the only practical response possible is: ‘Dream on, sunshine’.

By the time any results come to the fore the Government will have needed to sell most of the UK to the Chinese, Japanese and/or Americans, or the country will be even more of an industrial backwater.

The themes the Hub will concentrate on also demonstrate a sweet naivete. For example, targets such as ‘harnessing economic value’, `standards, governance and policy’, and ‘adoption and acceptability’, are direct consequences of being out there at the coalface, doing it in practice. Subjects such as the development of standards come from what is out there, and working, not from what would be, academically, rather nice to have. Such attempts at standards development have rarely, if ever, worked.

According to the press statement:

the multi-disciplinary nature of the Hub’s work will enable research that aims to cause a step change in the way IoT systems are conceived, designed and implemented.

But by the time it gets to even report on any of its research, let alone see it put into action, the world of the IoT will be so embedded in industry and business, healthcare and the running of urban environments as to make every and any of its findings little more than quaint anachronisms.

My take

A case of too little, too late, and far too esoteric. The IoT horse has already bolted and is running free. There is little point in thinking about designing a My Little Pony stable now.

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